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Ripon roots led to lifetime focus on Indians

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Ripon roots led to lifetime focus on Indians

David Stuart, director of the San Joaquin Historical Society, spoke before the Ripon Rotary.

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin


POSTED April 30, 2014 1:06 a.m.

David Stuart’s passion for Indian history in California and Ripon is the result of him having been a third grader in Mavis Stouffer’s class at Ripon Elementary School.

Stuart, an anthropologist who serves as director of the San Joaquin County Historical Society, shared his vocation and passion with the Ripon Rotary Club during a recent meeting at the Spring Creek Golf and Country Club.

Stuart said he learned so much when he was in Stouffer’s class. He noted the teacher’s enthusiasm for the history of the early Native Americans stuck with him into his adult life.

He recalled being taught in the third grade how the Indians made the bricks they used for building materials.  He noted the Stouffers’ ranch along the Stanislaus River that is now known as Stouffer Park after they donated it to the community.  Stuart noted an early maintenance building that stands near the playground structure was made of bricks that Wes and Mavis Stouffer created Indian style with their own hands.

Stuart worked as a ranger at Caswell State Park where he introduced visitors to the region’s Indian history. In all, more than 1,000 tribes once called California home.  

Stuart has headed the historical society for the last seven years. He told of a $500,000 grant that allowed for expansion of the Native People of San Joaquin County display at the museum at Micke Grove Park.  He said there is no other place that focuses on the history and pre-history of the Native Americans in the valley as does the county historical society. 

He has just completed a 75 page document focusing on the early Indians that he hopes to turn into a book format.  

Stuart shared that there are so many untrue stereotypes about California Indians such as “all Indians are alike.”  

Stuart explained that Indians on the northwest coast are quite different than those who are living and have lived in the Central Valley. There is limitless language diversity and some 300 dialects of the many different tribes.  

“They were organized into many sovereign nations,” he pointed out.  

There are some 100 recognized tribes in California today.

“The Native Americans came here some 13,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age,” Stuart said. “There were a lot of lakes here in the valley at that time and the sea level was 300 feet lower then.  There was no Delta and the rivers went into the ocean beyond what we know today as the Golden Gate.”.

“This was one of the major regional cultures in California and was the first major immigration when the lakes were drying up.  These people were the Miwok’s ancestors who spread to the Bay Area and to the foothills, being an important homeland for California Indians,” Stuart noted.

He added that the Central Valley was more densely populated – rich in culture and development. They had the riparian habitat and valley oaks as resources along with the seeds from the grasslands they cultivated.   The grasslands seeds were as important to them as the acorns, he said.

The Pacific Flyway coming through the region also supplied abundance in waterfowl for their consumption.

Stuart said another stereotype about the California Native Americans was that they were lazy because of the mild climate they enjoyed.  They were seen as having been docile through the 1950s, he recalled, but they were managing the landscape more than we knew over that period.

“They had a sustainable approach with controlled burns in areas up to 15 miles across.” he said. “They knew how to plant and maintained some 500 species of plants.”.

While they were basket weavers they obtained their pottery by trading with other tribes. California Indians have been lauded as the best basket weavers in the world. 

“By the time photography came along they were pretty much wiped out,” he said.  “Since they had no immunity to the European diseases some 90 percent of the population was gone.” 

He further explained that trappers who came down the valley from Sacramento to Fresno inadvertently brought malaria with them. On return trips they found only a handful of Indians still living plus countless corpses.

The advance of Americans and Europeans into California was met with resistance.

Mission San Diego was burned. The Indians saw the priests as demons in their midst and a number were killed.  In 1824 there was a major revolt in the coastal areas where the Spanish deployed cannons on land. They blasted the Indians who exercised military tactics and dug trenches to withstand the soldiers coming from the Presidio and from San Jose.

Chief Stanislao became the first chief of the Stanislaus tribes and resisted the Spanish intruders. The soldiers finally returned to Mission San Jose where the chief and his band of men were pardoned by the government.

“He became a folk hero and carved an ‘S’ at the site of his raids,” Stuart said. “They may be where the Zoro story came from.”

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