Sutter uber alles

A new Davis City Council reluctantly revisits the legacy of California’s controversial settler

Steve Jerome-Wyatt went on a month-long hunger strike to protest the Sutter legacy.

Steve Jerome-Wyatt went on a month-long hunger strike to protest the Sutter legacy.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Heroes die hard in the West, where our culture still echoes the exploits and exploitation of those who preceded us. Even Davis, a city synonymous with progressive social policy, is not immune. American Indian activists and supporters in Davis have asked the city council to change the name of Sutter Place, a 300-yard strip dominated by Sutter Davis Hospital and Davis Community Clinic and little else.

John Sutter, despite being revered as the embodiment of Western individualism and entrepreneurial savvy—his discovery of gold kicked off the Gold Rush and the settlement of the West—is not a proper namesake for that street, say activists, who want the name changed.

Alisse Ali-Christie, 23, is a University of California, Davis, graduate student taking the fight to the city council, working in conjunction with UC Davis Professor Emeritus Jack Forbes and assorted students and activists.

“In Sutter’s quest to industrialize California, he took in native slaves, women and children,” said Ali-Christie, president of the UC Davis Native American Student Union. “He raped Indian women and children and sold them to other people. He looks like a great historical figure, but, until recently, there was little known about him. We’re trying to use different avenues, different people on campus, to support us.”

Her characterization is backed by Forbes and other Western historians, who have brought Sutter’s transgressions to light in recent years. “All you have to do is read the history books,” said Forbes, who has been battling for a name change for Sutter Place since 1998.

In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, sociologist James Loewen points to Sutter’s manager, Pierson Reading, who bragged that “the Indians of California make as obedient and humble slaves as the Negro in the South.” Such revisionist histories tell a tale of Manifest Destiny in its basest forms and indict Sutter as an archetype of the breed.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, American Indian students and supporters showed up at the March 23 and 30 Davis City Council meetings, to keep up the fight. Among them was activist Steve Jerome-Wyatt, 46, who went on a month-long hunger strike to protest the Sutter Place name, figuring it would up the ante. “We’re constantly testing them for weaknesses,” he said.

Fourteen pounds lighter, Jerome-Wyatt arrived alone for the protest scheduled for the April 13 meeting. Five minutes past the 5:30 p.m. protest start time, he was still the first to show up and talk to local media. “We’re on Indian time,” he said with a wry grin.

Jerome-Wyatt is homeless but makes daily appearances at the UC Davis Cross-Cultural Center, which is all the home he needs.

“I go where the spirit guides me. And that’s why I’m here,” said Jerome-Wyatt, recalling travels up and down the coast to mobilize in support of American Indian rights. “It’s a different thing when you get a bunch of Indians together, protesting something. [Authorities] roll their eyes and say, ‘Here they come again.’ But when you get a bunch of white people together, they take notice. All of a sudden, it’s legitimate social protest.”

The aforementioned bunch of white people arrived moments later, along with a handful of American Indians and people of other assorted ethnicities. Following the demonstration, they filed into the city-council meeting, where Jerome-Wyatt again proposed the resolution. “This is the third time in five weeks that I’ve stood before you, asking you folks in your capacity as a standing city government to ask you to list this item on your agenda. I can’t keep doing this forever,” he said. “What is the problem with this whole situation? We aren’t asking you for a miracle. We aren’t asking to reinvent the wheel.”

The council isn’t allowed to respond during the public-comment period; however, an SN&R straw poll of the five council members elicited one council vote for putting a resolution on the agenda (Sue Greenwald), one against (Ted Puntillo) and three maybes.

Mayor Ruth Asmundson, Don Saylor and Stephen Souza say they’ll support whatever the majority of the council decides to do. As this issue goes to press, Souza will be submitting a resolution to have the name changed at this week’s council meeting; but he, like Saylor, is a first-term council member at his first official meeting, and this procedural hot potato is a lively way to start their terms.

Puntillo, a returning council member, is not riding the fence. “I’m against it. It’s been discussed before and voted on, and I think it’s time to move on,” he said. “We can go and change all the street signs in the world, but what’s that going to do for Native Americans? Is it going to suddenly help them and cure all their problems? I don’t think so.”

None of the present city council members was in office during the initial December 17, 1998, vote, when the body voted 3-2 to change the name from Sutter Place. But then-Councilwoman Sheryl Freeman was inundated with protests from community members, and she changed camps in a subsequent vote in the following weeks.

Both past and present council opponents of the name change employ the “slippery slope” argument: If you change Sutter Place to something else, other street names or civic landmarks would be subject to review under those same principles.

Though Saylor and Asmundson say they’re willing to entertain the idea, they may be suffering from Sutter Place fatigue already.

“I think we have to deal with present issues that are important to the city of Davis,” said Asmundson. “But if the rest of the council wants to discuss adding a resolution to a future agenda, then I would, too.”

However, supporters maintain that this is very much a present-day issue.

“It’s always interesting to see 300-pound black guys playing football in helmets with a Redskin on it,” said Jerome-Wyatt. “Talk about irony. It’s a racist term invented by white people, and I wonder if those players would do the same if they were playing for ‘the Niggers.’ People just don’t notice, or they don’t care.”