Native Labor: Work and Resistance

Finding the agricultural demands of citrus to be more than advertised, Riverside settlers searched for cheap labor to make their economic dreams a reality. In addition to the use of other marginalized groups, growers continued the tradition of Native labor exploitation, set forth by the Spanish missionaries. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Riverside growers filled their labor demands by hiring indigenous peoples from local camps to work in the citrus groves. Citrus labor was not restricted to adults and children often worked alongside their parents.

Boys at Sherman Institute

Boys at Sherman Institute, circa 1915

“Boys in Uniform at Sherman Institute, Circa 1915,” photographer unknown, Sherman Indian Museum

Growers also sought laborers from the nearby Indian boarding school, Sherman Institute (now Sherman Indian High School). In 1901, the federal government established the off-reservation boarding school in Riverside with the aim of “civilizing” Native youth. Through a program of cultural immersion, school administrators encouraged the students to shed their “heathen” ways by speaking only English, learning basic academics, and training for a vocation. However, the largest part of the program at Sherman Institute involved student labor. In addition to their daily lessons in and out of the classroom, students provided all of the labor on site, including laundry, cooking, masonry, carpentry, gardening, and farm work.  Functioning as an employment agency, Sherman Institute also provided local companies, such as the Riverside Orange company and Fontana Farms, with student labor as needed.  By 1913, hundreds of male students lived and worked all over Southern California, mainly in agricultural ranches. Employers segregated workers according race, with Sherman students falling under the category of “Mexican” and as such, they received less wages than their white “Native born American” counterparts. In 1926, seventy-four students from over fifteen tribes worked at Fontana Farms, which by 1928 had grown into one of the largest farms in California. Student laborers working in the groves faced harsh conditions. Crowded into inadequate housing, the young men worked long hours in all seasons, sometimes year-round.

While the citrus groves of the Riverside represented training possibilities and labor for the students, the groves also provided a space for resistance and cultural preservation. Students and other Native workers often used the surrounding groves to speak their languages, sing songs, and tell stories away from the watchful eyes of Sherman Institute administration and the local community. A number of students escaped into the groves, running away from school and authorities to pursue different paths. In the groves, Native peoples were able to preserve their traditional practices and to resist forced cultural assimilation.