Though often romanticized in history textbooks, museum exhibits and government park displays, the Gold Rush era in California is remembered by many California Indians as a time when their ancestors did whatever they could to survive.
Facing $5 bounties for Indian scalps, massacres, slavery and sex trafficking of Indian children by the miners, Corrina Gould’s Chochenyo Ohlone ancestors went into hiding at a ranch in Pleasanton, pretending to be Mexicans until it was safe to come out as Indians decades later.
“For me, I think the gold, greed and genocide continues as people and corporations come to our homeland to take our land, water and resources and our power as indigenous people,” said Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change. “As these cities in the Bay Area built up, they invisible-alized the Ohlone, and they continue to do it.”
Gould was one of several Northern California Indian leaders who spoke at a January 24 panel discussion in San Francisco titled “Gold, Greed and Genocide,” sponsored by the International Indian Treaty Council to counter the pervasive Gold Rush mythology that soft-pedals or ignores the atrocities suffered by California Indians, often as a result of government policy. Not only did an estimated 100,000 Indians die during the first two years of the Gold Rush, but the destructive practice of dredge mining ravaged rivers, forests and ecosystems upon which the Indians had long managed and cultivated for food and resources.
Gathered together on the 167th anniversary of gold being discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River, the speakers shared not only their ancestors’ survival stories but also the Gold Rush’s toxic legacy: the widespread mercury contamination in more than 74 reservoirs and lakes across California that poisons fish and traditional gathering plants.
The program began with a screening of the short documentary “Gold, Greed and Genocide – The Untold Tragedy of California’s Gold Rush,” which featured Elem Pomo activist James Brown speaking about Clear Lake, which remains contaminated by a nearby mercury mine. During the Gold Rush, mercury was used mostly at hydraulic mines to make amalgams of gold particles rushing through drainage tunnels. More than 7,600 tons of mercury were dumped in California waterways during the Gold Rush, according to the documentary, and 100 tons remain in Clear Lake.
The Elem Pomo had historically sustained themselves on the lake’s fish for more than 10,000 years. Brown, who also attended as a panelist, said many Elem Pomo likely suffered from mercury poisoning for generations before realizing the origin of their illness, and it remains dangerous to fish or gather traditional plants due to the contamination.
“There are more than 137 abandoned mines in the state of California, and we still have mining companies coming to our reservation,” he said. “I hear from non-Native people all the time who are so appalled when they hear this information, but they never learn it in school. We need to bring this information to the public system.”
Pit River Tribal Chairman Mickey Gemmill Jr. spoke about the Iron Mountain mine that has been listed as a Superfund site since 1983 and is located in the same county as his tribe’s reservation. That mine leaks acid containing zinc and cadmium, and Gemmill said heavy rains during the winter wash the waste from Iron Mountain and other surrounding mines into Shasta Lake and Whiskeytown Lake, where fish have dangerous levels of Mercury, according to a State Water Board report.
The Iron Mountain mine was founded during the Gold Rush era, a time when the Pit River people saw their population drop from about 50,000 to a few hundred by 1920 due to massacres, germ warfare and being forced away from their lands and foods. The destruction of tribal resources and lands continued with the building of Shasta Dam during World War II, which flooded 250 miles of waterways and ecosystems, and there is a current plan by CalPine Corporation to build five 100 megawatt geothermal power plants within the Pit River Tribe’s sacred Medicine Lake Highlands.
“It seems like every time one of these companies in, they’re always coming in on one of our village sites or our sacred sites,” he said. “Medicine Lake ties to our creation story. Destroying it is a form of cultural genocide.”
Though the historical echoes of the Gold Rush were heavy on their minds, the leaders also spoke about significant victories and how the younger generations are learning their languages, learning their songs and building a strong foundation for the future.
“When you’ve had to hide who you are and hide your children just to survive, it takes time to recover,” said Gould. “But when I hear the powerful songs coming from our young Ohlone here today it makes me believe the younger generation is going to make that leap that helps us to survive.”