The process of supplanting of Native people in North America varied by place and time. Some episodes are well-known. Others seem wrapped in a shawl of silence, ignored, forgotten.
Few of these episodes seem as forgotten as the situation in California between the time America acquired the territory and the decade following the Civil War. But the information has been available and, in recent years, a few historians have begun to present the grim evidence. Notable among them is Benjamin Madley, UCLA assistant professor of history, who will speak in Anchorage this week.
Madley's controversial new book, "An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873," published in May by Yale University Press, takes the position the atrocities of California in particular were calculated and supported by the state and federal government systematically.
"To boil it down, the argument is that California legislators, with the support of the federal government, sponsored a state killing machine," he told Alaska Dispatch News.
Madley estimates as many as 16,000 Indians were killed by non-Native settlers during the period he describes. He suspects more killings were not recorded. His appendices of those that were recorded runs 165 pages, about a quarter of the book.
Writing about the book in The Nation, Richard White said, "Accumulation matters. There's a purpose to the repetition. It's like watching bodies being piled on a pyre."
"Others have described some of these campaigns," wrote Alexander Nazarian in Newsweek, "but never in such strong terms and with so much blame placed directly on the United States Government."
Many California Native Americans were used as forced labor in the pre-American period, which Madley adroitly refers to as the "Russo-Hispanic" period, noting the presence of the Russian-American Co.'s Fort Ross north of San Francisco.
Massacres under Mexican rule helped keep them in a condition of peonage (or debt slavery), but only where the Mexican army could reach them. Many Native Americans moved to defensible lands out of reach. The cession of California to America after the Mexican War and the Gold Rush that followed changed the balance of power.
"The mass migration to California was the single greatest migration of the 19th century," Madley said. "When the U.S. invaded there were probably no more than 14,000 non-Indians in California," perhaps a tenth of the total population. "By 1860 there were 360,000 non-Indians. Those who came for the gold rush were primed by media reports and fiction to be afraid of Indians. These hundreds of thousands of newcomers were fearful and heavily armed and they soon determined that they did not want to share any of the gold or the land with California's indigenous people."
What happened next was a multifaceted and, Madley writes, intentional effort to exterminate Natives. The scheme included forced servitude, destroying food supplies, removal to reservations that were basically death camps, beatings, rapes, separation of sexes and splintering of families to reduce birthrates and, above all, lethal attacks on noncombatants.
The choice to keep killing
"Killing is really the focus of this book," Madley said. "California's governors authorized no fewer than two dozen state militia expeditions between 1850 and 1861. These guys were not rogue operators. They were supported by the state. There were three separate funding bills for $1.5 million to pay for past and future anti-Indian militia operations, the single biggest line item in the California state budget at the time."
Congress voted to reimburse California $900,000 for these expeditions. The U.S. Army was also involved in actions that, to modern sensibilities, went beyond military.
Ad hoc vigilante groups joined the slaughter with impunity, burying captives alive, bayoneting children, smashing babies' heads and shooting their unarmed mothers. Among the acts of the first California Legislature were laws to ban all Natives from voting, serving as jurors or attorneys or giving evidence at trials, laws that extended to people with one Native parent. The result was they were completely shut out of the protections of the legal system.
"There are almost no cases in which a non-Indian received the death penalty for a crime against an Indian," Madley said.
Madley notes some non-Indians raised their voices against the killings. They included federal officials who advocated for Indian welfare, army officers who tried to defend Indians from the state militia (and, in at least one case, were arrested for their efforts), a white woman who stood between Indian women and the raised guns of Indian killers and told them, "You'll have to kill me, too."
The cloud of time makes it difficult to sort out the motives of actors in the past. Madley notes that Secretary of War Jefferson F. Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America, blocked funding for California's Native American extermination program, but also sent tactical warfare manuals "as sort of a Christmas gift to vigilantes."
The fact there were people who spoke out against the policies means society understood there was a choice, Madley said. But ultimately the choice society made was to keep killing.
"I found it difficult to understand," he said. "One of the explanations is gross dehumanization."
The fight over 'genocide'
But in applying the word "genocide" to that dehumanization, Madley has touched a sensitive nerve among historians. The objectors include the University of Virginia's Alan Taylor.
Taylor's article in The New York Times — identified as a "book review" but more an essay on epistemology — calls genocide "rhetorically double-edged." Taylor notes the word was coined in 1944 to describe Hitler's systematic process of destroying ethnic groups. "The term distorts if projected back onto the mid-19th century," he writes.
University of Oklahoma professor Gary Clayton Anderson also objects to the term, preferring to use an even more recent phrase, "ethnic cleansing," to describe what happened to Native Americans.
Nazarian, in Newsweek, agrees the impact of the word "has been diminished through overuse." But, he argues, "Madley doesn't use the word carelessly. (He) relies on the criteria of the United Nations Genocide Convention," which has been used for recent ethnic killings in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Madley said the U.N. lists five genocidal acts: killing members of a specific racial, national or religious group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children to another group.
Under the U.N. Convention, any of these can be interpreted as acts of genocide. "An American Genocide" documents that all of them took place on a vast scale in California.
'Crimes too often concealed'
Madley's time frame ends in 1873 when the Modoc leader Kintpuash, also known as "Captain Jack," was hanged. The author makes the point that, unlike the slaughter of the Gold Rush years, the Modoc Wars were real wars. Kintpuash was an excellent strategist and his men had good weapons.
It was not enough. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, not the confederate president but Alaska's first military governor under American rule, was recalled from Sitka to oversee the prosecution of the conflict, in which the U.S. Army had suffered some significant setbacks. With his customary by-the-book efficiency he ended the Modoc uprising and, with it, the last serious resistance by California Natives to American force. A remarkable photo of Kintpuash is featured on the cover of the book.
Some of the U.N.'s criteria for genocide were being met well after that, in fact well into modern times. Unpunished massacres continued into the 20th century and in the mid-1970s, during the first administration of Gov. Jerry Brown (current California governor) California Native women were sterilized without their consent.
Why has the California Native American catastrophe not received the level of attention of smaller and, in many cases, less violent clashes between whites and Natives? Perhaps because it would be inconvenient, Madley suggests.
"Presidents Reagan and Bush apologized for the treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II," he said. "Compensation was offered. But California has yet to apologize for what happened to the Indians. Should compensation be offered their descendants? Should governments return control to Indians of sites where genocidal events took place? Should the government stop commemorating and perpetuating the names of those who led or abetted the killing, John Fremont, Kit Carson and Leland Stanford? Will the California Genocide join the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust in public school curricula and discourse?
"What's beyond doubt is that the government should at least acknowledge that it was a genocide."
At this point, 150 years later, what does it matter? Madley gave three reasons.
"First, decency demands that, even long after the death of innocent people we preserve the truth about what happened so that their memory can be appropriately honored and the repetition of similar crimes can be deterred.
"Second, justice demands that even long after the perpetrator have vanished we document their crimes, crimes too often concealed, denied or suppressed.
"Finally, historical veracity demands that we acknowledge this state-sponsored crime to better understand the formative events in California history, Native American history, and ultimately U.S. history as a whole."
BENJAMIN MADLEY will speak at 4 p.m. Thursday and at 4 p.m. Friday at the UAA Campus Bookstore. Both talks are free and open to the public. Parking on campus is also free on Friday.