State Indian Museum

  Date Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

Only 5 percent of California's collection of Indian artifacts is displayed in this 75-year-old adobe museum.

Only 5 percent of California’s collection of Indian artifacts is displayed in this 75-year-old adobe museum.

Just over 75 years ago, the California State Indian Museum opened in downtown Sacramento. Today, it reflects how California has treated its native people, in that the museum is largely overlooked and ignored.

The State Indian Museum, a 4,000-square foot adobe building near Sutter’s Fort (2618 K St.), has always been inadequate to the task of telling the full story of California’s first nations. It was never large enough to display the State’s vast collection of Indian artifacts. Though that deficiency has been made worse by the State’s procrastination in replacing the existing museum.

A new 125,000-square-foot, $150 million museum, to be called the California Indian Heritage Center, was proposed in 1991 and was supposed to open this summer on a West Sacramento site at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers.

It will not. The project is stalled. It lost inertia following leadership changes at California State Parks, redevelopment agency restructuring in West Sacramento, uncertainty regarding responsibilities to clean contamination from the proposed site, and time-worn enthusiasm to see the project through.

Gloria Sandoval, California State Parks (Parks) Assistant Public Information Director writes that “Parks is committed to finding a permanent home for the California Indian Heritage Museum. Parks has been working with the California Indian Heritage Foundation and the City of West Sacramento to acquire the proposed site for the museum that was selected by the California Indian Heritage Task Force.

“The long-term vision of the museum includes the development of a library, archives, tribal treasures, resident artist space, offices, classrooms, an amphitheater, indigenous gardens, trails, public access to the Sacramento River and parking.”

Despite the statement, it’s been 25 years since the new museum was first proposed and 30 since new exhibits were last installed. Supporters say the only thing that might move the project to create a new museum forward, at this point, is executive action by Governor Jerry Brown.

Here’s what Governor Brown should consider.

Completing the California Indian Heritage Center would not only help right a long-festering wrong, but it would identify California as creating one of the most important museums to the American Indian in North America and provide a major new attraction that would become an economic force for the region and point of pride for all Californians.

The State of California has more than 3,000 California Indian baskets in storage, and that’s just the baskets. Presently, only about five percent of the State’s archives of Indian artifacts are displayed in the existing museum. California Indian regalia, weapons, tools, dress, treaties, music, utensils and more remain under wraps, because the museum lacks the space and facilities to display them.

Further, exhibits within the California State Indian Museum haven’t changed significantly since the mid 1980s. They are now showing their age. Though, even when they were first installed, they weren’t state-of-the-art.

At the time the museum’s current exhibits were installed, the California State Railroad Museum, with its life-sized, interactive depictions of California railroading, had already been open for ten years, and museums like the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada and the Burke in Seattle were full of visitors eager to experience dramatically designed and lit environments that inspired veneration for native art, architecture, culture and achievements.

The idea of immersing and engaging visitors in the historical experience was then practiced and understood by the California State Parks, but it was never implemented at the State Indian Museum. Instead, its exhibits of rare Indian dress, ceremonial regalia, baskets, tools and tribes remain largely mounted inside glass boxes with dry descriptions and photographs identifying them.

The artifacts inside the museum’s white-washed adobe walls are important, beautiful and educational (and every Californian should see and understand them to fully understand our collective story), but they fall far short of telling the dramatic history of California’s Indians. They are unanimated and dull in comparison to how we otherwise receive information and are entertained, today.

Contemporary museums like the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC and New York City present the native American story in artistic, reverential and compelling ways. The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, OK presents the emotional story of the “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of people from their ancestral grounds to “Indian Territory.” California has equally beautiful native arts and crafts and as emotionally dramatic a story, but has no museum worthy of its collection and history.

What is missing is the retelling of 10,000 years of California’s human history and how it evolved. Native people estimate that California was once populated by a million or more Indians, who were distributed among 60 major tribes and 300 communities.

In the 100 centuries before the arrival of European explorers, California Indians established distinctive tribal traditions, languages, religions, dress, customs, tools, ceremonies, arts, politics, legends, architecture and music. They intermarried, warred and traded with other tribes, up and down the Pacific coast.

Then, men in search of conquest, salvation, freedom and fortune arrived from Europe and from across the continent, carrying disease, greed and power for which California’s isolated and relatively powerless populations had no immunity or defense.

Thereafter, tribal life was disrupted by illness, missionary settlement, loss of traditional foods (due to the transition of wild lands to farm and range lands), destruction of traditional lands by mining, and state-sanctioned attacks on Indians, and California’s native population declined from over one million to just 30,000 inhabitants.

That is one hell of a story. It is one that should be told, particularly by the State of California.
To help establish the California Indian Heritage Center, write to Governor Jerry Brown. And, to learn more about the State Indian Museum, visit: or

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