UNLV history professor William Bauer had read several books, theses, and dissertations about the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California, but not one included interviews with the people who live there.
That was a problem for Bauer, an enrolled tribal member who grew up on the Round Valley Reservation, a federally established Indian reservation located primarily in Mendocino County.
So when Bauer set out to tell the story of Round Valley Indians and the role they played in California’s agricultural workforce, he made sure that native voices were part of the narrative.
“It was important to me that people who live in Round Valley recognize their history,” Bauer says. “I wanted them to read about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the book.”
Bauer traveled back to his childhood home to collect oral histories from those who lived and worked on the Round Valley Reservation. These recollections, supplemented by extensive data collected through national government archives, are the basis of We Were All Like Migrant Workers Here: Work, Community, and Memory on California’s Round Valley Reservation, an in-depth examination of the lives, work, and survival of Round Valley Indians from 1850 to 1941.
Although the history of indigenous Indian tribes in Northern California extends as far back as 8,000 B.C.E., Bauer focuses on what happens “after contact” with Euro-Americans in the mid-19th century. His book chronicles the degradation of ecologically sensitive areas during the 1849 Gold Rush and the enslavement and forced labor that followed the passage of the 1850 Act for Government and Protection of the Indians, an act that permitted whites to indenture Indians to work on farms and ranches.
“At its worst, this law created a system of Indian slavery in California,” Bauer wrote. “The law’s vagrancy clause opened the door for white men to attack Indian villages, steal Indian children … and sell them to the highest bidder.”
Bauer recounts one horrific example in 1855 when 35 children were kidnapped from the Round Valley Yuki tribe and sold “into a life of illness, servitude, and sexual violence in white and California households.”
While children were being stolen and enslaved in Northern California, federal Indian policy was undergoing change in Washington, D. C. Public demand for land in California, coupled with a desire to “civilize” native peoples by training them to raise livestock and wheat, ultimately led to the removal of Indians from their homelands and their relocation to reservations.
Bauer says that in the 1850s and 1860s, a number of different groups were forced to relocate to the Round Valley Reservation. Joining the indigenous Yuki tribe were Concows, Wailackis, Pitt Rivers, Nomlackis, Pomos, and other smaller tribes. “Of course, they all spoke different languages and had different customs,” Bauer says. “And they settled into their own little villages on the reservation.”
Bauer compares the reservation in the 19th century to that of small ethnic, neighborhoods in turn-of-the-century Chicago and New York. And, like other neighborhoods where a single industry dominates, the various tribes in Round Valley were unified by work.
The Round Valley Indians worked the reservation farms and mills, planting crops, sawing timber, and milling grain in exchange for food, clothing, and blankets. However, Bauer notes that rations were often insufficient so they “turned to other sources of subsistence, such as hunting, fishing, and harvesting Manzanita berries, practices that had been used for centuries.”
Sheep shearing and other wage labor off the reservation also added to the families’ coffers. But Bauer says the biggest draw for wage labor was the growing hops industry in Mendocino County. Bauer notes that “During World War I, California produced the most hops in the United States…. Round Valley Indians worked in all facets of hops production, from tilling the soil to training the vines to picking the crop.”
Once the crop was harvested, the workers participated in traditional “Big Times,” a festival of games, food, and social drinking at the workplace. Round Valley Indians also took advantage of their time off the reservation to visit sacred homelands and to connect with other tribe members who had not been removed to a reservation. Bauer says this distinctive “hop culture” enabled Round Valley Indians to “forge the bond essential to the maintenance of their communities,” and he likens the annual trek to the hops fields to that of “attending an off reservation boarding school.”
Although wages were meager and the work was seasonal, Bauer says hops picking provided stable employment for families, most of whom combined their wages into a family pot. In addition, Bauer says, hops growers preferred hiring Indians to work in their fields because they returned to the reservation after the harvest and because they weren’t Chinese, whom many considered the “the pariah of California’s agricultural workforce” at the time.
But not everyone thought that migrant work was suitable for the Round Valley Indians. In the early 1880s, critics of the reservation argued that reservations locked up land that whites wanted. This discontent led to the General Allotment Act of 1887, whereby Indians would be allowed to select individual plots of land to call their own and remaining land would be available for sale to non-Indians.
“In Round Valley, they wanted the native people to be farmers, and native people wanted to participate in migrant, agricultural work because it fit their lifestyle better,” Bauer says.
In the government’s view, allotment would keep the Indians at home and promote self-sufficiency through the tilling of one’s own soil. This self-sufficiency, in turn, would make the Indians less dependent on government subsidies. Ultimately, the Round Valley residents agreed to the allotment.
“But each group had a different understanding of what allotment would mean. Native people saw allotment as a way to assume more control over their lands and lives. They believed that allotment would enable them to kick illegal squatters off reservation land. They thought that when the squatters were gone, they could hunt, fish, harvest, and raise livestock. Unfortunately, this is not the way allotment played out,” Bauer says.
In 1892, the Office of Indian Affairs, in accordance with the 1887 Act, reduced the Round Valley reservation from more than 100,000 acres to 43,650 acres. The remaining acres were then divided into 10-acre plots and made available to Round Valley residents. Although Round Valley Indians attempted to maximize their allotments by choosing parcels near kin and then combining them into larger farms, the amount of land was never sufficient for the raising of livestock or production of market crops.
“They weren’t given enough land,” Bauer says. “Even today, if you were to grow grapes for a vineyard, 10 acres isn’t enough and, because Round Valley is so isolated, it is too costly to transport 10 acres of grapes out of the valley to make it profitable.”
Bauer calls allotment “the most economic devastating piece of legislation in the last 150 years,” adding that it produced a 70 percent decline in Indian land holding.
The Great Depression in the 1930s and the introduction of a mechanical hops picker near the end of that decade were the beginnings of the end of hops picking for the Round Valley Indians. Hops were slowly replaced by pears, prunes, and grapes, and growers began to replace Indian workers with Mexican workers. Near the end of the 1950s, logging became the principal source of wages for Round Valley natives.
“My dad drove heavy machinery for some of the logging companies in the area until the early ’90s when the mill closed. The entire community, not just the Indian community, has really struggled since the early 1990s without an industry to carry employment,” Bauer says.
But the community continues, and that is the story that Bauer wanted to tell.
“What I was able to find in terms of work and wage labor throughout this period, was that work and wages were almost secondary to the community or social ties that people formed while picking hops.”
Bauer notes that it was this sense of unity that led him to the title of the book – and ultimately led the Round Valley Indians to their survival into the 20th century.