“My ancestors have been here from time immemorial.”
Nicole Lim is a native of Sonoma County in the most profound sense. Not only was she born and raised here, but her Pomo and Miwok ancestors have lived here from time immemorial. Says Nicole, “When the ‘explorers’ arrived, California was not an untamed wilderness but a well-cared-for garden.”
A practicing attorney specializing in Federal Indian Law, Nicole is currently Executive Director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, and a member of the Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party. Her focus is on education, namely a curriculum that corrects the historical narrative about Native Californians. And there is much correcting to do.
“We’re in denial about the history of Native Californians. We romanticize or refuse to acknowledge that history.” Before colonization, California was home to 300,000 to as many as a million Indians. By 1900, only around 11,000 remained.
“Indians didn’t just wander in and join the missions.”
“Most histories begin with the missions. You read about Indians ‘wandering in’ and ‘joining’ them, when in fact the missions were deliberately established in key Indian population centers.” Indian men were forcibly recruited to work in the mines, their families were often broken up, and Spanish soldiers took young native women at will, spreading syphilis through the population. Grazing animals destroyed native plants, a major source of nutrition and medicine for native people.
In 1847, after Indian miners killed two white men who had forced them to work under unbearable conditions, more than 100 Indians were killed in retribution. “My great-great grandmother, as a young child, was orphaned by the Bloody Island Massacre. She survived by hiding under her mother’s dead body.”
“Several generations of my family put me on the path I’m on.”
“My great-grandfather was a 25-year-old Irishman named Joseph Myers who came to California for the Gold Rush. He was a gold miner when he met – and almost certainly purchased – my great-grandmother, a 12-year-old Pomo girl named Maggie Briggs.” (see photo)
During the Gold Rush, up to 90% of mine workers were enslaved Indians. California’s first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, was a former slaveholder from Tennessee who vowed to “exterminate the red devils.” He succeeded in one way: After the Gold Rush, Indians nearly disappeared from California history books.
Meanwhile, 18 treaties were negotiated but never ratified, remaining under an injunction of secrecy for 50 years. In 1905, the federal government began purchasing small blocks of land back for some tribes, establishing the Rancheria system. But in 1950, several of these were terminated, along with the tribes themselves – including the Pinoleville Pomo, her family’s tribe. In 1983, recognition was restored to the Pomo and 15 other tribes, after Nicole’s grandmother brought a class lawsuit on behalf of all of them.
“Government has not fulfilled its responsibilities to native people.”
Her father Joseph Myers was a young lawyer at that time. “My dad had been sent on a relocation program at the age of 19, and worked in law enforcement and earned a criminal justice degree. When I was born, the youngest of eight children, he enrolled in law school.” He earned his degree and travelled around the U.S. practicing tribal law, eventually becoming a professor of law at U.C. Berkeley. “My work path is similar to his, though my focus has been more on arts and culture and youth. I focus on ‘cultural intelligence,’ not ‘cultural sensitivity.’ I don’t want people to feel bad, as that gets in the way of action.” And there’s much to learn, and to do:
“Don’t stereotype or fetishize native culture. Learn about it.” (For some information sources Nicole recommends, see below.)
“If you have the opportunity, partner with native people. But know that we may not want to share everything.”
“When we are invited to take part in environmental stewardship, we may be asked to say a prayer, but we don’t sit in the boardroom. Yet.”
“We’re still here against all odds.”
Nicole’s father died unexpectedly last December. At U.C. Berkeley, the Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues had been established to recognize his extensive service to Native American communities. A few months after his death, they hired Nicole to teach his class in Federal Indian Law. “He mentored me. He really loved teaching and believed in the power of education to change injustice. It’s important to me to continue his legacy in the world by doing what he loved.”
“We are the third and fourth generations of our family in Sonoma County, but this is our ancestral territory. We are still here, against all odds.”
A few sources
California Indian Museum & Cultural Center (https://cimcc.org)
California Indian Education for All website (https://caindianeducationforall.com)
Available at bookstores or at amazon.com:
An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley
Indians of California:The Changing Image by James Rawls
We Are the Land: A History of Native California by Damon B. Atkins & William J. Bauer Jr.