An Open Intercultural Conflict
The media spotlight has shone brightly on California’s new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the aftermath of a historical recall election. But another controversy in the state has remained quietly under the national radar screen—a community debate is growing in the city of Davis over a street that was named Sutter Place in the late 1990s despite protests by American Indian groups that continue to this day.
Sutter Place is named after Johann Augustus Sutter, the man who founded present-day Sacramento in the days of the California Gold Rush. History remembers him as “the father of Sacramento” and throughout present-day California there are many locations, buildings, and even wines named after him. But American Indians remember him for a different reason.
“I learned about him when I was probably in sixth grade. I knew Sutter was a prominent person,” explained Steve Jerome-Wyatt, a Washo/Northern Paiute Indian living in Davis. “But, for practical purposes, I first became aware of the man Sutter when I heard about the issue when I was attending D-Q University. That’s when the story broke about Mr. Jack Forbes and his concerns.”
Jack Forbes is a well-known Indian scholar who is a professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis. When he learned about the Davis City Council’s 1999 vote to rename the street, Forbes penned a column titled “Native Intelligence,” where he detailed Sutter’s gruesome history toward American Indians.
“One of the reasons that Sutter wanted to proceed to the Rio Sacramento, according to historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, was because he did not want Mexican officials to be able to interfere with his Indian policy, his methods of obtaining laborers,” writes Forbes. In fact, according to Bancroft, “[Sutter] was in the habit of seizing Indian children, who were retained as servants or slaves, at his own establishment, or sent to his friends in different parts of the country. But he always took care to capture for this purpose only children from distant or hostile tribes ...”
And Sutter’s misdeeds did not stop at enslaving Indian children. “Sutter’s possession of captive girls and boys coupled with his despotic power seems to have led to some serious abuses,” writes Forbes. “According to Heinrich Lienhard, a Swiss who lived at Nueva Helvecia … Sutter was a sexual predator against very young girls.” The Leinhard account is printed in his book titled A Pioneer at Sutter’s Fort, 1846-1850.
Jerome-Wyatt was sickened by Forbes’ findings, and he wanted the Davis City Council to realize these concerns. “Indian leaders took their protest over Sutter Place to the Davis City Council in the winter of 1999,” he explained. “By refusing to rename Sutter Place, we told the council, ‘what you are actually doing is honoring the legacy of a 19th century child molester.’”
Public record shows that the council refused to rename Sutter Place in a 3-2 vote, saying that renaming one street would start the council sliding down a “slippery slope” from which there would be no return. “The council said the Indians of Davis and Sacramento were only ‘wasting the council’s valuable time’ with such a trivial protest,” Jerome-Wyatt remembered.
“The Sutter Place name-change controversy only grew larger, from that point onward,” said Jerome-Wyatt. “It has developed into an open intercultural conflict—a conflict that lingers unresolved, to this day.”
Since 1999, many Indians have tried to convince the Davis City Council to reexamine its position. In March 2002 the University of California Davis’ student newspaper ran a story titled “Students From D-Q University Continue Efforts to Rename Sutter Place,” detailing the efforts of a new generation to have their voice heard on this issue.
Jerome-Wyatt believes it is crucial for Indian university students to be aware and take a stand against this injustice. “[University students] have a lot of energy and a lot of talent and a lot of ideas. We are going to teach our Indian people how to walk and how to fight and how to pray, and so therefore we are continuously telling the younger people ‘you could do this too, you already are involved whether you realize it or not because the struggles that we’re going through right now are going to fall directly on your shoulders once we get too old to carry on—all of this is going to be on you.’”
Despite his lack of success thus far, Jerome-Wyatt is not giving up. Throughout summer 2003 he focused his energy on reigniting the issue within Indian communities so that they may stand united against the Davis City Council. Jerome-Wyatt’s efforts were part of his work with the Affiliated Obsidian Nation, a 20-year-old group that patterns its ideology after the older way of doing things, in which people who want to make changes live by example. The Nation has had its share of accomplishments in promoting Indian justice, and Jerome-Wyatt hopes that will soon translate into success on the Sutter Place issue. “I figure if you break it down scientifically, we’re running at probably 85 percent, 90 percent of victories that we were able to claim in the name of American Indian people, and I think we’ve racked up a pretty solid record as far as what we set out to do,” he said.
