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Indians of California

Indians of California: The Changing Image offers the reader a comprehensive yet easily digested history of indigenous peoples in the title state.  Written by James J. Rawls, the book chronicles events from the period of Spanish exploration and domination to modern times. Though Indians are the focus of the narrative, the work reflects the evolving image of the native groups from the perspective of various white groups.  Rawls takes a relatively objective viewpoint, one that necessarily includes the sometimes less-than-noble motives and actions of various Europeans. California history and some European historical events are used to describe the chameleon-like image of the Indians. Perhaps, then, the main theme is that history has profound effects on the human beings who live it, and humankind creates history by its very decisions and actions. The process is, thus, interactive.

Indians of California

Rawls describes the Spanish “invasion” of California as simultaneously brutal and idealistic.  Though native populations were often beaten and even killed by these Europeans, the Spanish were on a religious mission to a certain extent.  They saw the Indians as heathens and sought to “save their souls” by forcing them to give up their native religions in favor of Catholicism. Missionaries and colonists worked alongside one another to “convert” the natives to Christianity, imposing harsh penalties for noncompliance.

Enter the English settlers and fortune-seekers.  Rawls considers Anglo and Anglo-American attitudes toward the native populations as falling into three broad categories.  Initially, it served the best interests of the California newcomers to chastise the Spanish and Mexicans for oppressing the Indians. Supposedly determined to develop a more productive, respectful relationship with them, the Anglo-Americans were solicitous and protective of the Indians – at least on the surface. 

However, this approach did not endure.  As history unfolded and new needs developed within the Anglo-American society in California, the Indians were seen as an abundant source of exceedingly cheap labor.  The natives quickly became the underclass that seems to evolve in every society.  No longer quite so solicitous, the Anglo-Americans took advantage of the natives for their own selfish purposes.  According to Rawls, many of the Indians were little more than slaves, even after the passage of An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians by the first California legislature.

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