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April is Genocide Awareness Month, Part III

California—A Murder State

Lemkin defined genocide as the mass murder of ethnic or national groups, past or present but with the aftermath of the Holocaust, “conceptions of genocide that have flowed out of his initial investigations have been applied by others as specific to the Holocaust” rather than forming an example of genocide. Lemkin was clear that the destruction of a nation or ethnic group need not mean physical death for all the members of a given group. Attacks on social and cultural structures, such as language and religion, are nuances of genocide with the end goal of destruction. Clearly, our People have suffered these nuances since the arrival of the Spanish. Violent interactions of settlers and Native Americans began long before the American conquest of California in 1846.

Murder State—California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 by Brendan C. Lindsay is a pivotal work in our understanding of true history in our state. “The years 1846-1873 saw the creation, through the democratic processes and institutions of the people of the United States, of a culture organized around the dispossession and murder of California Indians.”

The legal dehumanization of California’s Native peoples by the three branches of the state government of California, and the local and county governments, an element of genocide, was in full effect. “Bills were signed into law calling for the funding of volunteer campaigns to devastate Native groups. Even though it was technically illegal to kill Native Americans unless in self-defense, California law did not allow nonwhite testimony against whites, in cases where whites were brought to trial for crimes against Native people. Local leaders and authorities petitioned the state for arms and money to kill Native people, set scalp and head bounties, and looked the other way as their citizens kidnapped, raped, and murdered local Native people. Taken together the acts of local, regional, and state governments in California show them to be complicit in the genocide of Native American people.”

The federal government in California also demonstrated complicity in genocide. The inaction and neglect of federal officials in California, the Indian Agents and Superintendents, contributed to the abuse and murder of Native people. The federal government scrambled to meet the demands of voters in California. Lindsay reminds us that “there was physical difficulty in coming to or communicating with the state prior to 1869 so the state of California exerted a great deal of autonomous control over Indian affairs. Indian Agents and army officers were the most immediate representatives of the federal government, and as such were cut off from timely aid until the appearance of the transcontinental telegraph in the early 1860s and the transcontinental railroad in 1869. They leaned toward the desires of the state.”

The United States recognized tribal sovereignty to a limited extend and assumed a duty to protect the “domestic dependent nations” within its borders. This means that through treaties, the federal government can extinguish Native title to Indian lands. The Treaty of Santa Ysabel and 17 others throughout the state of California between 1851 and 1852. These treaties typically required Native people to reduce their land holdings or move to areas that were not desired by settlers. By signing these treaties, our ancestors ceded title of the land and agreed to accept reservations.

The US senators found these treaties problematic—it was unclear if Mexico, from which California was acquired—recognized Native land titles. If Mexico did not, then Native people in California came under US sovereignty without legal claims to land. Additionally, in the wake of the California gold rush, white Californians strongly objected to the treaties. The Senate rejected the treaties and imposed an injunction of secrecy. With the treaties rejected, Native title to the land was left unresolved.

Lindsay argues, “most property-holding, adult white male US citizens in California—the electorate—at the very least tacitly supported the system of atrocities attempting to circumscribe or eliminate Native Americans in the state. Thousands of white men certainly went so far as to participate directly in genocide by murdering thousands of Indian men, women, and children.” More importantly, “hundreds of thousands of white citizens who, through apathy, inaction, or tacit support, allowed the extermination to proceed directly by violence or indirectly through genocidal policies of cultural extermination and planned neglect.”

According to the San Diego Herald, Native people simply walking on the streets of San Diego risked their lives. Shooting Native people for sport was common enough in San Diego that the Herald suggested one might think men were taking target practice for duels. In 1856 a group of men turned on a Native man in the street and stoned him to death, apparently without direct provocation and for sport. The Herald noted that similar atrocities would likely “be repeated.” This was undoubtedly because it was “considered fine sport” to kill Native people and the “magistrates don’t trouble themselves about such matters.” Even the involvement of law enforcement provided no safety to Native people when locked up awaiting trial. Native people arrested and placed in jail had an apparent proclivity for being found hanged in their cells, especially when jail attendants had stepped out briefly. This summary execution of untried Native prisoners was practiced in southern California as late as 1880. Practices that deprived native people of liberty and life occurred quietly and legally every ay all over southern California.

Lindsay acknowledges that the 1873 end date seems arbitrary but it is this era when genocide was most directly physical and observable and committed mainly by the citizenry. Also, by 1873, the Modoc War brought forth a transitional shift away from direct, overt genocide to genocide perpetrated through neglect and cultural assault.

Reservations and Indian schools took new shapes during the 1870s and after. The organization of reservations for California’s Native populations was a jerrybuilt system, owing to the US Senate’s decision not to ratify the eighteen proposed treaties. Instead, the federal government set up a system established piecemeal by executive order, which set aside lands to move Native peoples to, and the federal government continued its policy of neglect even in the face of clear reports of problems from its agents and small, vocal groups of concerned white citizens.

Lindsay explains that in the 1880s thousands more of California’s Native population has perished through starvation, murder, and neglect in the face of a justice system that put the interests of white citizens first, and non-Native populations generally unconcerned with the unavoidable fate of the “vanishing race” of natives. In 1891, many white Californians believed the destruction of the Native populations was accomplished. With decades of evidence that life on reservations endangered the health and welfare of Native people, the US government chose not to restrain the liberty of white citizens and allow the indirect, painfully slow genocidal policies and conditions in California on and off reservation to continue.

Other genocidal programs were being carried out. Native children were being taken from parents. Indian schools were to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Removing children from their parents’ care, banning culture and language, and indoctrinating students in Western culture and white civilization were the key strategies employed. Children were exposed to diseases and many perished in these schools.

Near eradication by 1900, an extinction avoided in large party by our strategies of resistance and noncooperation, it was assumed that we would not be here today. We are still here.

Get your copy of Lindsay’s Murder State from the Museum Store—mention this blog and receive a discount!

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