The 19th Century California genocide

Written by: Prim Phoolsombat

The definition of genocide by the United Nations Genocide Convention is as follows: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

On 18 June 2019, California governor Gavin Newsom officially recognized and apologized for the systematic genocide of California’s Native Americans. Since Europeans first arrived in North America, the near total decline in indigenous populations is often attributed to Old World diseases spread beyond the control or responsibility of settlers. Epidemics seemed to conveniently destroy thousands of diverse tribes from coast to coast, leading to the popular image of unpopulated American land and a justification for a manifest destiny philosophy. The term “manifest destiny” was coined in 1845 by a newspaper editor to summarize the aggressive and divinely ordained expansion of colonizers westward and their duty to spread democracy and capitalism as they went. It was in the name of “God’s will” that the first California government ordered ethnic war on Native Americans — a calculated campaign comparable to that of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Dzungars in Central Asia, and other well-known genocides.

Crimes against California’s Native Americans began in 1769 with the Spanish occupation. Father Junipero marched from Mexico to San Diego with an army to construct missions that would eventually reach San Francisco. Prior to his arrival, the Pacific coast was a well-populated, well-resourced, and culturally diverse area, with total population estimates ranging between 100,000 and 700,000. The various tribes spoke 80 different languages and had such ample access to wild foods that farming was not necessary. Father Junipero’s campaign immediately raped, kidnapped, and enslaved native people to work for the missions. Whether in the Santa Barbara or San Diego missions, the natives attempted to revolt and failed in each location due to armed Spanish forces. Executions and abuse were routine in addition to thousands of native deaths from smallpox and other Old World diseases. Their bodies filled mass graves — no natives were given burials.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the coastal missions were secularized in 1834, and Spain officially recognized Mexico as an independent state in 1836 after a decade of war. A decade later, however, the Mexican-American War began, and California became a state in 1850. The Gold Rush began simultaneously, and the Californian population swelled up with 300,000 new residents. The first governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, said “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct” in 1851. He started a lasting policy that compensated anyone for proof of a dead Native American.

Coupled with friction over land and mining, workers began shooting Native Americans on a daily basis. Whole villages were pillaged over minor conflicts — the Pomo tribe of 800 was slaughtered by federal cavalry on the basis of two murdered slave owners that tribe members were rebelling over. Not only did California compensate for murder, but the federal government acted on it as well, in addition to funding over twenty California militia campaigns against Native Americans. A number of gangs were formed between miners for the purpose of killing Native Americans to protect their self-interests. It is estimated that 80% of the Native American population was decimated during this time. Between the 1850s and 1870s, conservative estimates begin at 4,500 deaths and range up to 100,000 deaths.

The Anti-Vagrancy Act of 1855, also known as the Greaser Act, legalized the arrest of those subjectively believed to be “vagrants.” Though this act mostly targeted Mexicans, it was also used against Native Americans and Asian immigrants. The California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was enacted in 1851. With its remarkably misleading name, the legislation reflects the fifth act of genocide in the UN definition — “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Although the state of California was admitted into the union as a “non-slave” state, this act allowed for the indenturing of “vagrant” native children to Whites in order to “save them from their savage upbringing”, convert them religiously, and exploit them for labor. They could also be sold as punishment, and their only way out was through bond or bail.

Attempts at reparations have been made, though very poorly. Congress established the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 amid growing sentiments that Native Americans deserved reparations after all their services in World War II, where 13% of Native American men enlisted and provided military advantages such as speaking native languages to communicate — a code Axis intelligence could never break. The Commission ultimately gave out an average of $1000 to each Native American across 176 tribes, but most of the money was deposited in government- managed, and consequently mis-managed, trust accounts.

Governor Newsom’s apology is the state’s first time acknowledging its actions in the genocide. His executive order establishes a council that will create a report detailing tribe narratives and tribe-state relations by 2025. While tribe leaders have appreciated these steps, no further action has been taken on their critical asks such as land reparations or water and fishing rights. The full gravitas of the genocide, its consequences for Native Americans today, and the actions that should be underway to properly compensate are sparsely a part of the public consciousness, much as it has been since the Spaniards first occupied California.

Photo credit: California Gov. Newsom’s Office.

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