Native Americans Want More Accurate History of Sacramento’s Founder: NPR

California tribes work with state parks to tell the story of Sutter’s Fort. They want to include the story of John Sutter’s violence towards Native Americans during the founding of Sacramento.


This next story takes us to a tourist attraction in Sacramento, California. Sutter’s Fort, now in the center of town, was settled by Swiss immigrant John Sutter. And park staff are now trying to more accurately reflect the complexity of Sutter’s life and the effect white settlers had on Indigenous people. This is Pauline Bartolone from CapRadio.


PAULINE BARTOLONE, BYLINE: Every year, California school children travel to this adobe fort in central Sacramento to learn about Swiss settler John Sutter.

DEVIN MCCUTCHEN: All right, everyone, I want to tell you where you are. You are in the orientation room right now.

BARTOLONE: Park guide Devin McCutchen wears a dark green ranger uniform. Until recently, some park staff wore 19th century clothing. And the children recreated characters from the era. But education here is starting to change.

MCCUTCHEN: What I was just talking about with the kids here is that this space is the carpentry shop, right?

BARTOLONE: Cabinetmaking now offers an educational moment on colonialism.

MCCUTCHEN: The very wood a carpenter would work here in the Sacramento Valley would probably have been an oak tree. This oak would have been the source of food for Native Americans.

BARTOLONE: While Oaks fed the Nisenan and Miwok tribes, Sutter looked to trees as a source of lumber.

MCCUTCHEN: When you cut it down and commodify it, it’s at the expense of aboriginal people, who have been here since time immemorial.

BARTOLONE: The lessons here weren’t always so complete. Until recently, they focused more on a heroic tale of Sutter as a founder of Sacramento and a pioneer of the gold rush. But after the George Floyd protests, park officials began working with local Native American tribes to create a more accurate picture of Sutter’s legacy.

RHONDA POPE FLORES: He destroyed a lot of our culture and our history and just took over, you know, the land.

BARTOLONE: Rhonda Pope Flores is the president of the Buena Vista Rancheria of the Me-Wuk Indians. She wants visitors to the fort to know that native people lived here first. And John Sutter violently upset their way of life.

POPE FLORES: Many people have lost their lives. Many women have been raped and enslaved, and families torn apart, because of his, you know, dream.

BARTOLONE: Sutter’s border dream was a nightmare for the local tribes. One historical account describes hundreds of Aboriginal people working for him in slavery-like conditions, eating from troughs intended for cattle. Sutter’s biographer, Albert Hurtado, says he raided and trafficked Native people.

ALBERT HURTADO: He had no qualms about taking men and a cannon and bombing an Indian rancheria, killing people indiscriminately.

BARTOLONE: However, says Hurtado, John Sutter was a complicated man. He preferred to use diplomacy before violence.

HURTADO: You have to show it in all its facets.

BARTOLONE: The State of California is evaluating dozens of sites to determine if a new name or updated information is needed. Communities across the country are also doing this work, says Autumn Saxton-Ross of the National Recreation and Park Association. And it is necessary for racial healing.

AUTUMN SAXTON-ROSS: If we’re going to tell the story, it has to be accurate. So we have to recognize that things sucked for a very long time.

BARTOLONE: California Parks started with Indigenous groups and will now invite the public to participate in the reinterpretation of Sutter’s Fort. The state parks agency hopes this will soon be a place to learn more about the people who were here long before John Sutter arrived.

For NPR news, I’m Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento.


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Nohemi M. Moore