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The 20th Century and Today

Throughout the 20th Century, Native Californias fought for opportunities and rights, as part of a nationwide social justice movement that continues today.
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Adaptation and Tradition

After the low point of 1900, California's Indian population slowly began to increase as native communities adapted old ways to new circumstances. The number of Native Americans living in California rose steadily after 1900, reversing the appalling decline of the previous century. It is important to note that much of this increase was a result of relocation programs that encouraged Indians from other states to move to California.

During the early 20th century, reformers struggled to raise public awareness of Indian poverty and to dispel myths of the permanently "vanishing Indian." Native Americans were forced to make difficult choices about how to best maintain traditional ways to survive.

The anonymous families in the 1902 and 1903 photographs; the image of Chief Chepah and his wife, son, and daughter-in-law; the schoolgirls in the 1907 photographs; and the children at the Mission San Diego del Alcala school all illustrate this assimilation. The images "Yuki Indian head" and "Captain John," and the photographs of various groups of Indian dancers, illustrate a pull in the opposite direction: to maintain traditions.

During the 1910s, a native man named Ishi — believed to be the last survivor of his group, the Yahi — allowed University of California anthropologist A. L. Kroeber and others to study and interview him. During this time, Ishi lived with Kroeber and his family, and his obvious resiliency and intelligence challenged popular racist stereotypes. Photographs show Ishi in a variety of ways: dressed in a Western suit, seated in a chair; skinning the head of a deer in a traditional way; meeting other Indians; and flaking an arrow point. He also posed with Kroeber and Sam Batwi, a Northern/Central Yana Indian who served as an interpreter.

The early 20th century also saw Native Californians employing the legal system to fight for land rights, educational opportunities, and citizenship rights. In 1917, the California Supreme Court awarded Native Californians the right to vote, paving the way for the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granting full citizenship.

Social Change and Self Determination

By the mid 1960s due to the influx of native americans through relocation from other states, there was a significant increase in indian urban populations. Those who did comprised California’s most disadvantaged group, with higher unemployment rates than any other minority. Urban Indians fared better but still experienced limited educational and employment opportunities.

The 1960s and 70s were years of social change for many groups. Beginning in the 1960s, Native Americans in California formed pan-Indian organizations such as the American Indian Historical Society, California Rural Indian Health Board, and California Indian Education Association to advocate for native rights. A group of activists called Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay from 1969 to 1971, part of a nationwide Native American social justice movement that continues today. One photograph from this era shows demonstrators marching against anti-Indian legislation. The anonymous poster The Longest Walk and Manuel Diaz's 200 Years of Misery illustrate the sentiments of these groups.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was established with the goal of pushing the US government to redress the loss of lands and the breaking of several treaties. AIM also called for the recognition and protection of indigenous culture and religions and the affirmation of health, housing, employment, economic development, and educational opportunities for Native Americans.

In the early 1980s, the Cabazon and Morongo Bands of Mission Indians began offering card games and bingo on their reservations, setting off a controversy over gaming that would culminate in a 1987 US Supreme Court decision affirming Native Americans' right to build casinos on reservation lands. By 2005, there were 55 Native American casinos in California bringing tribes a total annual income of more than $3.5 billion.

These revenues have dramatically changed the economic, political, and social landscapes of California's native peoples. Because only groups that have been federally recognized as official tribes can build casinos, an enormous financial gulf now separates recognized and unrecognized native groups. Those groups with federal recognition enjoy considerable political clout, while members of unrecognized groups continue to suffer from joblessness, under-education, and poor living conditions. Money from gaming has also generated controversies over Indian identity as federally recognized groups have been forced to reconsider who can and cannot claim membership. Gaming has brought new wealth to some of California's Native Americans, but it has also brought new divisions, contentions, and self-definitions.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.


"Native Americans: The 20th Century and Today" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

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Native Americans: The 20th Century and Today curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.