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[Book Review] We Are the Land: A History of Native California

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

A review by Leslie Gonzalez

California is the most socioeconomic and culturally diverse state in the U.S. With a population pushing nearly 40 million people, it’s difficult to imagine the state without its current imagery: crisscrossed with freeways, buzzing with beach and surf culture, and its agricultural wealth. The state is thoroughly labeled with “romantic” Spanish names: San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. California’s surrounding fantasy includes a surplus of natural and economic resources, but the creation story behind the California that many know is a patina of something much more sacred and absent from California’s history textbooks.

Told through an indigenous voice and historical lens of two professors of history, We Are the Land: A History of Native California, is a thoughtful, emotionally rattling, and careful breakdown of California’s indigenous history. The book presents the continual disposition of “...Indian territorial claims, to recognize the presence of Indian communities that the federal government has not, and to indigenize the cities …” which is where the majority of California Indians reside. The book features a ten-chapter timeline that reveals Indigenous community’s lifestyle before colonization, its eradication via genocide, ethnic cleansing, and enslavement before revealing present-day activism and cultural revival.

The book is careful to distinguish between native communities from Mexican and “Californio” communities (those who have direct lineage to the original Spanish colonists) when discussing their history. The separation grants exposure of non-indigenous people’s dehumanization and “lawfully” ostracization of California Indian communities, including the abduction of California Indians thrown into “indebted” servitude since the eighteenth century through labor; forced educational assimilation, which connects to Capt. Richard H. Pratt’s “Kill the Indian, Save the Man;” and the detrimental effects of land transformation during California’s Gold Rush to today.

The book delivers a tight account of various tribes from the Tolowa People (People from modern day Crescent City) to the Cupeño, Kumeyaay, and Cocopah Peoples of Southern California (modern day San Diego and Yuma) that creates a yearning to know more. This structure conveys to the reader a deeper and more intimate understanding of each tribe, their way of life, and culture without a narrative that belongs to non-indigenous voices. The significance of this perspective nurtures and empowers tribal communities without censorship and allows the importance of tribal claims to stand firm and represent itself. The stance showcases not only the willingness to strengthen indigenous communities, but to reveal how the federal government failed to meet such claims.

We Are the Land: A History of Native California is unabashedly honest and does not skirt the importance of Californian Native Americans in its creation stories and the importance of cultivating the land and ancestral practices before it was wrenched and nearly terminated from missionaries, Spanish, and other European colonizers. With that said, do not confuse the book as a way to perceive the indigenous community with complete victimization, for the book delivers the hope and uprising of cultural resurgence and the need to reclaim identity and economic recognition in California today. From the occupation of Alcatraz to the reclaiming of tribal land to build educational, cultural, and ceremonial centers and gaming facilities to establish economic revenue, the book exemplifies the strength and steady revitalization of Indian culture and languages. For those who are seeking a deeper understanding of California’s history in both first and secondary accounts of the people who lived during times of unrest, We Are the Land: A History of Native California comes highly recommended.

Leslie Gonzalez is a freelance writer and certified copyeditor from San Diego, California.

Her work is published in KPBS, LOCALE and OK Whatever magazine, and her short stories in literary and fantasy fiction, “Shadow of Truth” and “False Moon Rising” are published in Mythos and Indie IT Press. Leslie earned BA in creative writing from California State University, Northridge, and her MFA in creative writing in fiction from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert low-residency program.


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