Racism, Genocide, and Ecocide

by Dianna Suarez, founder of Friends of Bear River (FROBERI).

Published June 26, 2020 in the Grass Valley Union.

First they took the water. The indigenous people of California were prospering here because of the gentle climate and abundance of food. The first disturbance noticed was to the water, because it is essential to life.

Why did the white miners and settlers think they were entitled to divert and impound the water that ran in the creeks and rivers?

Most of the large oaks in the 250-acre Bear River Park, located near Colfax on Bear River between Rollins and Combie reservoirs, are canyon live oaks. There are also very large black oaks, old growth ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir trees. These trees are between 300 and 700 years old. They have stood for centuries as this land and this river have gone through their seasons and the changes in weather cycles and land use. Many surrounding areas were denuded of trees because they were flat and more accessible to roads and railways. Why did the white miners and settlers feel entitled to cut down all the trees?

Old growth trees were beloved by the indigenous Nisenan people who saw them as beloved relatives and elders. The trees stood and watched the genocide of these original people by a new breed of humans who did not see these trees as living relatives to be treasured. These were the miners and settlers who came here starting in 1849. When the Nisenan and their villages on the ridge between the Bear and American rivers were massacred and burned, the survivors ran into the Bear River canyon to escape, to these trees for safety.

Why did the white miners and Placer Blades militia think it was OK to murder indigenous people and burn down their villages?

At one time this Bear River canyon was proposed to become a reservation where the Nisenan could live in safety. The Barbour Treaties were negotiated with the California Indians in 1851 and 1852. The indigenous people agreed in good faith to give up their lifeways and left their beloved places. The Nisenan were promised a reservation with boundaries starting at Camp Far West military fort running 12 miles up Bear River and then due north to the Yuba River, excluding Rough and Ready but including Penn Valley. The boundary then went 12 miles down the Yuba River and then due south back to Camp Far West.

According to “An American Genocide, “The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe” by Benjamin Madley, page 168: President Millard Fillmore submitted all 18 treaties along with a letter of support on June 1, 1852. “On July 8, 1852, U.S. Senators, meeting in a secret session, unanimously repudiated all eighteen treaties. The Senate then placed the eighteen treaties and associated documents under an ‘injunction of secrecy.’ These documents were on file and presumably accessible in the U.S. Department of the Interior, but the Senate did not lift its injunction until January 18, 1905, fifty-three years later.”

Why are we supportive of a government system that lies, cheats, and steals?

The answer to all these questions is racism — racism resulting in the genocide of the local indigenous people. As we all know now, this scourge of racism exists today in the words and actions of the descendants of the settlers, people of privilege, and the government that represents us. Today we call out that racism.

That same racism was on display in the secret, closed session board meeting of the Nevada Irrigation District. At 9:57 a.m., on Aug.13, 2014, closed session was called at the Nevada Irrigation District Board Meeting, and the public, if there were any, was removed from the room. Litigation was discussed for over half an hour. The meeting was reconvened at 10:30 a.m. for two minutes, and during this time, the NID Board passed Resolution No. 2014-43, authorizing application for Centennial Dam, without any discussion or public involvement. Did the NID Board know that this proposal would destroy the last remaining access for the surviving Nisenan people to their sacred Bear River; the last vestige of a culture subject to genocide for the last 150 years?

I don’t know, but when they were told, they didn’t care.

The NID Board knows and understands that this river cannot be replaced, and yet some members persist in this racism, this genocide, this ecocide of the ancient trees and indigenous lifeways of the Nisenan people, who once lived freely and happily in this beautiful place, along Bear River.

Dianna Suarez lives in Colfax.