A few years ago, Hoopa Valley tribe member and playwright Jack Kohler heard a story he couldn’t ignore. A fellow Native American writer told him about a great aunt with a hole in her nose. Relatives said she’d been a slave to gold rush settler John Sutter.
“She kept running away, going back to her tribe, and they’d go and they’d hunt her down and they’d bring her back to the fort,” he said. “And finally they just drove this spike through her nose, which they could attach to a post every night.”
The “fort” he’s referring to is Sutter’s Fort, the massive white brick building at 28th and L streets built by Sutter in the early 1840’s.
A statue of Sutter used to stand just across the street from the fort. Sutter Medical Center removed the statue on Monday, after multiple activist organizations called out his mistreatment of indigenous people.
The removal has fueled a push to “de-Sutter” Sacramento. It’s a daunting task, given his prominence in the city of trees: Sutter’s Landing Regional Park, Sutter Middle School and Sutterville Road are just a few of the many places that bear his name.
But many Sacramentans don’t know much about Sutter’s life and legacy, beyond what they may have learned on a school trip to the fort. And trying to find out is like reading two completely different versions of history. Some experts say that’s because the written record of John Sutter, penned almost entirely by white men, leaves out much of the violence found in the oral histories of California’s tribes.
Differences Between Oral, Written Records
Kohler says most Native Americans grew up with stories about Sutter’s abuse.
“From a Native American point of view he was a murderer,” said Kohler, who researched Sutter for years before writing a rock opera about him. “He killed thousands of Natives, he had a whole sex slave industry where they’d kidnap young girls ... That’s not written in the history books, it’s not taught in our schools.”
Steve Beck, who spent 21 years as a historian for Sutter’s Fort, says that’s because there’s little written evidence that Sutter enslaved and abused the Native Americans at his fort.
“They're punished for doing things that are bad — for stealing, or for not showing up for work,” Beck said. “But they're not killed. Nose rings are not put into young girls' noses … no one in that time says that about Sutter.”
Beck says the criticisms launched by Native Americans and their allies are full of contradictions. He says there’s reliable documentation showing that Sutter paid his workers, that they were free to leave at any time, and that he was generally considered to be a kinder employer than other ranchers of his time.
Much of the current work about Sutter comes from the writings of Johann Heinrich Lienhard, an employee who wrote about life at the fort. Lienhard described Sutter’s sexual relations with Native American girls, and the dismal housing conditions in which workers lived. Some visitors to the fort noted that the Native American workers were forced to eat food out of troughs.
But Beck contends that the Lienhard document is an unreliable source because Lienhard was a “disgruntled employee” who wrote about the fort 30 years after working there. Beck says modern historians have taken these details out of context and misled the public.
“What is happening with this idea about Sutter, I'm going to call it a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “It's a knee-jerk reaction that's been in the makings for 400 years. But it is a reaction. And right now emotions are high.”
Who Decides The Official Record?
All over the U.S., demonstrators are pushing to change or remove monuments of figures with a history of racial oppression. In Sacramento, lawmakers recently announced a statue of Christopher Columbus that’s been in the state Capitol for 137 years will come down. The movement follows weeks of Black Lives Matter marches against the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and others.
Melissa Bender, a UC Davis lecturer who recently wrote a book on controversial monuments in the U.S., said statues and other commemorative items were erected with only the white perspective in mind.
“Unfortunately, the ways in which we’ve decided who is going to be honored in that way have left out a lot of voices,” she said. “It often comes down to what, for historians, they’re willing to accept as documentation of something happening.”
Most Native history is never written down. It’s passed down through generations by designated storytellers. Native Americans say their family stories are more than adequate evidence of the atrocities that occurred at Sutter’s Fort.
“It’s just frustrating when people refuse to listen to us on these topics,” said Vanessa Esquivido, a Native scholar and visiting professor at California State University Chico. “They say look at the records, look at the archives. But we know settler archives are a construct of the settler state. They do what they’re designed to do, and keep our voices out.”
And regardless of any discrepancies around what daily life and labor was like at Sutter’s Fort, she says there’s a more obvious problem with idealizing Sutter as the man who founded Sacramento.
“The way that we glorify these settlers is really disturbing,” she said. “We know they didn’t find anything.”
A Missing History
Native American oral histories have generally not been incorporated into museums, monuments or other places where Californians can learn about the gold rush. They’ve also been largely left out of the history taught in classrooms, though there are efforts to change that. The California Indian History Curriculum Coalition has already developed an Indian-vetted curricula. The state is also implementing an ethnic studies requirement for high school students, but it’s garnered criticism for not including the perspectives of all groups.
Kohler and other Native American activists say it’s going to take a lot of work to get their version of the Sutter story in front of the public.
“When you start naming hospitals after them, you start naming schools, streets, cities, then it’s hard to go back and convince people we’ve got to rewrite history,” he said.
That’s a big part of why Kohler wanted to collect Native stories about John Sutter and put them on stage. The musical he produced is largely based on the slave with the spike in her nose.
For Esquivido, shutting down Sutter’s Fort might be a good start.
“It’s a place of immense sadness for Native people,” she said. “I participated in those trips when I was a young person, and I didn’t have the language to express how I felt in those moments. A lot of these things are rooted in our bodies.”
Community activists are currently pushing to remove a statue of Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest who founded the first California mission. Native American groups have pushed to change how the history of the missions is taught in California schools because of the abuse indigenous people suffered under the system. The city of Ventura announced Friday it would remove a statue of Serra from city hall.
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