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April is Genocide Awareness Month, Part I

It’s called genocide. That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.

–Governor Gavin Newsom

The term “genocide,” made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, nation or tribe) and the Latin caedere (killing, annihilation) was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish legal scholar, in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It originally means “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.

On Tuesday, June 18, 2019, California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology to California’s Native American communities on behalf of the state for a history of repression and violence. The governor’s proclamation was part of a cultural moment in which Americans were increasingly grappling with the nation’s past sins.

The governor signed an executive order, ( the first broad-based state apology for past atrocities against Native Americans. This formal apology was followed by his commitment to establish a Truth and Healing Council to provide Native Americans a platform to clarify the historical record and work collaboratively with the state to begin the healing process. Governor Newsom decreed, “California must reckon with our dark history. California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history. We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.”

In the early decades of California’s statehood, the relationship between the state and the original people was fraught with violence, exploitation, dispossession, and the destruction of Native communities. In 1850, California passed a law called the “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians,” which facilitated removing original people from their traditional lands, separating children and adults from their families, languages, and culture, and creating a system of indentured servitude as punishment for minor crimes such as loitering.

Between 1850 and 1859, governors of California called for private and militia campaigns against Native peoples in the state. In 1851, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, told the Legislature to expect war “until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Subsequently, the state authorized $1.29 million in 1850’s dollars to subsidize these militia campaigns.

In 1856, the State of California issued a bounty of $0.25 per Indian scalp. In 1860, the State of California increased the bounty to $5.00 per Indian scalp.

Governor Newsom recounted from a 19th century published chronicle a tally of Indian deaths, including an account of a white settler who chose to kill children with a revolver instead of a high-caliber shotgun because “it tore them up so bad.”

Settlers were also allowed to take orphaned Indian children. One man brought in several children and was asked, “How do you know they’re orphans?” He replied, “I killed their parents.”

In California, the academic Benjamin Madley, a historian at UCLA, was instrumental in sparking the conversation in California in the years prior that led to Mr. Newsom’s apology. Madley authored the book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 in 2016. After the book was first published, Madley spoke at Barona Cultural Center & Museum. Buy your own copy at Barona Cultural Center & Museum—mention this blog and receive a 20% discount on your book!

Debra Haaland, at the time a New Mexico congresswoman who is Native American, and now Secretary of the Interior, said, “Anything we can do to right past wrongs I think is meaningful. This country was founded on genocide. For California it was a lot worse because it happened so much later than it did for the rest of the country.”

Despite these horrific wrongs, California’s original people resisted, survived, and carried on cultural and linguistic traditions defying all odds. Now, at the direction of Governor Newsom and wanting to work in collaboration with California’s Native communities, the state seeks to more closely explore the historical relationship between the State of California and its original people in the spirit of truth and healing. The Truth and Healing Council is led and convened by the Governor’s Tribal Advisor, Christina Snider, and will include representatives and delegates from California Native American groups, relevant state and local agencies and other relevant non-governmental stakeholders. The Council will report draft findings to the Governor’s Tribal Advisor on an annual basis beginning January 1, 2020 and produce a final written report of findings regarding the historical relationship between the state and Native Americans on or before January 1, 2025.

When you hear the word “genocide,” the original people of what is now California might not have been the first thought in your head. Certainly, other cultural groups have suffered, but it’s important to bring awareness to our history so that it is not repeated.

Learn more about our history each week in April, this is part one of a four-part blog series.

Cowan, Jill, ’It’s Called Genocide’: Newsom Apologizes to the State’s Native Americans, The New York Times, June 19, 2019.

Governor Newsom Issues Apology to Native Americans for State’s Historical Wrongdoings, Establishes Truth and Healing Council,, June 18, 2019.

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