Stolen Freedom: The Ongoing Incarceration of California’s Indigenous Peoples
For 350 years, California has imprisoned and disenfranchised its Native peoples like few other places
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
Abolition is more than an idea. Abolition is decolonization. Abolition on stolen land, as this is for Indigenous communities, is a radical dismantling of the carceral state.
For 25 years, Indigenous rights activists fought for an official UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — for a document that doesn’t just affirm our individual human rights, but asserts our inherent and inalienable collective rights as Indigenous peoples. In 2007, that document was finally adopted by the General Assembly. Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”
Yet, in the United States, Indigenous communities continue to be impacted by historical and ongoing forms of settler colonialism — the violent uprooting, removal, and displacement of Indigenous peoples through criminalization and dispossession from our lands, communities, culture, and traditional lifeways. And that settler colonialism, while familiar to so many Indigenous people throughout the country, has played an outsized role in the history of California. Since the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods of missionization and subsequent Anglo military occupation of the state throughout the gold rush era, the criminalization and incarceration of Native peoples through racial and gendered violence has been deployed as a tool of colonial control and genocide.
Indigenous peoples have always traveled from the south to the north and back again. It is only the Indigenous people of the Americas, though, who have been forcibly removed and interned on reservations and throughout California’s rancheria systems, a system that deemed California Native peoples as homeless on our Tribal lands, and designated allotments in the form of checkerboarded and privatized “trust lands” that are a fraction of our ancestral territories.
Oppression came long before the rancherias, however. California’s first prisons existed through the mission system: 21 of them, built between 1769 and 1823, and stretching from San Diego to Sonoma along what was known as California’s “El Camino Real,” held Indigenous people as laborers while Franciscan missionaries attempted to convert them. The mission system created an entirely new social construction of “Mission Indians,” which led to forced assimilation, cultural erasure, and the homogenization and destruction of Tribal identity.
For nearly a century, to be an Indigenous California Native was to live a life in hiding, anonymity, and denial of one’s own identity. Life in a prison — a prison of secrecy.
Our California Indigenous ancestors were the first to experience incarceration and chattel slavery within the state of California, enduring eight decades of incarceration between the mission and gold rush eras (1769–1849). Mostly forced into residence in and near satellite forts and missions, California Tribal communities such as the Ohlone, Coast Miwok, Chumash, Kumeyaay, Pomo, and Patwin relatives had to stay under the threat of violence. The workers included local Indigenous population pressed and enslaved as draft labor for farms and ranches under the management of the church or Spanish military personnel and settlers.
This triad of military, church, and colonial settlements weren’t simply institutions of imperial power and settlement: They had the specific purpose of policing, forced religious conversion and reeducation, and enslavement and population control so as to exploit local resources through Indigenous people’s forced labor.
In 1850, California became a state under the so-called Compromise of 1850. At the time, some of the state’s first civilian Police Departments were established within the greater San Francisco Bay Area and San Jose. A new pattern of violence and repression emerged and a campaign of near-total genocide commenced against the state’s Native population. Whereas the U.S. Army/Navy Shore Patrols, U.S. Army Cavalry, and the California Rangers had succeeded Spanish Conquistadors and Mexican Militia in rounding up Indigenous peoples for forced labor and enslavement, a new doctrine of “red skin” genocide and scalp bounties produced roving gangs of vigilantes and terrorists.
A succession of wars, skirmishes, and massacres decimated California’s Indigenous bands to such an extent that roughly within 50 years entire Tribal groups and extended Indigenous family lines had ceased to exist. This violence was met with forms of resistance including seeking shelter in farms and ranches, as well as survival tactics like Indigenous intertribal marriage and adopting the identity of ethnic Mexicanos in order to escape the genocidal pogroms targeting the Native Indigenous population. For nearly a century, to be an Indigenous California Native was to live a life in hiding, anonymity, and denial of one’s own identity. Life in a prison — a prison of secrecy.
To bring attention to yourself usually resulted in some form of punishment. This still affects our population numbers as determined by the U.S. Census and accounts for the undercount of Tribal peoples.
“That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected,” said California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, in an 1851 “state of the state” address.
The Indian Wars have never ceased. In addition to biological weapons used against Indigenous populations in the form of smallpox-infested blankets and strychnine-laced food, California Tribal peoples have faced an onslaught of genocidal practices enacted to ensure the fracturing of our Tribal lands and communities.
We are the only people in the United States for which the federal government requires proof of blood quantum to prove ancestry, a government-imposed system to intentionally limit Tribal enrollment and control the definition of who is and who is not considered to be a Native American person. This process is dehumanizing and should be considered nothing less than a method of extermination — paper genocide, as it is commonly known. The definition of an Indigenous person anywhere else in the world is based on self-identification.
Blood quantum requirements were employed to negate the U.S. government’s treaty obligations by ensuring that there wouldn’t be enough verified people to meet the treaties’ conditions. As the burden of proof lies on the individual to provide documentation, such requirements lead to extinction of our Tribes. Settler-colonial systems such as Tribal governance over-enrollment of Tribal membership were designed to decrease our membership base, as individuals would not be able to meet such complex requirements, such as meeting varied requirements for housing, education, and health care.
California Tribes exist today under a series of designations under rubrics of Federally Recognized, Non-Federally Recognized (NFR), State recognized, Terminated, Unacknowledged, Disenfranchised, Disenrolled, and Indigenous peoples. In addition to California’s unratified 18 treaties that created a complex and precarious political position for California Tribes and Tribal peoples, these fractured designations contribute to the lateral violence within our communities between the “haves and the have-nots” and result in violent disruptions within our communities and contribute to the overrepresentation of incarcerated Indigenous populations.
