The Indian and the Orange: Civilization Through Citrus at Sherman Institute

By Amanda Wixon

As the citrus industry began to flourish in the late 19th century, communities such as Riverside, California, sought to attract white settlers to the region. Promoted as a golden opportunity for wealth, health, and leisure, many would-be growers flocked to the area to pursue their dreams. However, the demands for labor in the groves exceeded expectations and very soon, settlers learned to rely on immigrant labor. Although growers targeted many marginalized groups, the Native students of Sherman Institute in Riverside represented one of the most vulnerable among them. At Sherman Institute, the administration and surrounding communities aimed to inculcate Native youth with the values and morals of the dominant white society of the 19th and early 20th century by assimilating the students through a program of basic academics, labor, and cultural immersion. Here, the goals of federal Indian education aligned with the aims of local agriculturalists and entrepreneurs. Functioning as an employment service, school administrators provided a cheap labor force for local white settlers to exploit. In the citrus groves, students worked in crowded, unhealthy conditions for growers who profited greatly from both the removal of Indians from their communities and the program of Indian “civilization” through labor. Many historical interpretations of the history of citrus in Riverside do not address the stories of local labor groups. The omission of these stories perpetuates the prevailing narrative of the founding of Riverside, one that is in part defined by settler colonialism and includes a history of racial exploitation. By reframing the narrative of citrus through the lens of settler colonialism and industrial capitalism, the history of Sherman student labor provides an example of the larger forces at play and represents a more inclusive version of Riverside history.

Citrus crate labels idealized and served as both a business tool—to drive citrus sales and breed brand recognition—and promotional for Southern California at large. Redlands Foothill Brand label, 1927. Special Collections, Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside

In 1803, Spanish missionaries planted the first of the Mediterranean varieties of citrus in the San Gabriel mountains. In the mid-1800s, emigrant entrepreneur William Wolfskill developed the industry further, planting more acreage in the Los Angeles area. In 1873, Riverside resident Mrs. Eliza Tibbets received two Washington navel trees from the U.S.  Department of Agriculture, which produced the sweet, seedless variety of orange suitable for shipping. Coupled with new transportation technology, the citrus industry in Riverside and the surrounding areas boomed. In 1901, Riverside promotional materials hailed the area as “the greatest orange producing region on Earth.”  Determined to attract more settlers to the region, Riverside promoters promised ample opportunities for land speculators, entrepreneurs, and agriculturalists in the citrus industry. This appealed to white settlers from the eastern part of the United States who longed to escape the belching factories and cold winters of that region. 

Early Riverside promoters romanticized the “founding” of Riverside. While many early regional histories reference the “beneficent zeal” of the Spanish padres and incorporated mission imagery into citrus advertising, Riverside historians from this period ignored the fact that the land had already been discovered and occupied by Cahuilla, Gabrielino, Luiseno, Serrano, Chemeheuvi, and Cupeño peoples for centuries. White settlers ignored indigenous ties to the land, claiming title to the “undiscovered” regions and using the resources as they saw fit. Finding the agricultural demands of citrus to be more than advertised, settlers searched for cheap labor to make their economic dreams a reality. In addition to the use of other marginalized groups, growers continued the tradition of Native labor exploitation, set forth by the Spanish missionaries.

After the arrival of the Spanish missionaries, the indigenous peoples of California endured harsh treatment and forced labor in the name of religious conversion. In Alta California, Indians worked as unfree peoples, subjected to round-ups and punishments at the will of the uninvited Europeans. After mission secularization in 1832 and new settler migration into California, Indians continued to be a target for labor and racial violence. White settler demand for land and resources pressured many indigenous groups inland. During the 1840s, Gold Rush greed and continued racism led to the genocide of California Indians. Following statehood in 1850, settlers mainly regarded the surviving Indians as a poverty-stricken nuisance. Some ranchers recognized the “usefulness” of Indians as a labor force, however, many Natives fell victim to kidnappings and a legal form of indentured servitude, similar to slavery. For Native people outside of legal servitude, coexistence with settlers was anything but peaceful. Battles between ranchers and Indians highlighted a fierce competition for land and resources that decreased only with the removal and sequestering of indigenous groups. Most of these groups had already faced starvation and disease that resulted in dramatic population declines.

