Sacramento pioneer John Sutter will go on trial this weekend in a production billed as the first Native American rock opera.
“Something Inside Is Broken” portrays the Swiss-German immigrant – who started the New Helvetia settlement that became Sacramento – as a human trafficker who kidnapped women and children and enslaved hundreds of Indians. The opera’s playbill: a wanted poster.
The opera will play Thursday and Friday at Sierra College before moving to Grass Valley and Auburn for two more performances.
“Learn the story not found in the history books,” said Jack Kohler, a Hoopa Valley tribal member who co-wrote the opera with Alan Wallace, a Washoe Indian from Auburn. Wallace teaches Nisenan, the original language of thousands of Maidu Indians who lived throughout the Central Valley.
The opera represents the first collaboration of members from half a dozen California Indian nations, and is the only musical theater production to use an all-native cast to portray Indians, Kohler said. Hoopa, Yurok, Maidu, Karuk, Konkow, Miwok and Wintu, along with Apache and Cherokee, perform key parts. They portray not only the Indian characters but also white men such as Sutter, Indian hunter Kit Carson and Army Capt. John C. Fremont.
Wallace used the opera as an opportunity to breathe new life into the nearly extinct Nisenan language. Ten of the production’s 18 songs are performed in Nisenan.
“Alan Wallace was teaching teenagers the Nisenan language at the Maidu Museum, and they all realized it was easier to learn the language if they sang it,” he said.
Funding for the opera came in part from the United Auburn Indian Community, which runs Thunder Valley Casino outside Lincoln. The Hoopa Valley Tribal Council’s nonprofit arm also contributed. An additional $9,533 has been raised on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
The opera draws on oral history, historical documents and fiction to tell the tragic love story of a chief’s son and a native girl enslaved at Sutter’s Fort, against a backdrop of massacres, beheadings and kidnappings, Kohler said.
Its narrative covers the sweep of California Indian history, including the 18 peace treaties Indian chiefs signed with the U.S. government in 1853 in exchange for 8 million acres of land. The treaties were never ratified, and by the time Congress finally considered appropriating money for rancherias in 1906, “all the good fertile land had been taken by settlers,” Kohler said.
“What the Indians got were bounty hunters paid $5 a scalp by the California Legislature.”
In writing the opera, Kohler relied on a written account by one of Sutter’s foremen, Johann Heinrich Lienhard, who said Sutter would kidnap native women and use them to pay debts.
Kohler quotes Lienhard’s book as describing Sutter as an alcoholic with an ugly temper. “In the anteroom adjoining his office a group of Indian women were invariably waiting,” he said. “According to rumor, they belonged to Sutter’s harem.”
He also alleged that Sutter “was pretty much a pedophile,” based on Lienhard’s account, which said girls as young as 10 belonged to Sutter’s harem.
The opera includes the haunting title song, “Something Inside Is Broken,” depicting the Indians’ pain and angst over what happened to their families and how one man working for Sutter betrayed his brother, who was in love with an Indian woman working as a servant.
Another song – “Shoot First, Lie Later” – is sung by actors playing Fremont and Carson, who is depicted in a wanted poster for the show as “the greatest Indian killer of all time.”
One Sutter scholar takes issue with the opera, saying Sutter himself wasn’t that bad – and certainly not by the standards of the time. Carson, for example, participated in the slaughter of 160 Indians near Red Bluff.
“There are several firsthand accounts to support the contention that Sutter paid the natives and treated them more fairly than they were treated by other white people in California,” said anthropologist Steve Beck, the history and education expert at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park.
Sutter’s own New Helvetia diary shows he “cared deeply about his Indian laborers, paid them and certainly didn’t kill any of them for not showing up for work, as Indian oral history reports,” Beck said.
He said the diary mentions the execution of Rufino, chief of the Mokelumne, but that was as punishment for murdering his cousin.
Beck said he thoroughly researched Native American claims about Sutter in 2006 when the city of Davis changed the name of a city street from Sutter Place to Risling Court, after the founder of UC Davis’ Native American Studies program. He said Lienhard’s account, penned 30 years later, was filled with contradictions, and Lienhard was jealous of Sutter.
“Doesn’t it seem odd that all of these Valley entities include Sutter in the name of their place, organization, or business, including Sutter Health, if he was such an evil enslaving pedophile?” Beck said.
Something Inside Is Broken
Performances: 8 p.m. May 12-13 at Dietrich Theater, Sierra College; 8 p.m. May 14, Center for the Arts, Grass Valley; 4 p.m. May 15, State Theater, Auburn.
Ticket price: $10 students, $20 adults
For tickets and information go to www.somethinginsideisbroken.com