An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley —a must read!
By Charla Wilson, Librarian/Archivist, Barona Cultural Center & Museum
The state of California is often recognized for its pleasant climate, beautiful bays, oceans, shores, mountains, and vast land. Historically, American mythology has promoted California, and the west in general, as an egalitarian place, filled with opportunity and equality. Yet, the inclination to depict the state in this way has often been an act to suppress its dark past.
Over the past three months, Barona Cultural Center & Museum staff and Barona Tribal members participated in book club meetings to uncover the heart-wrenching history of widespread killings of California’s Native population at the hands of the United States from 1846 to 1873, in UCLA History professor Dr. Benjamin Madley’s groundbreaking book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. It is estimated that during this twenty-seven year span, California’s Indian population declined from 150,000 to 30,000. Madley defines this phenomenon as genocide using the United Nation’s Genocide Convention definition as the basis of his argument and analysis. He further argues that the killing of California Indians was not a haphazard event with the participation of a few. Rather, it was through “intention and repetition,” that American citizens orchestrated “genocide campaigns;” fortified democratically, financially supported by the state and federal governments, defended militarily, and championed by the media.
While defining this history as a genocide is not new, Madley’s research makes an enormous contribution to scholarship. He thoroughly and chronologically traces this history in the first comprehensive, year-by-year account assembling the number of California Indians murdered, their locations, dates, and sources, in a nearly 200-page appendix. Madley’s objective to meticulously document Native lives lost, the evolution of California laws and practices makes for a convincing argument. A noteworthy by-product of this approach was that Madley was able to give voice to Native people. So often, scholarship focuses on the perspectives of the genocide perpetrators resulting in absent or passive accounts of the Native population. Madley offers a moving explanation of why it is important to document this history in this way:
“Recording the numbers of California Indian people killed is not a mere academic exercise. As anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows, the death of a single person is a profound loss. Recording how many California Indians were killed between 1846 and 1873 is, in part, an attempt to understand the magnitude of the rupture and profound pain caused by their loss: each murder severed personal, familial, and tribal links. Each was a tragedy. When multiplied by thousands during a short period, the impact was nothing less than devastating. In the context of genocide, recording deaths also dignifies the slain and gives a voice to the departed” (13).
Granted, it is important to contextualize why emigrants sought the Golden State during the Gold Rush, to portray the viewpoints of politicians representing the demands of their California constituents, to demonstrate the motives of volunteer state militiamen and soldiers for participating in genocide due in large part to financial incentives, and to explain that the media sought to appeal to their readership by generating stories that feed into their racial hatred of California Indians. But Madley consciously strives for a Native-centric approach to emphasize profound human loss, destruction of cultural traditions, languages, and sheer brutality inflicted on California Indians. It also reveals that in the midst of great trauma, California Indians were able to organize, resist, and fight to survive.
This is not entirely a nineteenth century story. California’s history of genocide has political, economic, educational, and health ramifications today. Book club goers discussed that learning about this history has challenged their understanding of history and has caused them to question what is traditionally taught regarding Native American history. This research challenges non-Indians alike to reframe society’s “collective memory” of California’s past, as historian Michael Kammen argues, “societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them, and that they do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind, manipulating the past in order to mold the present.” There are local examples of society reconstructing the past that should cause citizens to question who and what is commemorated, remembered, and celebrated. For example, book club goers pondered the implications of how Cave Couts, a celebrated military officer in the nineteenth century, who also historically mistreated Kumeyaay Indians, is celebrated and remembered with the preservation of Rancho Guajome Adobe, listed as a National Historic Landmark. Or question why the history of California genocide is not mentioned in public school curriculum when greater attention is given to the missions, and Westward Expansion of the United States, and the accomplishments of European colonizers, such as Spanish explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who claimed San Diego for Spain in his arrival on the vessel, San Salvador, considered a “symbol of genocide” because it was built in what is now Guatemala using Indian slave labor.
Still this research has encouraged conversations on this topic. There is even a current proposal to include the history of California’s Native American genocide in California Social Science Standards.
An American Genocide is a must read. There was a consensus among book club goers that it is long overdue that this history is finally being recognized and recorded.
The author will give a lecture on his research on
Wednesday, April 12, from 5pm to 7 pm in the Barona Community Center.
This event is free of charge and open to the public.
Books are available for purchase in Barona Museum’s Store and the author will be signing them after the lecture. Please call Barona Museum for more information:
619-443-7003 x 219.