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

Award-winning author Benjamin Madley discusses Indigenous genocide, resistance and survival in California.

An Achomawi basket-maker, photographed in California circa 1923.

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 militias.

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 violence.

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 in 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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