In 1863, California legislation outlawed indentured servitude of Native children and adults, but the use of Natives as cheap labor continued into the late nineteenth century.  Many white settlers hired Natives for seasonal agricultural work and paid them in whisky, which resulted in arrest and detainment. Forced to pay a fine, many Natives were obligated to contract themselves for work with the same settlers that paid them in liquor, creating a vicious cycle for the benefit of the employer. By the 1890s, Progressive Era social reformers created a solution to the “Indian problem” and established schools to “uplift” the race through assimilation into the dominant white culture. 

The practice of placing Indians in formal education settings began in the seventeenth century with Protestant mission schools, which the federal government subsidized from 1810 to 1910. The government also established a federal school system for American Indians on reservations in the 1860s and the first off-reservation Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879. Army officer Richard Henry Pratt founded Carlisle Industrial school with the aim of “civilizing” Indian youth by isolating them from their communities and educating them in the ways of the dominant white Protestant culture of the late nineteenth century.

Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated as a federally-funded off-reservation boarding school from 1879 until 1918, with over 10,000 Native American children from 140 tribes attending. Yet only 158 graduated. Public Domain.

In 1901, the federal government established Sherman Institute (currently Sherman Indian High School) in Riverside, California. As the last of the federal off-reservation boarding schools, Sherman was modeled after Carlisle Indian School. Through a program of cultural immersion, school administrators encouraged the students to shed their “heathen” ways by speaking only English, learning basic academics, and training for a vocation. However, a largest part of the program at Sherman Institute involved student labor. In addition to their daily lessons in and out of the classroom, students provided all the labor on site, including laundry, cooking, masonry, carpentry, gardening, and farm work.

The Outing System played an important part of the curricula at Sherman Institute. School administrators encouraged white Christian families to take students into their homes and farms to provide with training and the benefits of the “civilizing” influences of the community residents. As a labor source, the program was wildly popular, with demands for students exceeding availability. Local residents hired females for a variety of tasks, such as cooking, childcare, and cleaning for varying lengths of time. Administrators contracted male students mainly for agricultural work. The students received approximately a third of their wages, while the remainder was sent school for safekeeping. The school superintendent handled the negotiations for outing work, including pay, transportation, and length of service. In his letters to potential employers, the superintendent promised good, hard working Indians in return for “civilizing opportunities” provided by the community. 

Footage from Viewing Sherman Institute for Indians at Riverside, CA (Mack Sennett/Keystone, 1915).

At Sherman Institute, school administrators regularly promoted citrus and labor in school bulletins and public shows. In the Sherman Bulletin, a heavily censored and promotional school newspaper, reporters often observed the students decorating their rooms with orange blossoms, or parading through the streets near the school carrying orange blooms. In public shows, such as the San Bernardino Orange Show of 1916, the students used lemons and oranges to demonstrate their knowledge of the domestic science, agricultural technology and the use of “proper” food. While administrators intended these displays to show the progress of Sherman students, posters also advertised their labor: “When Labor was Scarce, the Indian Dug the Ditches, Turned the Soil, Pruned the Trees, and even To-Day, He’s on the Job.” This reminder reinforced the notion that Natives had and would continue to be at the service of the community, linking their labor to the land without acknowledging their rights to land. 

Sherman students in a packing house. Courtesy Sherman Indian Museum.

Functioning as an employment agency, Sherman Institute provided local companies, such as the Riverside Orange company and Fontana Farms, with agricultural workers as needed.  By 1913, hundreds of male students lived and worked all over Southern California, mainly in agricultural ranches. Employers segregated workers according race, with Sherman students falling under the category of “Mexican” and as such, they received less wages than their white “Native born American” counterparts. Continuing a long tradition of exploiting Natives for cheap labor, Sherman administrators also believed that hard work was good for Indians, preparing them for a life of manual labor. In 1926, seventy-four students from over fifteen tribes worked at Fontana Farms, which by 1928 had grown into one of the largest farms in California. 

Sherman students working in the groves faced harsh conditions compared to the relative comfort of the school. Crowded into inadequate housing, young men worked long hours in all seasons, sometimes year-round. Despite the “civilizing” influence of the white community of Riverside, Sherman administrators occasionally needed to remind stingy growers that Sherman students required sufficient bedding and housing as part of the labor contract.

