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Historian shares research on Native American genocide in California

Sally Bell hid in the bushes, holding her baby sister’s heart in her hands. Bell, a member of the Tolowa Tribe in Northern California had just watched militiamen, sanctioned by the state of California, murder her family and tear out the heart of her baby sister. The mid-19th century was a terrifying time to be a Native American in California. Bell’s is only one of many stories detailed in Benjamin Madley’s new research book, “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.” Madley presented his research in Western’s Academic Instructional Center West Wednesday, Jan. 18, to more than 100 people. Madley’s book documents the 370 separate massacres that were part of a systematic genocide perpetrated on Native Americans in California during the mid-19th century. “The Native American population decline is one of the formative events in our nation’s history,” Madley said. “It cleared hundreds of millions of acres for invasion and colonization, and unlocked the vast cornucopia of resources.”

Historian Benjamin Madley discusses California's history on Jan. 18.

"To understand that California is pocked with hundreds of massacres was something that took a long time to see"

Historian Benjamin Madley
The resources, including oil, gold, silver and fine agricultural land are key resources upon which the foundation of the United States is built, Madley said. “How we understand the Native American population decline in this country, directly informs how we understand the origins of the nation in which we live,” Madley said. Madley’s lecture comprised of readings from his book, along with first-hand accounts of survivors. “The most startling discovery was the institutionalized nature of the violence and the repetition of the violence,” Madley said. “To understand that California is pocked with hundreds of massacres was something that took a long time to see.” Once Madley could see the sheer scope of the savagery, it had a permanent effect on him. “What sticks with me is the vast scale of the killing and the fact that it became routine.” Madley described how Native American Genocide became a United States government project starting from 1846. Making way for the conquest and colonization of America, state legislatures began supplying militia operations to eradicate Native peoples. The militia began demolishing native villages and drove them to the desert. State officials created a legal environment that gave Native Americans no rights, and bestowed virtual impunity to those who killed them. Senior JJ Mueller was taken aback by the barbarism. “It was very startling,” senior JJ Mueller said. “It was a bit more than I expected, honestly. The amount the government was involved was horrifying.” The state of California created three reservations, forcibly removing Native peoples from their homes. Elders who weren’t physically able to make the trips to reservations were shot, along with children who became fatigued. At the Round Valley Reservation in California during the winter of 1856, 300 Native Americans died as a result of being forced to work naked. Mark Greenberg, Western’s Dean of Libraries, attended the presentation because of his interest in Madley’s newest research and studies. “I think it’s a topic that doesn’t get enough attention,” Greenberg said. “ I think what’s most startling to me is how we’ve managed to put that out of our mind in order to celebrate America.” Between 1846 and 1873, militia killed nine to 16,000 Natives. The total death toll, including those attributed to disease, ranged from 50,000 to 30,000. Madley offered one final thought. “One of the things that is shocking to me is how when people think of California, they think of Disneyland, and The Beach Boys and the surfers,” Madley said. “But very few people outside of indigenous communities think of mass murder. Very few people think about how this violence spread like a bloodstain across the state.”

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