For nearly 8,000 years, the area currently known as Orange County was inhabited by a tribe known as the Kizh. They were a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe who lived on an area of nearly 4,000 acres. They lived sustainably off the native plant and animal life. The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits holds a 7,000 year old skeleton of a Kizh woman.
The Kizh had a rich language, culture, social structure, and religion, involving song, dance, poetry, and handicrafts. Their religious beliefs viewed humanity not as “the focus of creation” but rather a part in a larger web of life. The primary religious responsibility of people was to act as caregivers of the earth.
Beginning in the 1700s, the Spanish Government began to establish “Missions” in Kizh territory. Mission San Gabriel was built in 1771. Spanish soldiers and padres began calling the Kizh “Gabrielenos” because of their proximity to the Mission.
Many Kizh were forced to abandon a way of life they had practiced for millennia, into the Missions, where they were “converted” to Christianity and compelled to work and live. Native American scholar Edward D. Castillo writes, “Despite romantic portraits of California missions they were essentially coersive labor camps organized primarily to benefit the colonizers.” Because of diseases and conflict with the Spanish colonizers, about 100,000 or nearly a third of the total Native American population of California died as a direct result of the California missions.
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and California became a Mexican territory. In 1834, Governor Jose Figueroa issued an “Emancipation Proclamation” which freed California Indians (including the Kizh) from the missions. Rather than returning the land to its native inhabitants, however, the vast majority of mission lands were deeded to a few wealthy and powerful California families.
Because of disease and the breakdown of traditional tribal structures, many Kizh were compelled to work on these “ranchos” to survive. Scholar Roseanne Welch compares the post-mission rancho system to the post-Civil War sharecropping lien system in the former Confederate states, which “kept the workers tied to their bosses, in this case the ranch owners.”
On the eve of the American conquest of California, the native American population of the region had declined by 50 percent.
United States Era
In 1848, after the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo gave the United States ownership of California. In the early 1850s, U.S. Government Treaty Commissioners appointed by President Fillmore signed what became known as the 18 “lost treaties” which set aside 8.5 million acres in California for Native Americans, including the Kizh.
Unfortunately, because much of the land was thought to contain gold, the U.S. Congress chose to not ratify the treaties and instead place an injunction of secrecy on the documents, which disappeared from public knowledge until 1905, when they were discovered in the Senate Archives.
The United States tried various programs to solve the “Indian problem” including officially terminating 38 tribes in California in the 1950s and 1960s. It was not until 1994 that the Kizh achieved official California statewide recognition. Today, the Kizh tribe is still struggling to revive their culture, which was almost completely decimated by 200 years of colonization. To this day, the Kizh have yet to achieve federal recognition, which would give them benefits in education and health care.
|Painting by artist L.Frank|