Poor air quality also contributed to the unhealthy conditions of grove work. During the cold winter months, workers “smudged” the trees, lighting pots of oil to keep the trees from freezing. According to many accounts, smoke generated by the smudge pots created a black pall over the groves, covering everything nearby with a thick, oily residue. Prolonged exposure to the smoke could lead to various lung problems, from mild to severe. During this time, Indian agents removed many Native children from their homes due to the fear of the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases. Sherman students not only endured these unhealthy conditions but were actively encouraged by school administrators and the community to seek out this kind of work as a mark of their progress toward “civilization.” In many cases, the demand for cheap labor outweighed the desire for healthy Native children.

Smoke from diesel-burning smudge pots fills the air. Courtesy Pomona Public Library.

While the citrus groves of the Riverside represented training possibilities and labor for the students, the groves also provided a space for resistance and cultural preservation. Students often used the surrounding groves to speak their languages, sing songs, and tell stories away from the watchful eyes of Sherman Institute administration and the local community. Some students escaped into the groves, running away from school and authorities to pursue different paths.

Citrus labor also provided the students with an opportunity to use their knowledge of wage labor practices. In some cases, school administration failed to pay the students their promised portions of wages. Upon exiting the program, Sherman students insisted on their compensation which they used to pursue economic activities of their choosing, in their own communities. In his work, historian Kevin Whalen argues that former students used Sherman and its labor program as “a migratory hub,” moving back and forth between cities and other communities. 

Despite the efforts of the federal government, Native peoples, their cultures, and their traditions did not disappear. While some Sherman students embraced assimilation, others did not. As individuals and as a community, the students chose which elements of assimilation to embrace, which to tolerate, and which to ignore. In this way, many Native students overcame the obstacles inherent in the federal boarding schools. Their spirit and determination have earned today’s Native students the freedom to express their cultures as they choose, in their own lives and in their communities.

    Many historical interpretations of citrus heritage in Riverside do not include the contributions of the Native students of Sherman Institute. The omission fits a larger pattern of historical exclusion and marginalization of indigenous peoples. In California, as European-Americans settlers colonized the area, they composed a narrative that did not include existing inhabitants. To many, the history of California begins with the story of “discovery” and colonization by white settlers. For over a century, historians perpetuated this myth, effectively erasing the histories of Native Americans and other marginalized groups. For the indigenous peoples of California, their creation stories tell a much longer history. Through their collective memory, the history of settler colonialism is but a chapter in the story of the People. The study of Native contributions to the citrus industry does not detract from the rich agricultural legacy of Riverside. Instead, it creates a deeper, more nuanced understanding of our shared histories. 

Sources:

Tom Spellman, “California’s Golden Age of Citrus: The Early Years.” Friends of California Citrus Park Newsletter, August 2016.

Greeting and Invitation from Riverside (Riverside, CA: Press Printing Company).

James E. Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

Benjamin Madley, “Unholy Traffic in Human Blood and Souls: Systems of California Indian Servitude under U.S. Rule,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (2014), 645.

Margaret Archuleta, Brenda Child, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences (Phoenix: Heard Museum, 2000).

The Sherman Bulletin, March 27, 1907, Vol. I, No.4, Sherman Indian Museum and Archives.

The Sherman Bulletin, March 13, 1916, Vol. X, No.11, Sherman Indian Museum and Archives.

Kevin Whalen, “Labored Learning: The Outing System at Sherman Institute, 1902-1930” in The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute, ed. Clifford E. Trafzer, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, and Lorene Sisquoc (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2012).

Kevin Whalen, Native Students at Work: American Indian Labor and Sherman Institute’s Outing Program, 1900-1945 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

Letter to S.R. Smith from Harwood Hall, February 28, 1900. Sherman Indian Museum and Archives.

“History of Air Pollution Control in Southern California,” South Coast Air Quality Management District, Accessed December 5, 2016, http://www.aqmd.gov/home/library/public-information/publications/history-of-air-pollution-control#Smudge%20Pots.

Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Education Experiences (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

William J. Bauer Jr. California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).