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The Hidden History of How California Was Built on Genocide

History professor Benjamin Madley has written the first comprehensive investigation of the catastrophe that befell California's Indigenous population from 1846 to 1873: a catastrophe that was entirely man-made. An American Genocide catalogs the killing of tens of thousands of Native people during those years, and proves just how complicit the Californian and United States government were in the slaughter. Order this important book by donating to Truthout today!

Modoc chief Kintpuash photographed by T.N. Wood in 1864. Kintpuash and his family were among the Modoc removed from California by the United States in 1864; his leadership of Modoc and attempts to return and resist led to his capture and execution by US., Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center, Los Angeles; Public Domain)

Editors' note: In his introduction, the author states "Where sources create uncertainty as to tribal identity, I follow the twenty-first-century California Indian practice of using the term Indian or California Indians." Truthout's policy is to use the terms Indigenous or Native for articles by non-Native authors and we have made that change in this interview.]

The genocide of California's Indigenous nations was the foundation upon which settler colonialism built the "Golden State." In this interview, historian and author Benjamin Madley argues that understanding the 19th century genocide in California will assist scholars in "re-examining the larger, hemispheric Indigenous population catastrophe."

Mark Karlin: Can you define what constitutes "genocide" and the origin of the term?

Benjamin Madley: In 1943, the legal scholar Raphaël Lemkin coined a new word for an ancient crime. Defining the concept in 1944, he combined "the Greek word genos (tribe, race) and the Latin cide," or killing, to describe genocide as any attempt to physically or culturally annihilate an ethnic, national, religious or political group. In 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide more narrowly defined genocide as:

Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a)  Killing members of the group;

(b)  Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c)  Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d)  Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

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(e)  Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Convention thus provides a clear, internationally recognized rubric for evaluating instances of genocide, including historical cases not subject to legal jurisdiction. First, perpetrators must evince "intent to destroy" a group "as such." Second, they must commit at least one of the five genocidal acts against one of the four protected groups.

In what ways was the killing of California's Native population that occurred in the mid-1800s a genocide? How many Indigenous Californians were killed?

The California catastrophe fits the two-part legal definition set forth in the UN Genocide Convention. First, perpetrators demonstrated, in word and deed, their "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such." Second, they committed all five genocidal acts listed in the convention. "Killing members of the group" occurred in more than 370 massacres, as well as in hundreds of smaller killings, homicides and executions. Sources indicate that from 1846 to 1873, vigilantes, state militiamen and soldiers killed at least 9,492 to 16,094 California [Natives], and probably many more. By way of contrast, California [Natives] killed fewer than 1,500 non-[Native Americans] during this period.

But direct killing was not the only case of this demographic catastrophe. In the book, I argue that starvation, exposure, diseases and other factors also caused thousands of deaths while suppressing demographic recovery. In total, historical demographers and most historians estimate that California's [Native] population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000 during these years.

Other acts of genocide proliferated, too. Many rapes and beatings occurred, and these meet the Convention's definition of "causing serious bodily harm" to victims on the basis of their group identity and with the intent to destroy the group. The sustained military and civilian policy of demolishing California [Native] villages and their food stores while driving [them] into inhospitable desert and mountain regions amounted to "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

Some Office of Indian Affairs employees administering federal reservations in California committed the same genocidal crime. Further, because malnutrition and exposure predictably lowered fertility while increasing the number of miscarriages and stillbirths, some state and federal decision-makers also appear guilty of "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

Finally, the state, slave raiders and federal officials were all involved in "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group." Three thousand to 4,000 or more California [Native] children suffered such forced transfers. By breaking up families and communities, forced removals also constituted "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group." Sufficient evidence exists to designate the California catastrophe a case of genocide, according to the UN definition.

Who were the perpetrators of the genocide?

Elected California officials were the primary architects of annihilation. State legislators created a legal environment in which California [Natives] had almost no rights, thus granting those who attacked them virtual impunity.

Moreover, two state governors threatened annihilation, and both governors and elected officials cooperated in building a killing machine. California governors called out or authorized no fewer than 24 state militia expeditions between 1850 and 1861, which killed a minimum of 1,342 California [Native] people. State legislators also raised up to $1.51 million to fund these operations. By demonstrating that the state would not punish [these] killers, but instead reward them, state militia expeditions inspired an even greater number of vigilante killings. Finally, in 1863, after the US Army supplanted the state militia as the primary state-sponsored [Native]-killing force, California legislators passed a bill allowing the state to raise an additional $600,000 to encourage more men to enlist as California Volunteers.

[But] the state of California did not act alone. The US Army played a crucial part in the California genocide, first creating the exclusionary legal system, then setting genocidal precedents, helping to build the killing machine, participating in killing and finally taking control of it. In total, US Army soldiers killed at least 1,688 to 3,741 California [Natives] between 1846 and 1873.

