With out-of-town guests visiting over the weekend, we made the trek to Sutter’s Fort. My mother and her traveling companion were delighted by the realistic representations of the Old West, complete with a Conestoga significantly smaller than the ones on Wagon Train, but lacking a seat for the ladies. An historical accuracy few know about the way west: everybody walked the entire distance. Perhaps that explains their California descendents’ obsession with owning a personal automobile.
All too often, as Joan Didion suggested years ago in her famous essay on the Getty museum in Southern California, museums tell us a great deal more about how we are now than about what the past was like. That’s true of both Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park and the small State Indian Museum that sits in its shadow.
For those who know much at all about John Sutter’s impact on the native population of the area, to see the Indians who worked for Sutter described as “servants” in the fort’s aging exhibits is uncomfortable. “Slaves” would be more like it—and there, in a nutshell, is the conflict about the past, made obvious when visitors stop by the much quieter Indian Museum. A good chunk of the Native Californian exhibits are devoted to examining how Sutter and his cohorts—perhaps neither systematically nor intentionally, but certainly without much concern—managed to reduce the population of California’s indigenous people from 300,000 to less than 15,000 in roughly a generation.
California’s past moves from hero worship to holocaust in just a few steps. It’s both disturbing and enlightening. If the museum at the fort manages to work up a little sympathy for how the Gold Rush bankrupted poor Sutter, then the museum on the other side of the duck ponds will turn that sympathy to disdain.
Sutter lost the money he made on native labor and the land he received in a grant from the Mexican government (which had taken it from its original inhabitants). The Maidu and Nisenan—among others—lost an entire world. So much for romanticizing the 49ers.
Nonetheless, the State Indian Museum does its own sort of romanticizing. Are we supposed to believe that the entire lives of California native peoples were spiritual, complete with mindful rituals practiced with every action, every second of every day?
Gimme a break.
You know that then, as now, sometimes the men sat around the fire shooting the bull and telling fart jokes—because always, everywhere, guys will be guys. Meanwhile, the women grinding acorn meal undoubtedly were commiserating about how the small size wouldn’t be so bad if he only knew what to do with it. And you know there was some radical chick asking, “Why are we cracking nuts while the guys get to commune with the antelope spirits?”
No matter what the museums tell us, some things never change.