by Jim Mulligan
The simultaneous, yet conflicting, demoralization and romanticism of the Native Peoples of the Americas throughout modern American history is a fascinating and sad phenomenon. They were often portrayed as savages, attacking the pioneers heading west to claim their virgin land under Manifest Destiny. Yet, many amateur genealogists lay claim to Native American inheritance. The divergence of the historical truths of the nature of the American Native Peoples and their treatment throughout recent history continues today. But some are trying to restore some justice.At least for the Native People who inhabited the Central Valley, especially around what we now call Fresno County and Reedley, life was fairly idyllic. One might have to squint their eyes really hard to try to imagine our fertile farmland, our fruit basket of peach, nectarine, and plum orchards, as a vast, grassy expanse that sustained elk, deer, and antelope in great numbers. The unencumbered waterways of Sierra runoff provided habitat for beavers and other small animals in numbers that would surely surprise many today. Among this green and golden prairie land, awash with a multitude of seasonal wildflowers, and the aforementioned fauna, lived the peaceful Yokuts. These Native People inhabited a large area of what we call the south San Joaquin Valley, including where we live today. They were not exactly one organized tribe, but a loosely attached conglomeration of many smaller tribal groups who shared enough culture and language to interact in a societal fashion. They hunted the game for meat and collected the edible plant life of their valley to sustain themselves. They lived in relative peace and harmony for centuries.
Many of us are much more closely related to those who unfortunately caused their demise than to any Native People of the Americas. Like much of the history of Native People everywhere in the Americas, the Yokuts were pushed out of their homes, restricted to small reservations, and obliterated in a matter of decades. As happened in other places, settlers brought disease that the Yokuts couldn’t ward off, and their way of life was just not sustainable as American pioneers set the parameters of life in the new San Joaquin Valley. Progress? Maybe, but only for some.
But what to do? Unmasking the horrible aspects of our own history that includes, at the very least, very poor treatment of other humans, is an essential step in the right direction. After that, recognition of their lives and their contributions to history may begin to elevate their stature to that of the dignified people that they are and were. Both the Reedley Historical Society and Reedley College are championing efforts to do just that.For a small-town historical organization, the Reedley Historical Society has gone to great efforts to collect, showcase, and disseminate information and articles of historic importance. It would behoove all locals to take a Saturday morning sometime and peruse the holdings of the Reedley Museum located downtown. The collection will introduce and remind the visitors of a time before the modern conveniences of the twenty-first century. Please take the time to learn about the early beginnings of your home town, and pay special attention to the history of its original inhabitants.
In addition to the museum’s outstanding collection of everything Reedley, it has a very large collection of artifacts that celebrate the Yokuts. Take some time to learn a little about Julia Hughes Davis whose father was the last chief of the Choinumni Yokuts who populated the Kings River north of Reedley. Davis provided valuable information for local historian Oscar Noren, who gathered and recorded local history of the Native People. In addition to being known as a peaceful people, the Yokuts were skilled crafts persons, especially when it came to basketry. You can see a multitude of fine examples of this work at the museum as a variety of woven baskets are on display.Reedley College, too, is now working on an effort to recognize the Yokuts as first inhabitants of the land on which the college now sits; the college will soon release an official Land Acknowledgement Statement. Recognizing the land on which public institutions now sits as previously occupied by Native Peoples is a trend that is gaining momentum, and for good reason. Public institutions have the power to bring light to the historical importance of the Native People of the region. A work group, part of the Reedley College Equity Committee, led by Dr. Sarah Maokosy, has drafted a formal resolution that is soon to be approved. Eventually, the statement will formally recognize the lands that Reedley College now sits as the traditional and historical territory of the Yokuts. While this act is largely ceremonial, Dr. Maokosy explains why it’s so important.
“We can’t change history, but by bringing recognition to the original inhabitants of the land we now occupy, we can acknowledge and hopefully bring attention to the beautiful history of the Yokuts, and maybe shed light on the negative aspects that contributed to their demise, in the hopes of not repeating history.”
If you are like me, a descendant of European settlers, a descendant of “pioneers” to California, how do you talk about your history without acknowledging some bad things happened in the past? I thought long and hard after starting my research for this short article. It may have turned into more of an opinion piece more than anything because of all the thinking I did. While my ancestors contributed greatly to the development of a nation and state, they were among the many who pushed Native People aside and imposed their own culture and traditions. I am not ashamed, nor can I do anything to change that now. But I can share the truth with my kids and grandkids. While they may never be faced with the choices of my ancestors, if they are, they may be more enlightened and make better decisions. I hope.
You can find more Reedley stories in our Reedley News section.