If state legislators were the architects of genocide, federal officials helped to lay the groundwork, became the final arbiters of the design and ultimately paid for most of its official execution. By 1863, the federal government had given California more than $1 million for its militia campaigns. Of course, by 1863, the US Army had taken over as the primary state-sponsored killer, and Congress controlled that institution's budget. Indeed, federal legislators paid for some or all of many lethal campaigns against California [Natives] that began in 1846 and concluded in 1873.

You state in your conclusion, "The direct and deliberate killing of [Natives] in California between 1846 and 1873 was more lethal and sustained than anywhere in the United States or its colonial antecedents." What led to this appalling distinction?

Based on available research, the direct and deliberate killing of [Natives] in California between 1846 and 1873 was more lethal and sustained than anywhere in the United States or its colonial antecedents. Yet, as I argued in the book, there remains a need for additional detailed studies addressing the question of genocide in other regions and among other peoples within and beyond the United States. The variables present in the California genocide did not recur in precisely the same combination, or at the same intensities, in the histories of other Native American peoples. We need to build on our existing knowledge, with new research, in order to understand the full picture for the United States, North America and the Western Hemisphere. That said, this book presents a workable methodology for examining potential cases of genocide in the Americas and beyond.

Why do you think we are taught in school about historical events like the gold rush and the transcontinental railroad, but so little about the massacre of California's Native population?

This is a profoundly disturbing story with high stakes for scholars, California [Natives] and everyone living in the Western Hemisphere. If US citizens founded some regions of California, if not the state as a whole, on deliberate attempts to annihilate California [Natives], scholars will need to re-evaluate current interpretive axioms and address new questions. Scholars could, for example, re-examine the assumption that indirect effects of colonization, like diseases, rather than deliberate actions, like murder, were the leading cause of death in encounters between newcomers and California [Natives].

Exceptionalist interpretations of US history lose validity as researchers compare California to other mass killings around the globe. A careful study of genocide in California will also assist scholars in re-examining the larger, hemispheric Indigenous population catastrophe. Where scholars document a genocide, it will be necessary to evaluate what roles governments and private individuals played, as well as whether or not the event was part of a recurring regional or national pattern. Larger questions then follow. What tended to catalyze genocide? Who ordered and carried out the killing? Why do we not know more about these events? Did democracy drive mass murder and, ultimately, did genocide play a role in making modern Canada, Mexico, the United States or other Western Hemisphere nations?

The genocide question is particularly urgent for California's approximately 150,000 [Natives]. Should they press for government apologies, reparations and control of land where genocidal events took place? Will tribes marshal evidence of genocide in cases involving tribal sovereignty and federal recognition? How should they commemorate victims of mass murder, while also emphasizing accommodation, resistance, survival and cultural renewal?

The psychological issues related to genocide are also fraught. What happens if a tribal member learns that she or he is a descendant of both perpetrators and victims? How might California [Natives] reconcile increased knowledge of genocide -- sometimes at the hands of the United States -- with their often-intense patriotism? Finally, what role might acknowledgement of genocide have on the "intergenerational/historical trauma" prevalent in many California [Native] communities, and that trauma's connection to present-day physical illnesses, substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide?

The question of genocide in California under US rule also poses explosive questions for all US citizens. Should government officials tender public apologies, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did in the 1980s for the relocation and internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II? Should federal officials offer compensation, along the lines of the more than $1.6 billion Congress paid to 82,210 of these Japanese Americans and their heirs? Might California officials decrease their cut of California [Natives'] $7.3 billion annual gaming revenues (2014) as a way of paying reparations?

A better understanding of the California genocide might also impact the federal government's dealings with the scores of California [Native] communities currently seeking federal recognition. The question of commemoration is closely linked. Will non-[Natives] support or tolerate the public commemoration of mass murders committed by some of the state's forefathers with the same kinds of monuments, museums and state-legislated days of remembrance that today commemorate the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust? Will genocides against California [Natives] join these mass murders in public school curricula and public discourse?

These questions are important, but can be addressed only in limited ways without a comprehensive understanding of relations between California [Natives] and newcomers from 1846 to 1873.

What is the myth of inevitable extinction?

The myth of inevitable extinction conveniently displaced agency from human beings to amorphous forces, such as Providence, fate and nature. This myth falsely but convincingly absolved both individuals and white society as a whole of moral responsibility for the destruction of Native Americans in general and California [Natives] in particular.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010. BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles (ranging from the failed "war on drugs" to reviews relating to political art) for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout's Progressive Picks of the Week. Before linking with Truthout, Karlin conducted interviews with cultural figures, political progressives and innovative advocates on a weekly basis for 10 years. He authored many columns about the lies propagated to launch the Iraq War.