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'We missed the truth': California parks reinterprets John Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento to include Indigenous experiences

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Andrew Nixon
Rhonda Pope Flores, Chairwoman of Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, poses with a photo of her grandfather, Tuesday, Dec, 14, 2021

This January, the parks agency will invite the public to attend meetings to continue to reimagine how the new Sutter’s Fort should be reinterpreted.

John Sutter’s name is emblazoned all over modern-day Sacramento and much of Northern California. Mountains, municipalities, medical centers and more are named after the colonial settler.

But Native American tribal leader Rhonda Pope Flores says this is akin to naming everything after Charles Manson.

“Many women were raped and enslaved, and families torn apart … as a result of his ‘dream,’” said Pope Flores, chairwoman of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, which has lived in Amador County since before its lines were drawn. “He destroyed so much of our culture and history, and just took over.”

For the past year, Pope Flores, her staff and five other Native California tribes have worked with the California parks department to reinterpret Sutter’s narrative and legacy so that it more accurately portrays Sutter’s violent legacy with Native Americans.

They’re not the only historic site reckoning with the past. Parks all around California and nationwide are going through a similar process of renaming or reinterpretation to be more accurate, inclusive and equitable.

Andrew Nixon
Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.

“We missed the truth,” said John Fraser, capital district superintendent for California State Parks, about how John Sutter has been portrayed until recently at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento’s central city, which sees tens of thousands of visitors — many young students — each year.

While the park focused on Sutter’s role as Sacramento’s founder and a pioneer of the “California Dream,” Fraser said, they “missed talking about the real impact of Sutter … on Native American people.”

This January, the parks agency will invite the public to attend meetings to continue to reimagine how the new Sutter’s Fort should be reinterpreted.

‘Sutter ostracized, humiliated and dehumanized them’

Most visitors of Sutter’s Fort might leave with a “PG-13” version of Sutter, says Pope Flores. But a movie about him would more likely be rated “R,” she says.

Indeed, historians have documented Sutter’s killing and exploitation of Indigenous people. The German-born, Swiss immigrant came to the Sacramento Valley in 1839, leaving his wife, five children and large unpaid debts behind.

After receiving a significant land grant from the Mexican government, that stretched from the Sutter Buttes to modern-day Sacramento, Sutter used the labor of local Nisenan and Miwok Indigenous people to build the fort and harvest wheat fields.

“Our community members were not there by choice. They were there by coercion and violence,” said Dahlton Brown, executive director of administration at Wilton Rancheria, a tribe of Miwok descendents near Elk Grove.

Brown says it’s important that the new narrative of the fort include that it was a prison for Indigenous people who were “treated to the same standard of living as livestock.”

The book American Genocide by UCLA professor Benjamin Madley provided one account of Sutter keeping “600 or 800 Indians in a state of complete slavery,” and having them eat out of troughs.

“By feeding Indians like pigs, Sutter ostracized, humiliated and dehumanized them,” Madley wrote.

Another historian, Albert Hurtado, explains the settler’s labor relations with native people as complex: Sutter paid some workers, and others worked voluntarily.

By the time Sutter arrived, Miwok and Nisenan residents were weakened by 25 years of malaria, smallpox, fur-trading intruders and subjugating coastal missionaries, Hurtado wrote in the biography John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier.

In that context, Hurtado explains, Indigenous people were enticed by the trading post and security that Sutter offered.

“Indians had become accustomed to using European technology and were growing more and more dependent on it,” Hurtado said. “They also wanted some protection from Mexican rancheros on the coast.”

However, once you decided to work for Sutter, Hurtado says you couldn’t freely leave. “All of his relationships with Indians were underpinned by the threat of violence.”

Our community members were not there by choice. They were there by coercion and violence.
– Dahlton Brown, executive director of administration at Wilton Rancheria

Sutter also trafficked Native American workers to pay off debts, punished “runaway” workers and lashed others.

While Hurtado wouldn’t describe Sutter as cruel or sadistic, he says the colonial entrepreneur would resort to violence to assert control or protect himself.

He had “no compunction about taking some men and a cannon and then shelling a rancheria, killing people indiscriminately,” Hurtado said.

