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Indians of California

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by O. P. Fitzgerald

    The Digger Indian holds a low place in the scale of humanity. He is not intelligent; he is not handsome; he is not very brave. He stands near the foot of his class, and I fear he is not likely to go up any higher. It is more likely that the places that know him now will soon know him no more, for the reason that he seems readier to adopt the bad white man's whisky and diseases than the good white man's morals and religion. Ethnologically he has given rise to much conflicting speculation, with which I will not trouble the gentle reader. He has been in California a long time, and he does not know that he was ever anywhere else. His pedigree does not trouble him; he is more concerned about getting something to eat. It is not because he is an agriculturist that he is called a Digger, but because he grabbles for wild roots, and has a general fondness for dirt. I said he was not handsome, and when we consider his rusty, dark-brown color, his heavy features, fishy black eyes, coarse black hair, and clumsy gait, nobody will dispute the statement. But one Digger is uglier than another, and an old squaw caps the climax.
     The first Digger I ever saw was the best-looking. He had picked up a little English, and loafed around the mining-camps picking up a meal where he could get it. He called himself "Captain Charley," and, like a true native American, was proud of his title. If it was self-assumed, he was still following the precedent set by a vast host of captains, majors, colonels, and generals, who never wore a uniform or hurt anybody. He made his appearance at the little parsonage on the hill-side in Sonora one day, and, thrusting his bare head into the door, he said:
    "Me Cappin Charley," tapping his chest complacently as he spoke.
     Returning his salutation, I waited for him to speak again.
     "You got grub--coche carne?" he asked, mixing his Spanish and English.
     Some food was given him, which he snatched rather eagerly, and began to eat at once. It was, evident that Captain Charley had not breakfasted that morning. He was a hungry Indian, and when he got through his meal there was no reserve of rations in the unique repository of dishes and food which has been mentioned heretofore in these Sketches. Peering about the premises, Captain Charley made a discovery. The modest little parsonage stood on a steep incline, the upper side resting on the red gravelly earth, while the lower side was raised three or four feet from the ground. The vacant space underneath had been used by our several bachelor predecessors as a receptacle for cast-off clothing. Malone, Lockley, and Evans, had thus disposed of their discarded apparel, and Drury Bond and one or two other miners had also added to the treasures that caught the eye of the inquisitive Digger. It was a museum of sartorial curiosities--seedy and ripped broadcloth coats, vests, and pants, flannel mining-shirts of gay colors and of different degrees of wear and tear, linen shirts that looked like battle-flags that had been through the war, and old shoes and boots of all sorts, from the high rubber water-proofs used by miners to the ragged slippers that had adorned the feet of the lonely single parsons whose names are written above.
     "Me take um?" asked Captain Charley, pointing to the treasure he had discovered.
     Leave was given, and Captain Charley lost no time in taking possession of the coveted goods. He chuckled to himself as one article after another was drawn forth from the pile which seemed to be almost inexhaustible. When he had gotten all out and piled up together, it was a rare-looking sight.
     "Mucho bueno!" exclaimed Captain Charley, as he proceeded to array himself in a pair of trousers. Then a shirt, then a vest, and then a coat, were put on. And then another, and another, and yet another suit was donned in the same order. He was fast becoming a "big Indian" indeed. We looked on and smiled, sympathizing with the evident delight of our visitor in his superabundant wardrobe. He was in full-dress, and enjoyed it. But he made a failure at one point--his feet were too large, or were not the right shape, for white men's boots or shoes. He tried several pairs, but his huge flat foot would not enter them, and finally he threw down the last one tried by him with a Spanish exclamation not fit to be printed in these pages. That language is a musical one, but its oaths are very harsh in sound. A battered "stove-pipe" hat was found among the spoils turned over to Captain Chancy. Placing it on his head jauntily, he turned to us, saying, Adios, and went strutting down the street, the picture of gratified vanity. His appearance on Washington Street, the main thoroughfare of the place, thus gorgeously and abundantly arrayed, created a sensation. It was as good as a "show" to the jolly miners, always ready to be amused. Captain Charley was known to most of them, and they had a kindly feeling for the good-natured "fool Injun," as one of them called him in my hearing.
     The next Digger I noticed was of the gentler (but in this case not lovelier) sex. She was an old squaw, who was in mourning. The sign of her grief was the black adobe mud spread over her face. She sat all day motionless and speechless, gazing up into the sky. Her grief was caused by the death of a child, and her sorrowful look showed that she had a mother's heart. Poor, degraded creature! What were her thoughts as she sat there looking so pitifully up into the silent, far-off heavens? All the livelong day she gazed thus fixedly into the sky, taking no notice of the passersby, neither speaking, eating, nor drinking. It was a custom of the tribe, but its peculiar significance is unknown to me.
     It was a great night at an adjoining camp when the old chief died. It was made the occasion of a fearful orgy. Dry wood and brush were gathered into a huge pile, the body of the dead chief was placed upon it, and the mass set on fire. As the flames blazed upward with a roar, the Indians, several hundred in number, broke forth into wild wailings and howlings, the shrill soprano of the women rising high above the din, as they marched around the burning pyre. Fresh fuel was supplied from time to time, and all night long the flames lighted up the surrounding hills which echoed with the shouts and howls of the savages. It was a touch of pandemonium. At dawn there was nothing left of the dead chief but ashes. The mourners took up their line of march toward the Stanislaus River, the squaws bearing their papooses on their backs, the "bucks" leading the way.
     The Digger believes in a future life, and in future rewards and punishments. Good Indians and bad Indians are subjected to the same ordeal at death. Each one is rewarded according to his deeds.
    The disembodied soul comes to a wide, turbid river, whose angry waters rush on to an unknown destination, roaring and foaming. From high banks on either side of the stream is stretched a pole smooth and small, over which he is required to walk. Upon the result of this post-mortem Blondinizing his fate depends. If he was in life a very good Indian he goes over safely, and finds on the other side a paradise, where the skies are cloudless, the air balmy, the flowers brilliant in color and sweet in perfume, the springs many and cool, and the deer plentiful and fat. In this fair clime there are no bad Indians, no briers, no snakes, no grizzly bears. Such is the paradise of good Diggers.
     The Indian who was in life a mixed character, not all good or bad, but made up of both, starts across the fateful river, gets on very well until he reaches about half-way over, when his head becomes dizzy, and he tumbles into the boiling flood below. He swims for his life. (Every Indian on earth can swim, and he does not forget the art in the world of spirits.) Buffeting the waters, he is carried swiftly down the rushing current, and at last makes the shore, to find a country which, like his former life, is a mixture of good and bad. Some days are fair, and others are rainy and chilly; flowers and brambles grow together; there are some springs of water, but they are few, and not all cool and sweet; the deer are few, and shy, and lean, and grizzly bears roam the hills and valleys. This is the limbo of the moderately-wicked Digger.


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