Missionary Zeal: County Supervisors Ban Indian Handgames in 1920

Missionary Zeal: County Supervisors Ban Indian Handgames in 1920
The Rev. Joseph G. Brendel worked with Fresno County Indians. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Lorenzo D. Creel, photographer

By Pepper Heredia

The Rev. Joseph G. Brendel worked with Fresno County Indians. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Lorenzo D. Creel, photographer

Some of the first farmworkers in the Central Valley were California Indians. Captured Indians plowed and tilled for the missions. After 1850, they were used in even greater numbers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Since 1850, they’d been coming down from the foothill and mountain to pick grapes and other crops for nearly 60 years when the Rev. Joseph Greenberry Brendel arrived in Fresno County.

This Baptist missionary believed the Indians needed saving from themselves—and White men’s vices. He would fight for their “social and moral redemption.”

When he and other missionaries saw the Indians playing handgames—Indian guessing games or gambling games—they decided this onerous and vile amusement had to go.

So Brendel led the fight to ban handgames in Fresno County. He took his fight to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 16, 1919.

“Open gambling, which just skirts a possible prosecution under the state law, is the curse of our Indians today,” Brendel said. He blamed moral decay and even murder on the handgames.

I was reminded of this when the Department of Justice recently decided to let American Indians from federally recognized tribes have eagle feathers. That includes about 120 tribes in the state.

Such decisions, for better or worse, are examples of the constant intrusion of governments—local, state and federal—into American Indian lives.

Historically, these actions have penalized Indians for being Indians. Imagine being sent to Alcatraz for refusing to send your kids to a dismal government school. Nineteen Hopi served time for their defiance.

What if you questioned an Indian agent’s policies? Natchez, Northern Paiute, did. He, too, went to Alcatraz.

Since the founding of the country, the government’s policy toward Indians has gone from annihilation to assimilation to relocation and termination to self-determination.

This eagle feather decision seems part of this latest phase. Here, separation of church and state for Indians is blurred. Indians need the government’s permission to have sacred eagle feathers. But non-federally recognized tribes, approximately 75 in the state as of July 2012, including some in this area, are excluded.

(Federally recognized tribes have more political clout—and are eligible for more services—from the federal government than those not recognized.)

The state, too, has committed crimes against Indians. Paying bounties for Indian scalps is one.

Another? Opposing the 18 treaties the federal government made with California Indians. The treaties were not ratified and the Indians were herded onto reservations, making it a cinch for the state and settlers to steal Indian land.

On April 22, 1850, the state legislature passed An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The Indenture Act, for short. About a year later, the Camp Barbour treaty was signed on the banks of the San Joaquin River. This led to the construction of Fort Miller. Second Lt. Tredwell Seymour Moore, 26, destroyed a Dumna village and built the fort on the site.

(Moore named the fort for his commanding officer, Major Albert S. Miller. Both Moore and Miller were alcoholics. Yet history describes them as swashbuckling, noble soldiers who sallied forth, risking death to wrest the country from wild savages.)

Miller, whom The Fresno Bee lauded as a “pioneer warrior” in an editorial on Oct. 3, 1937, titled “Pioneer Days in Fresno County,” died of alcoholism at Benicia on Dec. 7, 1852. He was 49.

Miller was a slaveholder. He and his brother, Richard, owned at least seven slaves in Madison County, Tenn., Miller’s home state. They were sold as part of probate. The slaves were Hanna, about 50; Charity, in her late 40s and “subject to fit”; Sarah, 35, who was blind and lame; Jordan, 20; June, about 56 or 57; Jack, about 26; and Napoleon.

Moore’s drinking landed him in the government’s Hospital for the Insane near Washington, D.C. He was diagnosed with mania a potu. John Billings’ National Medical Dictionary describes it as “mania following prolonged alcoholic excess; more violent than delirium tremens.”

Moore’s drinking contributed to his death on May 29, 1876, at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, in what is today Oklahoma. He was 51.

The Indenture Act was legalized slavery. Young Indians could be forced to work for Whites for several years. They worked as maids, servants, and farm and ranch hands.

That law wreaked havoc on California Indians, including those in the San Joaquin Valley.

“It has been estimated that about 10,000 Indians may have been sold or indentured between 1850 and 1863,” Robert Heizer wrote in his book, The Destruction of California Indians.

John Bidwell, a pioneer Chico rancher and state legislator, has been called a philanthropist and friend of Indians. He dreamed up the Indenture Act. His friends, John Muir and John Sutter, had low opinions of Indians, if not outright contempt. Bidwell opposed the 18 treaties.

Bidwell and his cronies needed Indian labor. He and two other state legislators, David F. Douglass and Mariano Vallejo, wrote the version of the act that became law.

