Native Lands: This Land is Our Land

By Kate Gordon and Amanda Wixon

Native peoples have a memory of Southern California that extends long before the founding of Riverside or the citrus industry.  Their oral histories document thousands of years of survival through seasonal migrations and management of local resources. They also tell of waves of European invasion and atrocities, from the Spanish mission system, to Mexican occupation, to American-led genocide and settlement. Their languages, bird songs, and continued development of the land reflect their deep knowledge of the Riverside region, where their ancestors lived for century after century.

The different Native peoples of the area, specifically the Cahuilla, Luiseno, Gabrielino-Tongva, and Serrano, had permanent villages, but they also moved to different sites to gather food and access hunting grounds.  Individuals and groups within tribes owned specific lands and resources, such as water sources and trees. If others wanted to use privately owned lands for hunting or gathering, they had to acquire permission from the owner.  People showed their ownership of lands through specific songs that expressed ties to areas.  Local Native peoples also designated certain spaces as common grounds for traveling and use by all.

As early as the 1840s, American settlers began to move into the Riverside region. They forced Native peoples out of their villages and claimed Native lands as their own. In 1851, California Governor Peter Burnett led a campaign of genocide against Native people, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” This policy of genocide continued for decades after Burnett. American settlers formed volunteer militias and massacred innocent Native men, women and children. The citrus industry of the late 1800s brought further devastation to Native communities and the landscape, dispossessing Native people of their homes and resources. Large-scale commercial farming also affected animal and plant communities. Many different animals who once passed through seasonally, on route to food and shelter, could no longer live in their natural habitats, and certain plant species went extinct.

In the 1890s, with the onset of citrus farming, more settlers flooded into the area.  They turned hundreds of acres of land into citrus groves, uprooting Native village sites. Native peoples resisted, working as laborers in the citrus groves or in white households, but still hunting and gathering as they had in the past. Others moved into the mountains to escape the threat of violence.  Though they could not maintain the same village sites, they kept their worldviews, teachings and traditions.

During the early 20th century, European-American settlers continued to threaten Native communities. After failing to honor treaties negotiated in the 1850s, the United States government removed indigenous people to reservations, further reducing their presence in California. The government also removed thousands of Native children from their homes, relocating them to federal off reservation boarding schools. During this period, continued racism and prejudice by the predominantly white population limited prospects for Native peoples. However, in the 1960s, many Native thinkers and activists advocated for awareness and change in order to improve Native lives. During the late 20th century, Native communities began to rebuild, creating new opportunities for economic growth and cultural learning. Today’s communities are strong, vibrant, and determined to preserve their culture for future generations.

Photo Credit

“Native Lands,” by Kate Gordon