[News] California's Indigenous History Is a Story of Genocide and Resistance

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 15 14:51:12 EST 2020


  California's Indigenous History Is a Story of Genocide and Resistance

Chris Steele - January 12, 2020

Every inch of North and South America is Indigenous land. With 
Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, its mythological history 
still needs to be debunked, and a true discussion of the violence of 
settler colonialism and empire needs to happen. Award-winning historian 
Benjamin Madley is author of /An American Genocide: The United States 
and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873/ 
In this interview, Madley discusses the genocide of Indigenous people in 
California, as well as stories of resistance, trauma and commemoration.

*Chris Steele:* *The main thesis of your book is that you name settler 
colonialism in the U.S. for what it was, which was full-on genocide, 
where calls for extermination were made and committed. Your research is 
meticulous; can you speak about the implications of your research that 
shows that genocide was not only committed by vigilantes, but by the 
state government and the federal government? Can you give a summary of 
how all those topics interconnected in California?*

*Benjamin Madley: *When I was a graduate student at Oxford, I came 
across reports of massacres in California, and this connected for me 
with the stories I’d heard as a boy growing up in a little town called 
Happy Camp on the Klamath River in far northern California, where Karuk 
and Shasta people had told me about the killings that took place there. 
I’d always wondered if those were localized massacres or if they 
happened elsewhere in the state. What I found in the research is that in 
general, California’s Indigenous population plunged perhaps from 150,000 
people to just 30,000 survivors between 1846 and 1870 and certainly, 
diseases, dislocation and starvation caused many of these deaths, but 
what I found was this was not the near-annihilation of a people simply 
based upon the unavoidable result of two civilizations coming into 
contact. It was, in fact, genocide, sanctioned and facilitated by 
California officials.

I’m referring very specifically to the definition that is put forth in 
the UN Genocide Convention of 1948. In order for a prosecutor to 
successfully convict a defendant of the crime of genocide, they have to 
prove two things beyond a reasonable doubt. The first thing that they 
have to prove is that the defendant evinced intent to destroy in whole 
or in part a national ethnic, racial or religious group as such; and 
second, they have to prove that the defendant committed at least one of 
the five genocidal acts specified in the convention. These include 
killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to 
members of the group, deliberately inflicting harm on the group, 
conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction in 
whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent birth within the 
group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

When people speak about genocide, they’re usually speaking about a 
state-sponsored policy, and when California’s first legislature convened 
in 1850, one of the very first things that it did was to ban all Native 
Americans from voting, and then they banned Indigenous people with 
one-half of Native blood or more from giving evidence for or against 
whites in most civil and criminal cases, and they denied Indigenous 
people the right to serve as jurors. Then they banned Native Americans 
from serving as attorneys and justices, so when you think about what 
that means, in combination, these laws largely shut Indigenous people 
out of participation in (and protection by) the state legal system, so 
this amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to would-be Native-killers. 
That’s kind of the first stage, and that’s similar to some other 
genocides — that targeted victim groups are denied protection or 
participation in the legal system and are stripped of any political 
rights as well.

Then in that same year, 1850, the government legalized unfree Indigenous 
labor; this led to a truly genocidal slave system. It had multiple 
genocidal impacts. First of all, when slave raiders would arrive at a 
village, they would typically kill anyone who resisted, anyone who tried 
to run away, and many of the older men and women, and then people would 
be marched away to be sold, and anybody who tried to escape or resisted 
during that process also was usually killed. Once people got to the 
place where they were going to be sold, they were scattered, so it would 
be very difficult for the community to reproduce itself either 
biologically or socially, and finally, when people reached the places 
where they would work as unfree laborers they were often treated as 
disposable and worked to death.

Between 1850 and 1870, Los Angeles’s Indigenous population fell from 
3,693 to just 219 survivors. Slavery played a huge part in this 
genocide, but there was also a state-sponsored killing machine, and it 
was built by state legislators, so what they did was to authorize no 
fewer than two dozen separate state militia expeditions against 
California Native people between 1850 and 1861 which killed at least 
1,340. They paid for this by passing three different bills in the 1850s 
that raised over one-and-a-half million dollars — a huge amount of money 
at this time in history, both for past and future militia operations. It 
was important because this policy transcended the number of people that 
it killed directly, by demonstrating that the state government would not 
punish killers but instead actually reward them.

