In northern California, about 35 miles from Sacramento, is a small casino with a surprising — and controversial — link to Hawaii.
The Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians operates the Red Hawk Casino on land set aside for it more than 100 years ago by the federal government.
But for nearly two decades now, people who have a beef with the tribe — county officials and residents who opposed the casino, family members engaged in a custody battle with tribal members — have unsuccessfully argued that the tribe doesn’t belong in the area.
They say the tribe isn’t really Miwok. It’s Hawaiian.
“They were known as the lost tribe of kanakas,” Marilyn Ferguson, who runs a small historical museum in the nearby town of Placerville, told Civil Beat last summer. “They are not our Indians. They’re not local.”
Offshore Season 4: Far From Home focuses on the Hawaiian diaspora. Host Kuʻu Kauanoe takes a hard look at why Hawaiians are leaving the islands today and tells surprising stories from history about Hawaiians who left long ago.
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The story of the tribe — whose members have both Native American and Native Hawaiian ancestors — is a fairly well-documented, though often overlooked, part of California and Hawaiian history.
We traveled to California last summer to talk to the tribe about its Hawaiian heritage for Offshore, our serialized storytelling podcast. But a spokeswoman for the tribe canceled an interview with tribal elders and declined all requests for comment after we asked questions about lawsuits involving the tribe.
So how did the descendants of a group of Hawaiians end up owning a casino in California?
To get an answer, we dug through court records, social media posts, current and historic newspaper articles, and talked to several historians. Here’s what we found.
In 1839, a Swiss businessman named John Sutter recruited a small group of Hawaiians to travel with him to what was then the Mexican colony of Alta California.
The Hawaiians who worked for Sutter are the most well-known Hawaiian laborers to travel to the west coast in the 19th century.
But by the mid-1800s, there were hundreds of Hawaiians in what is now Canada and California. In 1847, Hawaiians made up 10% of San Francisco’s tiny but growing population.
The presence of Hawaiians helped white settlers dominate a world where they were vastly outnumbered by indigenous tribes.
It was a tough spot to be in. On the one hand, Hawaiians were helping with the conquest of the West. On the other hand, they were also second-class citizens who had a lot in common with the Native Americans they encountered.
“Hawaiians first of all fought against American Indians,” says historian and author Gary Okihiro. “But Hawaiians also formed alliances with American Indians. And I think largely because they were both racialized in the same way, that is as non-white people.”
Hawaiians helped Sutter build a fort near present-day Sacramento. Then came the Gold Rush.
“Gold was a disaster because it created the gold rush, which created this onslaught of colonialism and it broke the whole world,” says David Chang, a Native Hawaiian historian at the University of Minnesota.
Though Hawaiians were likely the first outsiders to see gold sparkling in the bottom of a stream at Coloma, California, they were quickly pushed out of the goldfields.
In the aftermath of the gold rush, many Hawaiians stayed in California. And as they settled in California, a number of Hawaiian men married local indigenous women. Which, it turns out, was a common occurrence up and down the West Coast.
“It’s true in the goldfields. It’s true in the fur trade. Why is that true? Why did that happen so much?” Chang asks. “White supremacy was creating common spaces, if you will, as all brown-skinned people — Asian people, American Indian people, Mexican people, Native Hawaiian people — were pushed out.”
In 1862, a newspaper reporter who had spent time living in Hawaii, was surprised to stumble upon a small fishing village near what is now Verona, California.
He counted 24 Hawaiians, mostly men, and a number of Indian women who — though from California and not Hawaii — were fluent in Hawaiian.
It was an impoverished community. But Chang says, it was also a worldly and multicultural community.
“These children are growing up in a mixed community. They’re probably trilingual,” Chang says. “They’re going to know the food ways of their mothers. They’re going to know the adapted food ways of their fathers. They’re going to know this culture.”
Over the next 50 years, occasional references to the community near Verona popped up in newspapers.
Then in 1916, an agent with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs traveled to California looking for landless and destitute Indians.
The agent recorded a number of Miwok families living in the Placerville area and called those people the El Dorado Band.
Then he visited the group near Verona — about 50 miles away. According to letters from the time, the group at that point was mostly made up of extended family members. A few Hawaiian men and their wives — local Miwok and Maidu and one white woman.
The spit of land they lived on was small. It nearly disappeared when the river swelled from rain. They lived on fish and marsh birds. Bought meager food supplies from town by delivering fish to markets and individual houses nearby.
The agent dubbed this group of Indians the Sacramento-Verona Band of Homeless Indians and suggested buying land for them.
“They seemed open to banding together,” he wrote. And would be excellent candidates for the federal government’s plan to “colonize and civilize Indians” in California.
There was a bit of government pushback from the BIA, which didn’t want to purchase land for a group that included Hawaiians. Eventually, they decided they would purchase the land for the Native Americans in the group, but that admission to the tribe for Native Hawaiians would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Land in Sacramento was deemed too expensive, so the government purchased 160 acres in El Dorado county, right next to an 80-acre parcel meant for the El Dorado Miwok Indians.
But the Sacramento-Verona tribe didn’t move to the 160-acre parcel. For decades the land sat fallow and unused.
Then in 1970, the BIA reached out to the descendants of the group dubbed the Sacramento-Verona tribe to see if they wanted to sell the uninhabited land that had been set aside for their families.
They opted to keep the land. And then something remarkable happened.
They came together as a tribe. Built homes on the land. A church. A community center. Negotiated with the state to get highway access to the land. They renamed themselves the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.
And they started making plans to open a casino. That’s when things got heated.
Not everyone wanted the Shingle Springs Band to open a casino in the area.
Before the casino opened in 2008, residents in the area argued it would have undue traffic and environmental impacts.
At one point, the county filed a lawsuit to try and block casino construction, arguing that the tribe should never have been given federal recognition. That they were Hawaiian, not Native American. The case was dismissed, in part because the statute of limitations for contesting federal recognition had passed.
The Miwok families that the Bureau dubbed the El Dorado Tribe in 1916 lost their land decades ago. Now, some of their descendants say it’s unfair for the Shingle Springs Band to have taken Miwok as part of its name. Unjust — and perhaps a misinterpretation of the law — for them to have tribal land in the area.
However complicated their origins, the tribe’s sovereignty has been upheld repeatedly in court.
And through it all — from the ancestors who eked out a meager living on the riverbank to their descendants who moved into towns and lived with friends on other reservations — the band has maintained a connection to its Hawaiian culture and heritage.
According to newspaper articles, the tribe celebrated the opening of its casino with a mixture of Native American dances and Hawaiian songs.
Today, there’s nothing visibly Hawaiian at the casino. But the tribe’s connections to Hawaii are clear in other ways.
There are social media posts celebrating their Hawaiian and Miwok and Nissenan connections. Stories in local newspapers about supporting Hawaiian sovereignty from abroad. Posts about building Hawaiian-style canoes out of trees native to California. Pictures of home decorations bearing indigenous American and Hawaiian words.
Rick Adams, a tribal elder we were supposed to meet in July, traces his origins back to those original 10 Hawaiians who went to California in 1839 with John Sutter.
Adams told the Sacramento Bee in 2009, that his Native American ancestors survived the gold rush because of the protection they received by marrying Native Hawaiians — a group that, though marginalized, had far more rights than Native Americans did at the time.
But it was his Native American ancestors that gave the group something Native Hawaiians do not have: Sovereignty.
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