Benjamin Madley Speaks on Genocide of California Native Americans at Center for Advanced Genocide Research
USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research welcomed UCLA Professor Benjamin Madley to USC on Tuesday to give a lecture on a genocide that hits closer to home, at least in a geographic sense, than any other: the genocide of American Indians in California in the mid-19th century.
Madley has just published a book on the subject, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. He is a historian of Native America, the United States, and genocide in world history.
Madley’s lecture detailed just some of his exhaustive research of the systematic extermination of California’s indigenous population from the first wave of gold rush settlers to the beginning of California’s third decade as an American state. His aim in the book is to “re-examine the assumption that indirect attempts at civilization were the cause of death” of the majority of California Indians during this period, he said.
In fact, Madley explained, once white settlers began pouring into California following the 1848 gold strike, the killing of Indians was not only allowed, but encouraged. Civilian “vigilantes” alongside the local militia and the U.S. Army killed Indian men, women and children by the hundreds of thousands as part of official and unofficial policies.
White settlers did not understand the Indians’ role in the pre-existing Spanish society of California, and their way of life was in direct opposition to the settlers’ demand for land and natural resources. California lawmakers passed laws stripping Indians of nearly all basic rights and gave them no protection under the law. Indians were forced into unpaid labor, rounded up and marched to reservations where starvation and malnutrition were rampant, and lost their lands when old treaties were repudiated.
Madley pointed out that the desire to completely eliminate the native population was an integral part of California’s founding. The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, called for the total extermination of Indians as one of his first acts as governor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were allocated to help the militia achieve this goal and the U.S. Army ultimately assumed control of the operation.
“Elected officials were the primary architects,” of the destruction of the California Indian population, Madley said.
Under the definition of genocide laid out in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Madley argued, a genocide was indeed committed against California Indians. All the acts that constitute genocide were present, including killing members of the group, imposing measures to prevent births, and deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction.
Madley told the packed audience at USC that the United States’ genocide of California Indians, if appropriately explored and acknowledged by both politicians and the general population, would force us to rethink the very foundation of our country.
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