And at a time when Sutter felt his power waning, he had a Miwok man named Raphero decapitated, and hung his head above the Fort’s gate, to instill fear among local tribes.

Ultimately, when it comes to recasting Sutter’s legacy at the Fort, Hurtado said it should reflect his complexity.

While he exploited native people, he also founded Sacramento, showed hospitality to settlers of modern-day California, attempted to save the Donner party, and hired doctors to care for local Indigenous people suffering from measles.

“He’s a complicated man,” said Hurtado. ‘You have to show him in all of his different facets.”

‘Things sucked for a really long time’

Two events sparked the change in narrative about colonial history at Sutter’s Fort: the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, and the subsequent removal of the John Sutter statue in Midtown Sacramento by Sutter Health hospital.

The national racial reckoning also spurred California state parks’ current investigation of 70 natural or public sites to determine whether they merit a name change or reinterpretation. That encompasses everything from parks, visitor centers, trails, campgrounds, as well as peaks and valleys.

Through the state’s “Reexamining Our Past” initiative, one park in Humboldt County has already undergone a name change to Sue-meg State Park. That’s how the local Yurok people have long known the land. It used to be called Patrick’s Point State Park, after a settler who was accused of killing Native Americans.

Victor Bjelajac, the superintendent with the north coast redwoods district of California State Parks, said the name-change decision was unanimous, and came after 1,000 public responses and 30 letters of support from local organizations and tribes. After the change was made, a couple hundred people from local tribes celebrated, he said.

“It wasn’t the renaming. It was the adopting of the original name again, or an acknowledgement of the original name,” Bjelajac said.

Several other California park sites are undergoing a similar process of renaming or reinterpretation, such as Negro Bar at Folsom Lake State recreation area, and at Humboldt Redwoods and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Privately owned recreation sites are also looking into name changes.

A popular ski resort in the Tahoe region formally known as “Squaw Valley” recently changed its name to Palisades Tahoe. The company announced that the term is a hurtful and derogatory name for Indigenous women that dates back to the 1800s.

Autumn Saxton-Ross, vice president of education and chief equity officer for the National Recreation and Parks Association, says the rethinking of statues and names with a racial justice lens is happening all over the country.

She says efforts to create equity in public spaces is not just about making sure people have physical access to parks; it’s now about making sure everyone feels included and safe.

“I could have a park across the street from me, but if it’s named Robert E Lee, as a Black woman, that drives certain feelings. So maybe I’m not comfortable in that park,” Saxton-Ross said.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee; Richmond, Virginia; and Piscataway Park, Maryland; statues, park signage and public spaces are being re-examined, Saxton-Ross says.

“If we are going to tell history, it needs to be accurate,” she said. “And if we want to move forward especially around racial healing … we have to actually recognize that things sucked for a really long time.”

The new Sutter’s Fort ‘a long time coming’

Pauline Bartolone
John Fraser, a superintendent with California State Parks, says the agency “missed the truth” about John Sutter’s legacy involving Indigenous people and is now working with local tribes to correct the narrative at Sutter’s Fort.

The visitor experience at Sutter’s Fort has already changed over the past year: pre-recorded audio tours have been silenced, school children no longer re-enact characters from the 1800s and park staff don’t dress up in colonial-period attire.

“We had heard stories over the years of young Native people coming to this site as part of our youth programs and feeling extremely uncomfortable,” Fraser with state parks said. “Native culture was either diminished or distorted.”

In the new year, the parks department will announce public meetings to get more feedback on ways Sutter’s legacy should be conveyed at the fort.

When school kids come by the Fort now and stop by the carpenter shop, they may learn that Sutter viewed local oak trees as a commodity, but native people saw them as a sacred food source.

Fraser said the goal is to show a more complex narrative about Sutter, and that the fort will feel like a “more like a natural place for the tribes to tell their stories.”

Pope Flores of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians wouldn’t mind if the fort were renamed, as well. She says nothing should bear Sutter’s name unless it is a “garbage dump.”

Brown of the Wilton Rancheria said he’s not sure it’s necessary to rename a historic site such as the fort, but renaming may be more appropriate when it involves places like elementary schools.

Pope Flores says it’s important the youngest generation hears the truth.

“It's a long time coming for this history to really be corrected,” she said.

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