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James Ramos: CA’s first Native American state lawmaker

Assemblymember James Ramos, D-Highland, 40th Assembly District. (Photo: jamesramos.org)

For California’s Native Americans, times change — but sometimes very slowly.

One big change: the historic election of James C. Ramos, 52 to the state Assembly’s 40th District in the Inland Empire.

First, some background:

The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought some 300,000 rough and ready adventurers to California seeking their fortunes.  It also brought disaster to Native Americans. An estimated 100,000 of them died during the first two years of the Gold Rush alone; by 1873, only 30,000 indigenous people remained of an original population estimated at 150,000.

To all appearances, extermination was state policy.

It took 169 years after the heyday of the Forty-Niners for California to elect its first Native American to the Assembly.

On January 6, 1851 at his State of the State address to the California Senate, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, said this:  “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”

In 1852, U.S. Sen. John Weller — who became California’s governor in 1858 — told his Senate colleagues that California Native Americans “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man … the interest of the white man demands their extinction.”

It took 169 years after the heyday of the Forty-Niners for California to elect its first Native American to the Assembly. Ramos, a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County and a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe, won his seat on Nov. 6, 2018.

Ramos, a Democrat, represents a district that includes San Bernardino, Loma Linda, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands.

Earlier, in 2011, he achieved another first, becoming the first Native American appointed to the State Board of Education by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

He grew up in a mobile home in a poverty-stricken area, working in fast-food restaurants and as a janitor. Nonetheless, he  acquired an AA degree from Victor Valley College, a bachelor’s degree in accounting from CSU San Bernardino and then a Master of Business Administration from the University of Redlands.

Ramos’s political career is replete with firsts. He was the first Native American to be elected to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, and, earlier, to the San Bernardino Community College Board of Trustees (2005-2012.)

Ramos had served as a county supervisor since 2012. In 2015, he was unanimously elected as board chairman.

Earlier, in 2011, he achieved another first, becoming the first Native American appointed to the State Board of Education by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

Ramos’s most recent bills signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom include expanding school district suicide prevention policies that are age appropriate to kindergarten and grades 1 through 6 , and another requiring crime victims and their attorneys to be made aware of early termination of probation.

On June 18, Newsom signed an executive order acknowledging and apologizing for the state’s mistreatment of Native Americans.

He has been married to his wife Teri for 29 years. They have four children and three grandchildren.

California is now working to make up for its horrific record of persecution.

On June 18, Newsom signed an executive order acknowledging and apologizing for the state’s mistreatment of Native Americans. The executive order included the creation of the Truth and Healing Council with consultation from California Native American tribes who are to work with the Governor’s Tribal Advisor and Administration regarding policies that may affect tribal communities.

“As the first California Indian elected to the state Legislature, I applaud the executive order signed by Governor Newsom today to issue a formal apology from the state for past cruel treatment of Native Americans. This action will go a long way to start the healing process between the state and Native American communities throughout California … This historic acknowledgment by the Governor marks the beginning of a new relationship between the state and the more than 700,000 Native Americans who make the State of California their home,” Ramos said in a prepared statement.

Tribal leaders from across California met on the day of the signing.  Ramos sang a traditional bird song.


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