The Untold Story of Native American Genocide in California

The Untold Story of Native American Genocide in California January 2023

Native American Genocide

Genocide is a horrible word. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “the crime of intentionally destroying part or all of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, by killing people or by other methods.” We know it has happened all over the world, from the dawn of history until the end of the 20th century. What many Americans do not know is that genocide is not a terrible act that happened only in other countries, it has happened here too.

California’s History of Genocide

In recent years, a great deal of light has been shed on the systematic attempts to kill Native Americans in California. Detailed information can be found in “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873” by Benjamin Madley; “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873” by Brendan Lindsay; “When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians 1850-1860” by William B Secrest; andthe famous 1881 study “A Century of Dishonor” by Helen Hunt Jackson.

California may be the Golden State with an unending summer, Hollywood, beaches and what is arguably the most liberal society in the U.S. However, the past is very different. During the mid-1800s, being a Native American living in California meant constantly fearingfor your life. Records show that during this time the population of Native Americans in the state dropped from about 150,000 to around 30,000.

How It Happened

Unlike the Holocaust in 20thcentury Europe, what happened in California was not the result of an unacknowledged government policy or ideology. Instead, it wasa sequence of actions by ordinary citizens empowered and placed in authority by a democratic process. Caleb Cushing, a well-known politician of the time said “I admit to an equality with me, sir, the White man, my blood and race, whether he be the Saxon of England or the Celt of Ireland. But I do not admit as my equals the red men of America, the yellow men of Asia or the black men of Africa.” In liberal New York, Parley’s magazine wrote that the indigenous people were “Equally inanimate and filthy in habit, they do not possess ingenuity and perseverance… sullen and lazy, they only rouse when pressed by want.” California became a state in 1850. In 1851, Governor Peter Burnet said,“A war of extermination will continue to be waged between races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

What is clear is that there was no attempt to hide or gloss over what was being done. It was taken as the right of the White race to rule the world and to “exterminate” other races so that there would be no threat to the purity and prosperity of the White men.Those who perpetrated these acts of horror were not evil men or monsters. They were people of their time and acted according toaccepted beliefs and ideologies. Perhaps that is why there was no effort to hide or obfuscate the systematic destruction of the Native American Tribes. Government records and documents of all kinds clearly show that the state-sponsored killing of Native Americans was accepted, supported and enhanced by the White residents of the state. A question that needs to be asked is how this could have been hidden in plain sight for so long and now that it is coming into the open, what needs to be done about it? The lives of those slaughtered cannot be brought back, butby accepting and acknowledging what happened, Americans today can erect safeguards to prevent such acts of horror, against any people, from happening again in this country.

More information on the California genocide can be found in the books referenced here. To learn about one of the oldest California Native American tribes, go to the Muwekma Ohlone website.