Douglass served 14 months in prison for shooting a doctor to death in an armed confrontation in Arkansas. Vallejo’s reputation as an Indian fighter catapulted him into the high ranks of Californio government.

Most of the act was repealed in 1863. Until 1865, Indians could be lashed 25 times. Its Indian vagrancy laws were still in effect when Brendel came here in 1908 or 1909. Those laws were repealed in 1937, a few years before dynamite blasts on Nov. 5, 1939, heralded the start of construction of Friant Dam. More than 50,000 spectators cheered the groundbreaking.

The dam’s construction sealed the fate of the nearby Millerton Indian Rancheria and required Indian dead to be dug up and buried elsewhere. Sullivan, Burns and Blair, funeral directors, handled the exhumations.

Thanks to Brendel, local government, at least on the handgame issue, penalized the Indians he was supposed to save.

Brendel was a large, confident man with thick hair parted on the left, bushy eyebrows, deep-set eyes, a high, wide forehead and a thick curved mustache.

He seemed a robust, hearty man, full of certainty, missionary zeal and boundless energy. He often wore a rumpled and wrinkled suit. His slacks had cuffs about as wide as a man’s palm. His squared-off tie was clipped near the bottom. He usually wore a hat. Uncovered, he had a boyish, mischievous look.

He dressed formally, even when monitoring the Indians’ work in the fields or when he drove his Model T Ford convertible roadster to Indian communities in the foothills and mountains.

He wrote optimistic, glowing reports of his successes ministering to Indians. He and his fellow missionaries viewed medicine people as charlatans and roundhouses (ceremonial sites) as dens of inequity. To counteract the influence of the roundhouses, the Baptists built churches at Table Mountain, Sycamore, Auberry and Dunlap.

Brendel was proud of his efforts to make the Indians Christians. He’d become involved in many aspects of their lives, combining social work with religion, going among them, praising and cajoling them.

He vouched for them with the courts and judges.

“He mobilizes all the Indian labor available…takes it to the fruit regions…helps the Indians make their contracts, looks after their business interests,” wrote photographer Lorenzo D. Creel.

At one point, he supplied farmers with almost 500 workers. Did Brendel, wittingly or unwittingly, use Indian laborers to break strikes of the Agricultural Workers Union and other groups?

“We first devoted ourselves to seeing from what sources we could import labor,” Fresnan Setchel Flanders told the Pacific Rural Press in June 1918. It’s in Raymond P. Barry’s 1938 work, A Documentary History of Farm Labor in California.

“Then we changed our plans and devoted ourselves to the development of labor resources in this state, and therein we are finding our solution. We had to go to the Indian reservations and induce the Indians to harvest the crops.”

Brendel started an Indian band. He had Claude C. Laval photograph Indians, both at Brendel’s parsonage in Clovis and in the hills and mountains where the Indians lived.

The Fresno Morning Republican reported on Sept. 20, 1915, that Laval photographed more than 250 Mono and other Indians “to illustrate the handing down of Indian history and legends…the rites and ceremonies and the daily routines and pastimes of the tribes.”

Given this, it’s puzzling why four years later and 10 years after Brendel came here from working with the Pawnee, he wanted the handgames banned. Handgames are nearly universal among the tribes in this country. Surely, he’d seen the Pawnee play them.

The missionaries’ hospital in Auberry helped Indians through a 1917 influenza epidemic. Brendel persuaded the Board of Supervisors to hire a fellow minister and physician, Charles Lewis Trout, to treat the Indians and be reimbursed for his services. Most likely, the feds footed the bill.

Lafayette A. Dorrington, the Reno Indian agent, told the Office of Indian Affairs that nine of the 300 sick Indians here died of influenza.

He praised Brendel for his missionary work and heaped scorn on the Indians, calling them “a shiftless, drunken and immoral band.”

In a May 22, 1918, photo taken in Clovis, Brendel poses with a local Indian Red Cross chapter. In September 1920, it became illegal to play handgames in Fresno County.

Women earned the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified Aug. 18, 1920. One month later, Fresno County Indians faced fines and jail for playing handgames.

Brendel, his health failing, left the Valley in 1924. He died Feb. 11, 1926, in Long Beach.

Today, handgames flourish. Many tribes have handgame teams that play in tournaments for prize money. Handgame songs are on CDs and YouTube.

It’s poetic justice that some descendants of Indians who had their handgames banned now have casinos.

Brendel won the battle but lost the war.

Culturally, we are richer for it.


Pepper Heredia, Numa Toi Ticutta (Northern Paiute), is a freelance writer living in Fresno.


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