To exist under the confinement of federal recognition status is in actuality a genocidal practice perpetuated by settler colonialism that targets Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit (2Spirit) trans and nonbinary relatives. This also contributes to the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People (#MMIWG2S), which began with the trafficking of Indigenous bodies by U.S. soldiers. The result is a double marginalization within a justice system that criminalizes Native people but provides little to no resources when we ourselves are victims of violence. By experiencing forms of violence that are raced, gendered, and classed, the settler-colonial narrative upholds the burden of proof to provide documentation such as federal recognition status.
While missions, forts, reservations, and rancheria systems together constituted the first institutions of incarceration within California, carceral practices continued through boarding schools and foster homes, group homes, and juvenile detention. This genocidal legacy of violent removal and cultural erasure continues today in forms of incarceration, family separation, and border militarization to divide and confine Indigenous families and communities. Today, such forms of criminalization and dispossession include the grotesque treatment of our Indigenous relatives at the southern border.
The ongoing criminalization of Indigenous peoples — whether through forced removal from our lands, family and community separation, or destabilizing our traditional and cultural knowledge — is intertwined with the way carceral institutions continue to forcibly remove Indigenous peoples. Oil pipelines, the lumber companies clear-cutting our sacred forests, and the prison industrial complex (PIC) all exist as extractive industries, dispossessing Indigenous peoples of both land and what settler colonialism refers to as resources.
The lineage of uninterrupted settler-colonial violence remains present in the state’s relationship to Indigenous peoples of California. California currently incarcerates over 241,000 people, with Native peoples imprisoned at nearly four times the rate of White people, and almost double the rate of Latinxs. (The California Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation categorizes American Indian peoples under racial categories of “other.”)
We have sought to resist this alien and repressive carceral system for over five centuries now. Traditionally, when Indigenous peoples have caused harm to one another, our cultural system dictates that payment is made in the form of money, fines, restitution, service, and banishment to the individuals and family members we have harmed, whether intentionally or not. This peacemaking and restorative justice model continues today in forms of Tribal courts such as the Yurok Tribal Justice Center, founded by Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti.
In California, there may be no more established symbol of the carceral state — and resistance — than Alcatraz. For Ohlone peoples, its original inhabitants, it was considered unfit for human habitation, whereas for the U.S. government it became a paragon of incarceration. By 1868, Alcatraz had its first formal jailhouse facility for the long-term detention of military prisoners, Confederate prisoners of war. Beginning in the 1870s, Apache and Modoc prisoners of war were incarcerated in Alcatraz, and in 1895 19 Hopi leaders were sent to Alcatraz for refusing to send their children to boarding school. “The Rock,” as it became known, continued to be an ongoing location for the incarceration of insurgent anti-colonialists and Indigenous people well into the 20th century.
Yet, long a place of misery, Alcatraz was given new meaning in 1969 during an extended 19-month long Occupation by Indigenous people organized by the then ad hoc organization “Indians of All Tribes” (IOAT).
Alcatraz is not simply an island. It is a symbol of resistance and solidarity.
On the second Monday of October — which this year falls on October 12 — I gather in solidarity with Indigenous peoples from across the world in celebration and to honor the Alcatraz Occupation that took place 50 years ago. We gather with a community of 1,200–5,000 people and offer sunrise prayer offerings in remembrance of our ancestors that were imprisoned on the island, in honor of our family members that held the rock, and in resistance to all that we have endured and continue to carry for our children and all of our future generations.
During the sunrise prayers on the island, I often think of my own father and how he used to carry me on the island during those cold mornings over 35 years ago. I think about his time of incarceration, and the many incarcerated relatives that are separated from their families, children, and Tribal communities. I think of how fractured that punitive carceral practices have always been unfamiliar to Indigenous practices, and of our ceremonies of restoration and bringing the world back into balance are extrinsic to a settler-colonial framework.
My late father, Isidro Gali Jr., was incarcerated for over seven years at San Quentin State Penitentiary. Upon his release, he returned to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) as an American Indian spiritual advisor, working on death row to offer ceremonial healing for other imprisoned Indigenous peoples. Redemption and healing of our peoples and communities is possible. Justice for Indigenous peoples outside of the confines of settler colonialism is a close reality. From my father’s incarceration to his advocating for abolishing the death penalty, my family has carried on the struggle of freedom and justice, for all peoples.
Our healing is justice. Our healing is resistance. Our healing is meeting our prayers with action.
The castigative foundation of the United States is cracking, exposing a carceral system that we need to abolish. Our Afro Indigenous relatives are on the front lines of experiencing state-sanctioned violence — and as Indigenous peoples, it is our responsibility to advocate and support the survival of our relations. One of my volunteer roles is co-leading the Healing Justice Committee for Anti Police-Terror Project Sacramento, which provides support to families impacted by police terrorism and models community alternatives to policing, as well as its MH First Project. When I advocate for our Indigenous youth, both in my family of four children and within our community, I state that all of our Indigenous youth are considered system-impacted due to the institutional incarceration and generational impacts that have created fractures with our family unit.
Elimination of the settler-colonial carceral state is necessary for a free and safe future. To this end, how do we address punishment and harm in a nonpunitive way? How do we utilize an Indigenous Justice and decolonized abolitionist framework to transition to holistic and survivor-centered practices? How can we heal ourselves individually and collectively in a way that does not further harm and contribute to the fracturing of our families and communities? I do not have all of the answers. I do know, however, that we could start by following Indigenous peoples’ practices of restorative and transformative justice.
By undoing the violent patriarchal practices of caging humans, and practicing rematriation — the restoration and healing of the land — we and our communities can build an abolitionist future free from the fetters of settler colonialism.