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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Antonio Garra Day celebrates history of Native American resistance

The annual event celebrates the little-known history of 19th century Native American resistance leader Antonio Garra, the spirit of resistance of Native American people and their culture in Southern California.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Before the annual Antonio Garra Day celebration on Saturday, about a dozen people met at the El Campo Santo Sanctuary in Old Town San Diego to visit the grave of Garra, an advocate and organizer for the rights and sovereignty of Native Americans in Southern and Baja California in the 19th century. A bundle of sage burned in a coffee mug while The Lord’s Prayer was sung in the Cupeño language, accompanied by a traditional gourd rattle. A fitting tribute to Garra, and an affirmation of the continuance of the culture that his executioners tried to destroy.  

Garra was a leader and translator for the Cupeño people, a Native American group who lived in what’s now the Warner Hot Springs area in the northeastern part of San Diego County, in a tumultuous time in the early 1850’s right after California gained admission into the U.S. In need of revenue, the city of San Diego began collecting property taxes on Native American tribes in the area in 1850. Native communities agreed to pay the tax, but when the city came back in 1851 demanding an even steeper tax the communities refused, and the city began confiscating animals and property. Garra organized a coalition of Native nations spanning from San Diego to Baja California and out to the Colorado River, joining the Quechan people’s fight against the U.S. known as the Yuma War. 

With the Quechan, Garra’s forces stole a herd of sheep from Americans crossing the Colorado River. Five Americans were killed in the raid, which caused mass hysteria and paranoia when news reached San Diego. When Gara returned to the Warner Hot Springs area, a contingent of his forces attacked a ranch. The next day a volunteer militia of Americans from San Diego deployed to find Garra. Along the way the militia burnt down the Cupeño village of Cupa. They found Garra weeks later, and tried him for robbery, murder and treason, even though he was not a U.S. citizen. 

Garra was convicted of the robbery and murder charge, and was executed on Jan. 11 1852, by a firing squad composed of a contingent of the militia that destroyed Cupa and captured him.       

Garra’s last words, while forced to kneel in front of his open grave, were reported to be “Gentleman, I ask your pardon for all my offenses, and expect yours in return.” 

Elijah Duro sings The Lord's Prayer in Cupeño over the grave of Antonio Garra, a Native American leader who advocated and organized for the tribal sovereignty of Native American groups in Southern and Baja California in the 19th century, on an annual day of celebration of Garra and Native American history and culture in San Diego on March 18, 2023. (Sam Ribakoff/Courthouse News)

Elijah Duro, who sang a rendition of The Lord’s Prayer in the Cupeño language at Garra’s grave, said it was his first time visiting the gravesite. He said growing up in Pala on the Pala Band of Mission Indians territory, where the Cupeño people were forced to live after being exiled from the Warner Hot Springs area in the 20th century, he was aware that there had been a revolution and resistance to encroachment on Native territory, but he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the revolution until doing research on the internet on his own as a teenager. 

“For me, his story is telling me don’t ever forget our culture,” Duro said. 

In the mid-1990s Garra’s wanted posters were hung up in First San Diego Courthouse Museum. At first local Native American groups asked the courthouse to take the wanted posters down but later lobbied the courthouse to keep the posters up to expose visitors to “true history,” said Eric Ortega, one of the organizers of Antonio Garra Day and Cupeño member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

“If we made them take it down, then nobody would be talking about it,” Ortega said. “It’s stuff that needs to be told.”  

Local Native American leaders with members of the Old Town Courthouse and Museum Board began honoring the memory of Garra on the anniversary of his execution, and celebrating the persistence of Native American history, culture and people — spurring more research on Garra. The event has changed over the last 25 years' from first being a more informal gathering in front of the Old Town Courthouse to a more formal event with speakers at the plaza in the heart of Old Town San Diego.

Nobody knew who Garra was at the Old Town Courthouse when the posters were put up, said William Howatt, a member of the museum’s board and a retired San Diego County Superior Court judge, while speaking at the Garra Day event. 

“Our purpose is to let you know who this person was. He was a humane individual,” Howatt said. “He wasn’t the person described in that wanted poster, he was a much more prominent leader.” 

Howatt has since written multiple articles on the history of Garra’s trial for San Diego Lawyer, the San Diego County Bar Association’s magazine. 

California Assembly members Chris Ward and James Ramos, the first Native Native American member of the Assembly, offered speeches and San Diego Board of Supervisors member Joel Anderson presented a proclamation declaring an official Antonio Garra Day. Members of the Cupeño people, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, the Mojave people, and the Kumeyaay spoke about Indigenous history and resistance to colonization and attempts to stifle and repress Native culture in the region and performed Native songs and dances.

Fred Grand, the president of the Old Town San Diego Chamber of Commerce, who is Kumeyaay, said that all Native American people can relate to Garra’s story and his fight to resist colonization and the destruction of Native culture and people. 

Grand said he liked the idea of having the event in the middle of Old Town San Diego, the most popular state park in the country, where visitors could learn about Garra and Native American culture and history. It wasn’t until recently that Old Town has included Native American history and celebrated Native American culture, Grand added.

“It was a horrible, despicable thing to think about,” Grand said of Garra’s execution. Antonio Garra Day is a day to celebrate Garra, he added, “so we can never forget about what happened.” 

Categories / History, Regional

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