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California law school grapples with founder’s genocidal past

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 27: UC Hastings College of the Law building sign and banners are seen in San Francisco, California, United States on October 27, 2021. Serranus Hastings, founder of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, initiated the massacre of Native Americans in Round Valley, California more than 150 years ago. ( Tayfun Coşkun - Anadolu Agency )
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Oct 29, 2021 - 10:44 AM

WASHINGTON (AA) – The University of California’s Hastings law school is wrestling with the history of its founder and his legacy of mass killings of the state’s Native Americans.

The reckoning comes amid a New York Times report into Serranus Hastings, one of the richest men in California in the 1800s, and his involvement in the masterminding of at least one trove of massacres against Yuki Indians in the Round Valley.

An analysis of the state’s archives found that from the 1840s when California’s gold rush began through the 1870s, 5,617 Native people were killed by sanctioned militias and US troops. That figure is an undercount with some deaths likely going uncounted in official records, and thousands more Indians being killed by vigilante groups.

The violent purges were done at the behest of white settlers who coveted the Indians’ land.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that California state legislators established a state-sponsored killing machine,” Benjamin Madley, a University of California, Los Angeles history professor, told the Times.

Hastings’s state-sanctioned militia expeditions alone resulted in the deaths of at least 283 men, women and children, according to Madley’s tally, making it the deadliest of California’s two-dozen sanctioned militia campaigns.

Hastings would go on to donate $100,000 in gold coins to found Hastings’ College of the Law, and according to its enactment, the school was “to be forever known and designated as ‘Hastings’ College of the Law.”

The school has become one of the most prestigious in the state and has educated high-profile alumni, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has described the state’s treatment of Native American tribes as genocide and formally apologized in 2019 when he formed a Truth and Healing Council.

Investigations into the massacres Hastings committed began in 2017 after John Briscoe, a northern California attorney, published an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle arguing that the Hastings law school should be renamed given its founder’s history.

The school has responded in the interim by adopting a number of measures meant to establish some form of restorative justice, including providing pro bono legal assistance to all tribes in California’s Round Valley, allocating space for a memorial in the school’s main lobby and assisting in the formation of a charitable foundation, the Times reported.

Still, David Faigman, the chancellor and dean of Hastings Law, has resisted calls to rename the school, questioning the value of doing so, according to the Times, while maintaining that the final call ultimately rests with the state’s legislature and governor.

In a message to the school’s community, Faigman said the New York Times’ story “fairly explores the history of Serranus Hastings and the horrific acts he perpetrated in the 1850s in the Round Valley of Northern California.”

“These acts were unforgivable at the time and are unforgivable today,” he said.

But Faigman disputed the newspaper’s characterization of his position on changing the school’s name, saying it “was not accurately represented in today’s news story.”

“I and my colleagues have communicated regularly with elected officials in Sacramento about our efforts … and made clear that if changing the name is something the College needs to do to bring restorative justice and there is legislative action to facilitate that change, I will engage with that process in earnest,” he wrote.

“In the meantime, we continue to put our focus on what actions we can take now, with the direction of the Yuki People and RVIT,” he added, referring to the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT).

The Yuki people were eventually subsumed into the RVIT following decades of massacres and intermarriages with white settlers, as well as the forced relocation of seven other tribes to the Round Valley by the federal government, the Times reported.

That has led to disagreements about whom the school should be seeking to make amends — the Yuki people or the RVIT.

Mona Oandasan, one of the Yuki tribes’ leaders, said the school should not be negotiating with the RVIT, but with the tribe alone.

“As with any sovereign nation, there is no one unified voice of the RVIT, just as there is no one unified voice among the Yuki People, even on the issue of what to do with the name of the College,” Faigman wrote.

“That said, we have made all efforts to work with the Yuki People and RVIT on restorative justice efforts that can effectuate real change for their communities. All of our efforts are at the pace, readiness, and interests of the Yuki People and, where relevant, the RVIT community,” he added.

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