Review | We Are the Land: A History of Native California

G.T. Dempsey


Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, Jr  We Are the Land:  A History of Native California (University of California Press, 2021), pp. xi, 358  ISBN: 9780520280496  

The presence of our Indigenous People in the history of California has mostly been slighted or even overlooked altogether.  This book is a heartfelt attempt to rectify this, with stories told very much from the perspective of the California Native Americans.  Already, we confront the issue of names.  As our authors put it, ‘Words sit at the center of the contested terrain of cultural sovereignty.’  Notoriously, ‘Indian’ arose from a geographical mistake, while ‘California’ was dreamt up by the Spanish.  Still, today, they decide, the collective term can only be California Indians, while ‘the name that Indigenous People have for themselves is often a variant of people’ – for instance, the Round Valley tribes are known as Ukomnom (‘People in the Valley’).

     Two maps, up front, are graphically illustrative of both the complexity and diversity of Indian territoriality in what became the state of California.  The first map outlines the various tribal areas; the second locates some fifty rancherias and reservations established from the nineteenth century on.  Today, California Indians speak more than one hundred different languages, ‘making [California] the most linguistically diverse area in North America.’  Conservative estimates are that at least 310,000 people lived in California before the arrival of the Spanish missions beginning in 1769; in fact, the native population may have been many times that.  Our two authors – both are professors of history, while Bauer is also a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes – recount their story from a half-millenium ago to today’s activists.  The Introduction sets the stage with an account of the campaign, a decade ago, to prevent the bulldozing of a burial site near Vallejo.  Good civic intentions (the goal was to build a city park) and legal complexities (the primary protestors were the Ohlones who have ‘lived in the Bay Area since their creation,’ but were not a ‘federally recognized tribe’) abound – still, the outcome was positive.  As the authors detail over some ten chapters, this is a relatively infrequent feature of the relationship of our California Indians with the majority population.

     The Indigenous People ‘begin their history’ with creation stories which reflect their living relationship with the specific land they occupied.  The Tongvas’ story was complex, involving both creation and strife until Attajen (‘man’) appeared at a council and ‘taught ceremonies to religious leaders so that they could produce rain, acorns, and bountiful animal populations.’   The harvesting of acorns was central: ‘Many oral histories [creation stories] mention how and when Creators made oak trees and acorns.’  The Maidu Earth Maker created a tree on which ‘twelve different kinds of acorns grew.’  The Cahtos (who live on the Mendocino coast) tell that Nagaicho, the Creator, ‘caused seaweed, abalone and mussels to grow in the ocean…and made oak trees to provide the people with plenty of acorns….’  Acorns were plentiful but very labor-intensive to be made edible.

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Book cover for We Are the Land.

     The establishment of Spanish missions along the coast from San Diego to north of San Francisco Bay brought changes in the Indian diet but also brought disruption to the Indigenous People’s ‘relationship to the land,’ indeed, to the entirety of their long-established patterns of life.  Greater, near terminal, disruption arrived with ‘the demographic catastrophe of the California Gold Rush.’  Two conflicting images of ‘California’ were in play: as a place and as an idea.  To the Indians, ‘California has always been and remains Indigenous land,’ where their ‘Creators made Indigenous People at specific locations.’  To the newcomers, California ‘represented a natural abundance of resources to be exploited.’  Too regularly, these conflictual life-views resulted in violence, the enslavement of Indians, and even attempted extermination.  As the authors note, it ‘is exceptionally difficult to see the middle of the nineteenth century as anything but horribly destructive to California’s Native Peoples.’  But attitudes do change.

     This is a history of personal stories.  Many make for painful reading.  All are to the point.  Following on the introductory exposition, the authors, proceeding but a generation (or less) per chapter, have clearly mined their sources assiduously.  Their story-telling ability carries the book.  Particularly engaging are the short inter-chapters – entitled ‘Native Spaces’ – focusing on specific territorial occupation.  In the one for Sacramento, for instance, we learn that ‘at least fifteen Nisenan towns existed within the current city boundaries.’  The establishment, first, of Sutter’s Fort and, then, the Gold Rush ended the Indians’ independent occupancy, amid sporadic violence, including intra-Indian.  This racist maltreatment has finally been recognized in Governor Newsom’s executive order (of June 2019 and announced on the site of the future California Indian Heritage Center) of official apology on behalf of the citizens of the state and a pledge to form a Truth and Healing Council.

     This has come none too soon.  As our authors have established, ‘Histories that ignore how California’s Indigenous People lived within the state boundaries for centuries, maintained relationships with the land, and shaped the state’s history undermine the sovereignty of contemporary California Indian communities.’   We might add that to establish the truth of historical relationships amongst peoples benefits us all.

     There are listings of sources at the end of each chapter and inter-chapter and the Index is superb. However, full page citations and a bibliography would have made this immensely-detailed work an even more valuable tool for scholars. 

We Are the Land: A History of Native California is available on (affiliate link).

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.