Retelling the Native American story of Sonoma Valley

After generations of misrepresentation, the Indigenous voices of Sonoma are calling for a more complete history.|

Under the “Sonoma County Historic Overview” on the county’s website, Native American history is relegated to one sentence: “Sonoma County was inhabited by the Pomo, Miwok and Kashaya Indians.”

But no explanation is given for where Native Americans went. Nor why they left. Nor who was responsible for the thousands of Native Americans who died from the colonization of Sonoma Valley.

A dusty plaque on First Street East outside Mission San Francisco Solano has the engraved names of dozens of the Indigenous people. It lists their Christian names — the names forced on them, and recorded by, the Catholic Church.

“And under that paved road at the northeastern corner of the Sonoma Square, that's where the bodies are buried,” said Charlie Toledo director for the Suscol Intertribal Council.

Toledo said the stories told about Native Americans in Sonoma are often false, especially that tribes in the area were still living as primitive hunters and gatherers.

“Upon initial contact this area had been occupied in permanent villages,” Toledo said. “They were living in permanent civilized communities for tens of thousands of years, moving around.”

But where Native American tribes saw Sonoma Valley as their home, European colonizers saw an opportunity to take the land.

The local tribes, including the Pomo, the Wappo and the Coastal-Miwok, saw their populations drop by 90% in the 25 years after Europeans made contact, part of efforts to add another mission to the northern Bay Area, Toledo said.

Colonizers accomplished this through trading smallpox-infected blankets and arsenic-laced bread to the tribes, a tactic known as “softening” the population, Toledo said. It was biological warfare.

“You traumatize them so badly with something they don't expect,” Toledo said. “Then you take their children and that immobilizes them because they will try to cooperate, hoping that the children will be returned first. The children were never returned.”

Colonizers, in an effort to assimilate Native Americans to European standards, stole and coerced Native families to give up their children, so the children could be put in boarding schools, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

The Indigenous people who were taken by the colonizers and forcibly baptized by the church were given Christian names. Efforts to stop Native American culture from taking root were on the books into the 1970s, according to the ACLU.

Toledo teaches classes about the history of Native American people in Northern California, and she often encounters people who have never heard of the efforts the U.S. government took to wipe out the Native American culture.

“People say, ‘Well, how come we didn't hear this?’” Toledo said. “And I'm like, ‘Yeah, how come you didn't hear this?’”

Tactics employed by colonizers, including biological attacks, forced assimilation in boarding schools and outlawing Native languages and cultural events, stymied the Indigenous population’s ability to defend themselves or detail records of the crimes committed against their communities. The Native American record of this period was kept alive only through oral tradition, Toledo said, but the history is not as long ago as people think.

“There are people that survived that mission period, but not so much there in Sonoma,” Toledo said.

Yet the man who owned Native American slaves and was a leader of the Spanish colonization effort, Gen. Mariano Vallejo, has multiple monuments in Sonoma Plaza dedicated to his efforts to establish the city. The most recent was installed by the City Council in 2017, featuring Vallejo sitting jovially on the bench facing the Sonoma Cheese Factory.

Monuments are not reflections of who someone was, said Eric Stanley, associate director and curator of history for the Museum of Sonoma County, but how the public record wants to weave a figure into its history.

“Monuments tend to be records of a particular moment in time,” said Stanley. “And the way people thought about history and the story that they think they want to tell in the in the public sphere.”

Revisiting the stories of the past

History is often written by the victors. But it’s reviewed and revised by historians, Stanley said.

“Stories are told at different periods of time for particular reasons,” Stanley said. “People tend to look at history as this established set of facts when, in fact, history is really a constant reexamining of evidence and records.”

He said museums have typically displayed Native Americans through an “anthropological” point of view which consigns the population to the past, and “that’s not the case at all.”

In a Santa Rosa Junior College ceremony for Indigenous People’s Day, leaders in the Indigenous community spoke about the history of Native Americans in Sonoma County and the efforts to protect their culture today.

“We are not an artifact. We are not dead. And we are very much alive,” Dr. Brenda Flyswithhawks, a psychology professor at Santa Rosa Junior College said during the virtual ceremony hosted by the college.

But revisiting the past isn’t only about acknowledging the crimes committed against Native Americans but telling stories of heroism and resolve, too, Stanley said.

“There’s someone who's described as an Indian renegade who out of the mission system actually confronted the California Governor in Sonoma County in the 1830s,” Stanley said. “We know his name from the baptismal record. Why is he never mentioned in the history?”

But over the past year, there’s been a growing awareness to find the censored parts of history as the public has become more conscious of how past injustices fuel today’s inequalities, Toledo said.

Arthur Dawson, an expert in cultural and natural history in Sonoma Valley, said he’s grown hopeful in the past year that the public wants to understand a more complete view of historical figures like Vallejo, who is considered one of the forefathers of Sonoma.

“We've spent centuries putting people on pedestals,” Dawson said. “Vallejo probably has a mix of positive and negative, just like a lot of people. But we tend to choose white European males and put them on a pedestal.”

Learning more about the cultural practices of Native Americans in Sonoma presents an opportunity to build a more sustainable way of living with the environment instead of trying to control it, Dawson said.

“Looking at how they tended the land, and that the land was considered a gift, something to take care of and something to respect,” Dawson said. “If we could have something more like that, I think we'd be in much better shape as a world right now.”

There are many flags that stand on City Hall — Russian, Mexican, the Bear Republic — but not one marks the 12,000-year history of Native American tribes in Sonoma Valley.

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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