These militia expeditions and the policies that supported them helped 
inspire huge numbers of vigilantes to go out on their own killing 
sprees, and they took the lives of an absolute minimum 6,460 Indigenous 
people in California between 1846 and 1873. The U.S. Army and its 
auxiliaries also killed at least 1,680 Native Americans in California 
during these years, and that institution was of course directly funded 
by Congress, but Congress also reimbursed the state of California for 
most of the money that it spent on hunting Indigenous people through its 

*I wanted to take a step back and look at the Indigenous culture that 
you speak about as well. To quote you, “California stands out as one of 
the most linguistically diverse places on Earth.” Can you speak more 
about the significance of this?*

To me, California on the eve of contact with Europeans is this amazingly 
exuberant clamor of many different Native American economies, languages, 
tribal nations and individuals, and we know that Indigenous people had 
worshipped and loved and traded and fought in California for at least 
12,000 to 15,000 years. It’s a very diverse series of economies. For 
example, if you look at the region west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 
one of the keystone foods would be the acorn, but if you go east of the 
Sierra Nevadas and east of the Cascade Range, it’s likely to be the 
piñon nut or pine nut.

Political organizations, likewise, extraordinarily varied. With some 
tribal nations having systems of inherited chiefdoms, some of them have 
one leader or multiple leaders, and it’s also very decentralized — so 
very different from what we think of as an Anglo-American system of 
government — and it’s also a very densely populated place. Scholars 
estimate very conservatively that at the time the Spaniards first 
arrived in California in 1769 to begin colonizing the land, there were 
at least 310,000 Indigenous people living here, and they were organized 
into as many as 500 or more different individual political units, 
individual groupings.

It was a very complicated kaleidoscope to look into it as a researcher, 
and even today it’s extraordinarily complex. There are 109 federally 
recognized California tribes, but also scores of other tribes that are 
not recognized by Washington, D.C., but which are recognized by the 
state of California. Then there are many other tribes which are 
recognized neither by the federal government nor by the state 
government, but which are currently seeking recognition by both. In 
California, Congress would summarily terminate tribal nations as tribal 
nations, and many of those tribes that were terminated are still 
struggling to be reinstated by the federal government.

*In your book, you’re very meticulous about showing every life that was 
lost that you could document. *

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one has grief, and when you think about 
that grief and you multiply it by hundreds and by thousands and by tens 
of thousands, then you begin to understand why it’s so important to 
document the loss of each and every life.

When I was a graduate student first working on this back at Yale, I was 
walking through the rotunda — the famous space all in white marble with 
plinths that record the names of every Yale graduate, women and men who 
have fallen in all the wars that the United States has been involved in, 
and its British colonial antecedents since Yale began in 1701, and I 
stood there for a long time one morning thinking, /Will there ever be a 
monument like this to all of the California Indigenous people killed 
between 1846 and 1873?/ I hope that one day there will, but I thought to 
myself that morning, /I can do something like that by honoring the 
fallen, at least on paper./

In the hardback edition of my book, there are nearly 200 pages of 
appendices, which document every killing of a California Native American 
by a non-Indigenous person and vice versa. This is my small contribution 
to creating a memorial. Not as spectacular of course as Maya Lin’s 
Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., but it was my attempt to try to 
commemorate the fallen, and perhaps on a more practical (less 
philosophical) level, I hope that it is a useful research tool for 
educators, for students and for tribal citizens who wish to know more 
about this history, because I list where possible the names of the 
fallen, the date on which their lives were taken from them, where the 
event took place, and the sources where I found the information. There’s 
a great deal of data there for someone who is interested in learning 
more about what happened.

*As far as Indigenous resistance in the book, regarding 1829, you write, 
“By repeatedly burning buildings, killing Spaniards, Mexicans and their 
allies and escaping in large numbers, California [Indigenous people] 
established a tradition of resistance to colonialism and helped to pave 
the way for their own emancipation.” Is that what your next book is 
about as well?*

The next book is a bit different, it’s about the gold rush, but it is 
more about survival and about agency. We don’t know a great deal about 
[Indigenous resistance] because people often lost their lives while 
resisting. There are many stories in this book of Native American men 
and women who fought back to buy time for children and elders and loved 
ones to escape, and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice in order to 
facilitate those escapes. When we think about the resistance, it was 
courageous and incredible. You have to remember that relatively small 
numbers of Indigenous people in California were being pursued by 
relatively large numbers of state militiamen, regular United States Army 
soldiers and sometimes paid scout bounty hunters, and they found 
incredible ways to resist.

