It's time to acknowledge the genocide of California's Indians

Roundup
tags: Native Americans, genocide



Benjamin Madley is assistant professor of history at UCLA and the author of “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.”

Between 1846 and 1870, California’s Indian population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000. Diseases, dislocation and starvation caused many of these deaths, but the near-annihilation of the California Indians was not the unavoidable result of two civilizations coming into contact for the first time. It was genocide, sanctioned and facilitated by California officials.

Neither the U.S. government nor the state of California has acknowledged that the California Indian catastrophe fits the two-part legal definition of genocide set forth by the United Nations Genocide Convention in 1948. According to the convention, perpetrators must first demonstrate their “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” Second, they must commit one of the five genocidal acts listed in the convention: “Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

California’s Legislature first convened in 1850, and one of its initial orders of business was banning all Indians from voting, barring those with “one-half of Indian blood” or more from giving evidence for or against whites in criminal cases, and denying Indians the right to serve as jurors. California legislators later banned Indians from serving as attorneys. In combination, these laws largely shut Indians out of participation in and protection by the state legal system. This amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to those who attacked them.

That same year, state legislators endorsed unfree Indian labor by legalizing white custody of Indian minors and Indian prisoner leasing. In 1860, they extended the 1850 act to legalize “indenture” of “any Indian.” These laws triggered a boom in violent kidnappings while separating men and women during peak reproductive years, both of which accelerated the decline of the California Indian population. Some Indians were treated as disposable laborers. One lawyer recalled: “Los Angeles had its slave mart [and] thousands of honest, useful people were absolutely destroyed in this way.” Between 1850 and 1870, L.A.’s Indian population fell from 3,693 to 219.

It is not an exaggeration to say that California legislators also established a state-sponsored killing machine. California governors called out or authorized no fewer than 24 state militia expeditions between 1850 and 1861, which killed at least 1,340 California Indians. State legislators also passed three bills in the 1850s that raised up to $1.51 million to fund these operations — a great deal of money at the time — for past and future anti-Indian militia operations. By demonstrating that the state would not punish Indian killers, but instead reward them, militia expeditions helped inspire vigilantes to kill at least 6,460 California Indians between 1846 and 1873. ...




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