The University of California-Hastings College of Law has moved forward with changing its name due to its namesake, Serranus C. Hastings, having ordered massacres of the Yuki people, an indigenous community of Mendocino County, in the 1850s.
On Wednesday, June 27, 2022, the board recommended removing Hastings and replacing it instead with “San Francisco” to be known as UC College of the Law, San Francisco. The board’s recommendation must now be approved by both houses of the California State legislature and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom becoming effective in January 2023.
Stories of the slaughter ordered by Hastings were examined by UC Hastings in 2020 and they confirmed his culpability in the genocide of Yuki Indians. A New York Times article in November 2021 painted a vivid historical picture of the slaughter and soon after the Board of Directors committed to changing the name.
In the following months, the name change efforts languished as staff, students, and alumni pushed back. California Assemblyman James Ramos, the first Native American assemblyman in the state’s history, would author Assembly Bill 1939 to force the university’s hand in scrubbing Hastings from its name.
Wednesday’s Board of Directors meeting was the culmination of this work and they chose to name their institution after San Francisco to recognize the city that “best embodies the College’s core identity”. Also, using the name of the university’s location was consistent with the naming conventions of the rest of the University of California system. Polling of staff, students, community members, and other stakeholder groups indicated a strong preference for the name as well.
But, the descendants of those massacred by Hastings are dissatisfied with the new name. Round Valley Indian Tribe leaders and a select contingent of its members with Yuki ancestry referred to as the Yuki Committee met with university leadership over the last two years advocating for a name that honored the First Nations of California.
Instead, Nickole Whipple, a member of the Yuki Committee, told us that the choice of San Francisco demonstrated the Board of Directors was “honoring us, one tribe, the Yuki, and offending the entire State of California Indians by renaming to San Francisco.”
San Francisco is not merely a geographic reference for California’s Indigenous people, Whipple argued, “In Indian Country, the name glorifies the Mission Era which is offensive to all Natives, representing the history of Westward Expansion, Peace Policy, and Assimilation and Allotment eras.”
To Whipple’s point, San Francisco’s Mission San Francisco de Asís, a Spanish mission founded in 1776, has an estimated 6,000 graves of Native Americans buried in its vicinity. They died of disease and the cultural disruption typical of the mission system.
The Yuki committee proposed the university adopt a Yuki language word as its name: Powen’om. A word of indigenous origin that means “one people” would demonstrate the university’s commitment to indigenous people.
UC Hastings offered several reasons why they did not choose Powen’om as the new name. In a press release, the university described the Round Valley Indian Tribal Council as supporting the removal of Hastings but was ambivalent about its replacement. They went on to state that descendants of the Yuki people were said to have a “range of views”, including not changing the name or using a geographic name.
Pitting the valuesproprieties of one tribe against another, the university also said members of the Ramaytush Ohlone, the tribe native to the land the college is located, expressed that “naming an institution on their ancestral land in the language of another tribe would create great offense.”
The Board of Directors was instructed by Assembly Bill 1939 “to submit a recommendation to the Legislature only after consultation with representatives of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and its designees of the Yuki Indian Committee.” Citing the perspective of other tribes to justify their denial of a Yuki-language name could very well put them at odds with the very legislation that directed their efforts.
Whipple told us that since Powen’om was proposed, the university officials were against it, “because they believed it to be offensive to their students, their alumni, and future students who may struggle to speak what they referred to as a foreign language that was taken from the Yuki People by their namesake.”
The historical narrative of Serranus C. Hastings published in the New York Times and subsequent news coverage is troubling. Hastings, a significant figure in the formation of California. He was the state’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1849 owning significant landholdings in northeast Mendocino County including most of what is now called Eden Valley.
Hastings managed his land from a distance, hiring a man named H.L. Hall as his boots on the ground. Hall hired Yuki tribal members as laborers and reportedly mistreated them and denied them their pay.
Hastings reportedly got word that a group of Yuki had slaughtered his favorite horse for meat. In response, Hastings vowed to rid Mendocino County of its native people. On Hastings’s orders, Hall and a band of men would kill any natives they came upon. There is documentation that they poisoned a community’s food stock with strychnine.
Hall reportedly said in an 1860 disposition that, “infants were put out of their misery, and a girl 10 years of age was killed for stubbornness.”
In 1859, Hastings wielded the privilege of his political position and convinced California Governor John B. Weller to approve the formation of a militia that would go on to eradicate the natives. The Eel River Rangers were formed and systematically killed an estimated 1,000 Mendocino county natives that year.
UC Hastings Professor of Law Marsha Cohen has been an outspoken dissenting voice since early on in the name change process. Her initial objections were essentially financial in nature. With the cost of the name change estimated between $2 to $3 million dollars, Cohen argued why not instead invest those funds into services that would more directly serve the Yuki people.
After the New York Times coverage of Hastings and his history, Cohen began exploring alternative perspectives on Hastings’s role in the genocides. Cohen’s research has found the historical record offers “no incontrovertible proof that he knew of the atrocities perpetrated by the militia” or about his “ranch manager’s propensity for killing wantonly in the course of protecting livestock.” In fact, Cohen pointed toward records of Hastings being the dissident voice in a California Supreme Court decision centered around a Native American man’s ability to own property. Hastings alone would argue for the man’s humanity.
In no way did Professor Cohen deny the atrocities wrought on California’s indigenous people, “Clearly lots of EVIL was perpetrated on the natives, including the Yuki, in those years.” But, she argued, this public wrangling about Hastings gave Governor Gavin Newsom’s Truth and Healing Council a product born of their mission to reconcile historical crimes and modern sentiments. Hastings has fallen on the sword for California’s original sins, Cohen argues.
In a way, Nickole Whipple and other Yuki’s problems with the name San Francisco touch on a similar theme as Professor Cohen’s. The history of California’s Native Tribes is not just in the hands of Hastings but was crushed under multiple waves of colonial powers vying for power and dominance.
For Nickole Whipple and other members of the Yuki Committee, their efforts are not over. Hastings’s name might be gone, but, they feel, the law school’s Board of Directors chose a name that evokes the colonial genocide that killed thousands of indigenous people and contributed to the loss of their ways of life. brought by the Spanish mission system.
On August 1, 2022, the California State Senate will review the Board of Directors’ recommendation and either affirm or deny their choice. Whipple and others will be there to make sure their voices are heard.