Survival, Sovereignty, and Identity: A Study of the Origins, Development, and Legacy of Indian Cowboys and Cattlemen of Southern California, 1493-1941
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Survival, Sovereignty, and Identity: A Study of the Origins, Development, and Legacy of Indian Cowboys and Cattlemen of Southern California, 1493-1941

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In 1769, the Spanish moved to establish sovereignty over Upper or Alta California, by founding Catholic missions, military outposts, and towns on the far northern frontier of their empire. Their reliance on cattle and horses sustained these efforts but also changed the ecosystems of the indigenous populations. Domesticated animals fed on vegetative sources of Native American foods, medicines, tools, and weapons. Europeans and their horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry also brought diseases that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of California Native people. Since the naturally increasing herds posed an existential threat to the southern California Natives, this study seeks to determine how they survived and continued to assert sovereignty in the face of that and other threats. Southern California Indian peoples did not waver in their assertions of sovereignty when Mexican governors granted mission lands to rancheros and they maintained their rights amidst the multiple traumas that accompanied American rule. The study further contends that the essential role played by southern California Indians in the success of Spanish, Mexican, and American cattle ranching, added honor to evolving Native tribal identities. California Indian cattle ranching and cowboying can claim origins in the Spanish horse and cattle culture that developed in response to the wartime conditions of the Reconquista on the Iberian Peninsula as far back as 1100 CE. There, a relatively few mounted vaqueros provided a valuable food source that supported the war effort. In New Spain, a relatively few Indian vaqueros made success more likely in the risky ventures of empire-building. Historical records from Spain to California contain few Native voices. However, both action and inaction are decisions, and invite inference. “Reading against the grain” provides a measured analysis of how and why southern California Indians chose to adopt and modify ideas perceived as beneficial, and rejected and resisted others that did not. Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, Luiseño, and Serrano survival depended on their adapting to changed conditions and working as cowboys on the missions, Mexican ranchos, and American cattle operations. Not satisfied to only provide labor as cowboys for the benefit of others, they drew on their experiences to acquire and run their own herds and formed a new southern California Native American economy based on cattle. In so doing, they had asserted both personal and group sovereignty. Further, they incorporated the family traditions of cowboying that fathers and mothers gave to sons and daughters, as new-traditional and part of an evolving tribal identity.

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