Press "Enter" to skip to content

California’s First Legal Indian Killer

Serranus Hastings

UC Hastings’ namesake, Serranus Clinton Hastings, is implicated in the massacre of hundreds of Yuki tribe members.

Hastings College of the Law was founded in San Francisco in 1878 as the first law department of the University of California. Its construction was seeded with a bequest of $100,000 in gold coins from the first chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Serranus Clinton Hastings.

Now, 144 years later, a bill before the California Legislature would strip the name Hastings from the school.

Rightly so.

AB1936 was introduced by Assembly Member James Ramos, D-Highland (San Bernardino County), the only Native American in the Legislature, and Assembly Member Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. The bill cites Hastings as having “promoted and financed Indian hunting expeditions in the Eden and Round Valleys, funding bounties resulting in the massacres of hundreds of Yuki men, women, and children.”

The Yuki were the original inhabitants of the Eden Valley in Mendocino County, where Hastings had purchased land.

The documented details of the killings in which Hastings is implicated are absolutely chilling. They include testimony from Hastings’ foreman, H.L. Hall, describing one raid in which “the infants were put out of their misery and a girl 10 years of age was killed for stubbornness.”

The slaughter was part of a broader, statewide war of extermination (the term “genocide” had not been coined) waged by white settlers against Native Californians in the 19th century. Mass killings, displacement, starvation and disease reduced the Native population in the state from more than 150,000 in 1846 to just over 16,000 by 1880. Hastings almost surely knew of the murderous campaign launched by his minions at the time it was occurring, and he did nothing to ensure their punishment after the fact.

The name Hastings College of the Law was written into the state Education Code on the school’s founding and, therefore, can be changed only by the Legislature. AB1936 was passed the Assembly on a 75-0 vote, and is now before the state Senate, where a vote is expected in August.

The board of directors of Hastings College of the Law, to its credit, has endorsed a name change.

Now the question turns to what the college should be called.

Under the leadership of Ramos, the Legislature has begun to consult, as required by AB1936, with legal representatives of the Yuki people regarding a new name. The college’s dean and chancellor, David Faigman, meanwhile, has said University of California College of Law, San Francisco is his preference.

For the Yuki people, however, that name is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, it merely recalls the earlier and even more widespread history of violence against and enslavement of Native Californians in the Spanish mission system. To many Native Californians, “San Francisco” evokes the same memories of death and destruction as “Hastings,” just from a different time and place. Restorative justice would not be accomplished by substituting one name with a horrific history for another with an equally horrific history.

The Yuki people have engaged in lengthy internal discussions over the past months to reach agreement on both a new name for the college and on an array of other restorative justice measures.

“Powe no’m” means “one people” in the nearly extinct language of the Yukis, originally referring to the unity of their seven subtribes. But it can just as easily evoke the unity of all people — appropriately reflecting the spirit of inclusiveness in which San Francisco prides itself.

We and many others now urge the board of directors of the college, which AB1936 charges with recommending a new name to the Legislature, to honor the Yuki people’s request to name the school University of California Powe No’m College of the Law.

The name UC Powe No’m College of the Law might be provocative to some. Yet 26 of our 50 states, and thus many public universities and law schools nationwide, bear names derived from indigenous languages. No one balks at the Universities of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Oklahoma or Hawaii, just to name a few.

Between individual tribes and tribal federations, scores of other California tribes are supporting AB1936. More than 40 UC Hastings alumni, from class years that span several decades and who call themselves UC Hastings Alumni for Justice and Accountability, also support the renaming to UC Powe No’m College of the Law.

The name powe no’m, every time it is uttered, will contribute incrementally to the revival of the Yuki language. Some, curious about its origins, will seek greater understanding of a dimension of California history that is largely unknown outside of Native communities.

If powe no’mat first rolls clumsily off nonnative tongues, that is a small price to pay to honor the Yuki ancestors, whose loss and suffering is the true source of the wealth underlying the college’s founding.

The college is a jewel in the crown of the city of San Francisco, with national renown as a center of legal learning. It has educated thousands of eminent lawyers, judges and civic leaders, including the current vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris. Its motto is “fiat justicia,” Latin for “do justice.”

The renaming is an opportunity for the college to enact its motto, to advance history, and, alongside the other restorative justice measures in the bill, to establish a statewide model for healing deep wounds still felt keenly among Native Californians today.

Fiat justicia, indeed.

(Steve Brown is the elected president of the Yuki Committee, part of the federally recognized Round Valley Indian Tribes. George Bisharat is an emeritus professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.)

5 Comments

  1. Scott Taubold July 3, 2022

    I support the changing of the college name from Hastings’ college to “Powe no’m” which means “one people” in the nearly extinct language of the Yukis, I would like to mention that I was on the Fort Bragg committee regarding changing the name of the Northern California town for eighteen months and was satisfied with the outcome of the committee for not recommending a name change. The issues of the two justice measures differ quite a bit. The local tribes in Mendocino County did not support the name change and had no proposed name if it was due to be changed. Canceling culture or restorative justice is not a simple issue and an across the board measure is not appropriate for every circumstance and location. It brings up many very complex issues.

  2. MA July 3, 2022

    I would say that reparations to the Yuki as well as other indigenous people before Spanish and white settlers, should be the next step.

  3. Pocahontas July 3, 2022

    Why not Powe No’m? If not, maybe the college board would consider John Wayne college of the law or Wells Fargo or Donald Trump. They wouldn’t be racist now would they? White American Racism lives on! Happy white fourth of July everyone.

  4. Margot Lane July 4, 2022

    …and on to Amherst College!

  5. Ned July 12, 2022

    Truly and virtuously modern these days is not only to be ignorant of the past but passionate about whatever the mob wants to erase and re-write. Seriously, how many in the mob know much about the last four hundred years? We’re all connected to trash talk and hardly aware of what went on before. So, why not just re-write everything so history doesn’t offend anyone and everything that happened before is all cleaned up. Nobody cared a hoot about the forgotten Yuki until an activist from the mob found something to exploit. Now we’re all delighted because we can be proud of correcting one of the sins of the past – ain’t we grand.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

-