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American Genocide

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The esteemed historian Richard White reviews Benjamin Hadley’s new book on the organized American genocide against California Indians and reiterates the utter brutality behind American expansion, a history Americans are simply not willing to deal with at a time when they are happy to, fairly, condemn actions overseas that, once again, American helped create (see, ISIS today, the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago).

 The initial American motive for slaughter arose in the first months of the conquest and occupation of California, and it produced a kind of killing that Madley appropriately calls “pedagogic,” which would persist long afterward. Its rationale was a 19th-century version of shock and awe: At the slightest hint of a threat, Americans would inflict indiscriminate violence. Indians did not have to attack; Americans had only to feel threatened. In a mirror image of the way some Germans, Hungarians, and Americans feel threatened by the presence of Muslim asylum seekers in their countries today, Americans felt threatened by Indians. John C. Frémont began the bloodshed in 1846 by killing Wintus in Northern California because Americans feared the Wintus would attack them. The Americans were armed with Hawken rifles that could kill from 200 yards; the Wintus had bows. The result, as Americans described it, was the “slaughter” of 120 to 175 Indians. Frémont intended this as exemplary violence meant to terrify Indians and inoculate whites against attack.

The justification of exemplary violence was (and still is) that it eliminates the need for further violence. In California, the justification was empty: All that Americans really offered Indians were different ways to die. As gold miners wrecked the salmon streams and drove off game, as cattle and swine fed on the grasses and acorn crops that formed the basis of Native subsistence, exemplary violence forced Indians to choose between slaughter and starvation. When desperate Indians killed cattle and swine, they opened themselves up to disproportionate retaliatory violence. Americans held Indians collectively responsible for any injury suffered by whites. And they were relentless: When Indians tried to prevent Americans’ entry into their territory, they were attacked. Indians who took up gold mining and tried to defend their lands were slaughtered. When Indians retaliated against white violence, Oregonians (among the first of the forty-niners) shot them on sight, hunting them like animals and instituting a practice that would last for years.

Americans also deployed violence to secure forced labor. Inside and outside the gold-mining region, miners and ranchers sought to imitate and improve on Mexican labor practices by forcing Indians to work for them. The California constitutional convention denied Indians citizenship and condoned what amounted to permanent indenture. California’s Orwellian Act for the Government and Protection of Indians anticipated the Southern black codes that followed the Civil War. Having stripped them of their legal rights and provided for their arrest as vagrants, officials could auction off Indian “convicts” to pay their fines. Indian children could be taken from their parents and indentured until age 15 for females, 18 for males.

The law also formalized existing practices. Among the more horrible stories told by Madley is the one involving Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey. They raised large amounts of livestock on lands they had appropriated from the Eastern Pomo and Clear Lake Wappo, whom they’d reduced to servile labor under threat of violence. They confiscated the Indians’ weapons, allowed them only meager rations, prohibited them from hunting, and punished them viciously when they killed cattle. Sexual violence against Indian women became routine; those who resisted were tortured. Against this and more, the Indians rebelled, killing Stone and Kelsey in 1849.

The slayings brought the US Dragoons down upon them. The soldiers killed any Indians they found, regardless of their involvement in the deaths. Vigilantes followed in the soldiers’ wake, driving the Indians off their lands in Napa, Sonoma, and around Santa Rosa. Many of the refugees were soon starving. The killings reached their peak when detachments from the US Dragoons and Artillery attacked Pomos on Bloody Island in Clear Lake. They shot the men and bayoneted and clubbed the women and children. As usual in such massacres, there was no careful counting of the dead; between 200 and 400 people were killed. The army followed this up with an attack on a village on the Russian River. The soldiers killed everyone they could find, from 75 to 100 people. (Two soldiers were wounded.) More killings followed. And so it would go, spreading across a very large state for nearly 25 straight years.

California’s laws, having created a system that encouraged slaving raids and the kidnapping of children, allowed slavers to act with impunity. Indians couldn’t testify against whites, and even when whites were willing to testify, the courts wouldn’t convict. Slaving existed throughout the period, but the practice reached its peak, ironically, when the Republicans—who rose to national power on the basis of their objections to black slavery—won the election in California under Leland Stanford during the Civil War.

The participation of federal troops and state militia in the violence, and the passage of laws that allowed Indian enslavement to flourish, emphasized the active participation of both the state and federal governments in the genocide. There is some truth in the older narrative about federal attempts to protect the Indians, but those efforts were feeble and ineffective. The Senate rejected the original treaties negotiated in California because of opposition from Californians who wanted nothing valuable reserved for Indians. The federal government did establish reservations at Round Valley and elsewhere, but it refused to protect the Indians who were removed there or to provide them with adequate supplies and rations. J. Ross Browne, a federal official sent to Round Valley to investigate conditions, reported that in the winter of 1858–59, whites slaughtered “a hundred and fifty peaceable Indians,” including nursing mothers and small children. Slavers and white squatters invaded the reservations. Indians often fled, preferring the dangers of starvation and attack outside the reservations to the hunger, disease, and assaults they suffered within them. It was no wonder they came to look on Round Valley “rather as a hell than as a home.”

It was not just the federal sins of omission that matter here; the funding that the US government provided for California’s militia expeditions made attacking Indians possible and profitable. When the government expended funds to pay for past assaults on Indians, it encouraged new ones. Fighting Indians became a source of profit; men enlisted for the pay, and the government provided it. During the Civil War, the federal government recruited the California Volunteers, who existed largely to fight Indians. The Volunteers continued their carnage over much of California and expanded it into the state’s deserts to the southeast. Congress proved far more generous appropriating money for killing Indians than for feeding them—and even when it knew that Indians on the reservations were starving, Congress cut the funding for their rations.

By the time of the Civil War, the killing had become the backdrop for California politics, and condoning it the price of public office. Nearly 20 years into the slaughter, Stanford rationalized the calling out of troops and a bill to supplement the pay of the California Volunteers as self-defense. He demanded “absolute protection to our citizens from these repeated incursions of hostile Indians.” The result? Still more indiscriminate killing of Indians.

Americans, these are the foundational actions of our nation. Yet even within liberal racial thought and guilt (not to mention conservatives’ open celebration of white nationalist America) such actions are completely unknown or totally forgotten about. We as a nation have done nothing to deal with this legacy. We’ve done less than nothing about the genocide of native peoples, plus they aren’t even considered equal with other racial groups in contemporary American racial problems and dilemmas.

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