The dark cloud of genocide hangs over California history, and yet, if 
there is a silver lining, it’s that triumph of survival against really 
impossible odds. It’s the preservation of languages and cultural 
traditions despite not only the genocide of 1846 to 1873, but the 
educational assault that followed hard on its heels, whereby children 
were taken from their homes to be educated in boarding schools up and 
down the state; but there, too, Indigenous people resisted. They 
resisted by withholding their children from enrolling; children who were 
enrolled resisted by running away and escaping back home. Indigenous 
students set fire to the boarding schools in which they were held, so 
that resistance continued, and that resistance also was part of the 
impetus for closing some of those schools.

*As of right now, we’re seeing a rise in right-wing leaders across the 
world that spout racial epithets, and these things can quickly slip into 
violence and genocide. As a historian, how do you see this current 
moment and what’s going on?*

One thing that I believe quite strongly is that there is no safe level 
of racism. As you yourself just said, it is a slippery and surprisingly 
quick ride from “casual” racism to institutionalized racism, to race 
laws, to state-sponsored violence against certain groups, and then to 
genocide, and that’s one thing that I feel quite certain about after my 
decades of studying in this field. I do think that at least for now, we 
still live in a democracy. One of the important ways that an educator 
can combat these problems is by telling the truth about the past. When 
people begin to understand how this kind of awful history has unfolded 
again and again around the world (many times in our own lifespan), 
people, I think, will become more cautious, and they may develop more 
empathy and a sense that it is a quick link between rhetoric and actual 

*What are California Indigenous tribes proposing to commemorate these 
genocides and even the topic of what reparations should be brought?**I 
know this should be spoken about by Indigenous communities, but based on 
your research and your conversations, what are your thoughts on this and 
memorials for Indigenous populations?*

I think there are multiple tracks to commemoration. One is 
state-sponsored commemoration, and of course, here in California our own 
governor, Gavin Newsom, has recently publicly apologized for this 
genocide and he has also called for this genocide to be included in our 
state public school curricula. That’s one track for education. There 
have been no major public calls that I’m aware of on a state level for 
commemoration, but Newsom did recently change on a statewide level 
“Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Commemoration in terms of plaques and monuments tends to happen on a 
more local level, but there are very few plaques and memorials 
commemorating massacres in California, and where they are in place, they 
are often quite controversial, and sometimes an old plaque stands 
commemorating something as a battle next to a new plaque which 
commemorates it as a massacre. That said, you raised a very important 
point, which is that Native communities in California are themselves 
commemorating these things, both publicly and outside of the public eye. 
There are, for example, candlelight vigils in places like Duluwat Island 
in Humboldt Bay off the coast of the city of Eureka. Eureka recently 
gave that island back in its entirety to the Wiyot people. There is a 
candlelight vigil that happens every year to commemorate a huge massacre 
that took place up in Del Norte county.

There are also walks and runs; for example, there is a walk that happens 
each year to commemorate the Konkow Maidu Trail of Tears from the area 
around Chico moving west toward Round Valley Reservation in southern 
Mendocino County. There are a number of different things going on, but 
of course there’s much more that needs to be done.

Pomo folks and Wappo folks up in Lake County, California, have tried to 
use [petitions to garner] ballot measures to get the name of Kelseyville 
changed (which is named after slave owner Andrew Kelsey), as it’s quite 
a painful name for a lot of people. That has not yet been successful, 
but towns named after some of the more obviously genocidal governors 
from this period have been changed. It’s an ongoing process but it’s 
something that happens, that all of us can be involved in, because at 
least for now, we’re still a democracy, so people can be involved in 
changing their local education system and they can also be involved in 
political movements to change place names.

/This interview //first appeared/ 
audio form as a segment on the author’s podcast, “Time Talks.” It has 
been lightly edited here for clarity and length. /

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