One of the Nation’s biggest coups involved the “Injun Jim” elementary school name change controversy at the Plumas Unified School District in Quincy, California. “I hadn’t even lived up there for one or two years when the story broke about the name of their school,” explains Jerome-Wyatt. “It made me sick.” And, in the end, the school was renamed—the Nation had prevailed.
“We still have a very long way to go, however, before we get any cooperation from the Davis City Council,” says Jerome-Wyatt. “Like their predecessors of 1999, today’s Davis City Council regards the Sutter Place debate as a non-issue. So far, all we have heard from these people is silence. And by hiding their heads in the sand, the council is promoting and supporting institutional racism against American Indian people.”
Davis Mayor Susie Boyd said that the street is named Sutter Place because Sutter Hospital is located on the same road. “When the land [for the hospital] was annexed [to Davis], the small street that accesses the hospital from Covell Boulevard was named Sutter Place,” recalled Boyd. “The name was chosen by Sutter Hospital, presumably because it makes sense for Sutter Hospital to sit on Sutter Place.” Boyd did not recall any discussion of problems with the street name at the time of the annexation. “Many years later the council was asked to change the name of the street. We chose not to change it,” she said—and left it at that. Michael Harrington, who has served on the Davis City Council since 2000, clarified his position. “I am not hopeful for change in the near future, but I plan to ask that this item be agendized this fall for a hearing and vote,” he said. “I know the current mayor will not agree [as she voted against the change several years ago], but there are two newer [council] members who have never considered or voted on the issue.”
In a memo to the Davis city clerk and city manager dated April 17, 2001, Harrington expressed his continued disgust toward members who would not change their vote. “I feel that having the name ‘Sutter Place’ is equivalent to naming a street ‘Hitler Avenue,’” he argued. “Both caused many deaths and abuse of innocent civilian populations. I don’t believe that this city should honor such butchers.”
And Harrington said he believes that the financial costs for the city to make such a change would be minimal. “I understand that the businesses and professional offices on that street will have some expenses with printing new stationary, envelopes, [and] business cards. I would propose that the city receive some cost estimates for the [council] to consider.”
In October 2003, Harrington suggested that Jerome-Wyatt visit the council during a weekly public commentary session where speakers have about two minutes to discuss any subject. Jerome-Wyatt remembers his first encounter with the council all too well. “You know, we came one vote away from eliminating the name of Sutter Place,” he recalls. “Sutter Place’s name was eliminated when we first started protesting because three of the members of the city council had indicated that they were willing to honor our request. At the very, very last second, almost literally, one of those city council people changed her mind.”
Jerome-Wyatt does not want the council to get away with the “slippery-slope” argument again if a vote for change is indeed introduced by Harrington this fall. “There was a street at one time in Davis called Teller Place or Teller Avenue, and it was named after Edward Teller, the creator of the hydrogen bomb,” explained Harrington. “And the environmentalists and the peace activists in Davis, which are a heavy presence, they went to the city council and they said, ‘How can you have a street here named after a guy that created this device that killed hundreds of thousands of people? Change the name of the street.’” And the city council did just that.
“The city council will change the name of a street in Davis if white people ask them to change it, but if a bunch of ‘ragtag Indians’ from D-Q go to the city council and ask them the same thing, [they respond] ‘No because of this, no because of that,’” said Jerome-Wyatt with exasperation.
The Affiliated Obsidian Nation is not waiting for another “no.” Jerome-Wyatt, for one, plans to ask the city council to change the name one last time. When they refuse, as he said he expects they will, he will begin a hunger strike. He is hopeful that many more people will take notice of his commitment and focus their energy on the protest as his physical health wanes. “In the end, the city council is going to have to do some soul searching, but if they’re not reasonable people, it’s in the hands of fate,” he said.
“As long as that sign—Sutter Place—I see it everyday hanging on that streetlamp, that gives me the mental strength, ‘Another day of hunger strike.’” Jerome-Wyatt said. “That’s fine; you guys can ignore me—today. But pretty soon my health is going to start degenerating, and pretty soon somebody is going to start paying attention to this whole situation. And a day or a week or a couple of weeks is going to go by, and pretty soon you guys are going to have to deal with this because I am not backing up, I’m not going to give up.’”
Robert Capriccioso is a writer based in Washington, DC. He contributes to a number of publications, including Connect for Kids, American Indian Report, and News from Indian Country. He is currently working on his first novel.