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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity --Land, Tribes, and the State: California's Indian Rancherias

April 12, 2007 // 3:00pm5:00pm

Khal Schneider, Assistant Professor of History, California State University, East Bay, speaker; commentators Dylan Penningroth, Associate Professor of History, Northwestern University and Albert L. Hurtado, Professor and Travis Chair of American History, University of Oklahoma.

Most historians of the late nineteenth century United States assume that "Indian country" was no more than the reservations onto which the American government forced Native Americans, thereby making what had been Indian land available to white settlers. In fact, according to Prof. Khal Schneider, in some parts of the nation it was not only reservations that were Indian country, and not all Indian country was the result of federal government policies. Speaking at the Division of U.S. Studies' seventeenth session in its series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity, Schneider utilized his study of Indians in three counties of northern California to illustrate his thesis.

In 1887, Schneider reported, U.S. Army Captain Robert Shaw was charged by the federal Indian Office with the removal of cattle, owned by white settlers, that had been moved onto the Round Valley reservation of Mendocino County – land designated by the federal government as a home for most California Indians. Before Shaw could act, however, a county judge stopped him by issuing a warrant for his arrest. The incident made it clear that the federal government did not have final authority over Indian land. In fact, because of federal neglect, ninety percent of the land that was designated for California Indian use was occupied by white settlers by the time Shaw attempted to carry out his order. So, seeking to protect their livelihood and cultural survival, Indians in the 1870s-1890s bought pieces of land outside the Round Valley reservation. These became known as rancherias, and were soon fashioned into a network of Indian communities.

While the federal government could not and, often, would not defend Indian interests on the reservation, the Indians of the rancherias, or off-reservation land, could and did exercise the legal power afforded to them by the state as private land owners. White neighbors hostile to the notion of federal land reserved for Indians were nonetheless willing to defend Indians' rights as private rancheria landowners. Schneider speculated that their deference to property rights may have been self-serving, as many rancheria Indians were seasonal agricultural laborers whose work the whites needed on their nearby farms. Nevertheless, Indians on the off-reservation land found allies among their white neighbors when the federal agents of the Indian office attempted to move off-reservation Indians back to the reservation or to govern their behavior.

The rancherias were bought by individuals or a group to be used collectively by the Indian community and held in trust for the benefit of future generations. Consisting of extended families, life on the rancherias was evidently healthier for Indian communities than life on the reservations. By 1910 only four rancheria households with parents of child-bearing age had no children, compared to two-thirds of the households in Round Valley. The federal government, finally acknowledging the greater benefit for Indians of dwelling on private land, began in 1905 to buy very small tracts of land for landless Indians to supplement the rancherias, rather than apportioning tracts of land for reservations. This practice continued into the 1930s.

The Indians, however, were not given ownership of the federally-purchased off-reservation land, nor could they live elsewhere and still be federally protected. This was problematic, especially during the economic depression of the 1930s, when Indians living on privately-owned rancherias found themselves ineligible for benefits such as medical care at government clinics. The Indian Office created further complications by arbitrarily considering Indians on rancherias as less full-blooded than Indians on federally-purchased land. This was in fact a measure of the Indian Office's stereotypes, Schneider said, as Indians who lived on Indian-purchased land were considered more respectable and, therefore, more "white" than Indians who lived on federally-purchased land. Ironically, the Indian Office would not intervene on behalf of Indians who risked losing their privately-owned land unless they moved to the federally purchased land, and by the 1930s, federally-purchased lands became the center of California Indian country.

The commentators agreed that Schneider argued convincingly that federal policy was not the only determinant in the creation of Indian land. Albert Hurtado noted that California Indians, unlike Indians in other states, did not have treaties with the federal government. That complicated the issue of the boundaries of Indian territory. The Indians of Schneider's study were also unique in having encountered white settlers of nationalities other than the United States – pre-1848 Spanish and Mexican settlers – which may have led, Hurtado thought, to a greater understanding of how to thrive within white culture. Dylan Penningroth commented on the phenomenon of federal policy and law being overruled by local interests, and the way in which Indian rights in California had less to do with treaty-defined tribal sovereignty than with deeds (that is, land purchases) of individual Indians. What, he wondered, did recognition of Indians' property rights mean for their everyday interaction with whites? To what extent did specific pieces of land then become attached to Indian identity? Schneider's study raises these and other interesting questions, leading the commentators and audience to hope that he will continue with his research into this relatively unexamined field.

  • Please click here to see comments prepared by Albert Hurtado.


  • Please click here to see comments prepared by Dylan Penningroth.




  • Drafted by Acacia Reed

    Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

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