An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley

An American Genocide-The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe
by Benjamin Madley 2016 Yale University Press

This is a painful book to read. It is massive, almost 700 pages long, with nearly 200 pages of tables of listing massacres of Native Americans. It presents in excruciating detail instance after instance of the systematic killing of Native Americans.

Every time you open the book you are jolted by just how horrific this really was. Madley covers the period from 1846, when the first American incursions occurred in California, until 1873 when the last Native resistance was quelled during the Modoc War. It chronicles how individual citizens, local militias, state militias and federal troops hunted down and killed thousands of California Indians. It chronicles how Natives were not allowed to testify against whites in the courts about these abuses. It chronicles how treaties were negotiated giving native Californians reservations, only to have the treaties not ratified. It chronicles how Indians were brought to the state of starvation and when they poached cattle to survive they were hunted down and killed. It chronicles how the California state legislature approved monies to be used for the murder of native Californians. It chronicles how the federal government appropriated monies for actions against California Indians.

The Native American population declined from an estimated 150,000 in 1845 to between 16,000 and 20,000 in 1880. The Spanish missions and later the ranchos were hard on the Indians but there was an incentive to not kill them because they were used as labor and because they outnumbered the whites. When the gold rush happened the Indians were just in the way and if we follow an economic determinist bent whites exterminated the Natives to gain their resources with the rationalizations about the inevitable extinction of Native Americans built on this foundation. Most of the genocide covered by Madley occurred in Northern California but the war against the Mohave is covered, as is the Gila River campaign against the Quechan. Antonio Garra’s rebellion in Southern California is briefly covered as well.

There were dissenting voices, those who spoke out against the inhumanity of the slaughter, but they were few, outvoted and ignored. If you can stomach the granular detail of the barbarity of “civilized” people killing, starving and enslaving people outnumbered and technologically disadvantaged, then I recommend this book. If you find such in human behavior disturbing, content yourself with the synopsis. This is an important book that contributes to the dialogue about the genocide. It is the starting point for talking about its consequences and our obligations to its survivors.

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