Every inch of North and South America is Indigenous land. With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, its mythological history still needs to be debunked, and a true discussion of the violence of settler colonialism and empire needs to happen. Award-winning historian Benjamin Madley is author of An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. In this interview, Madley discusses the genocide of Indigenous people in California, as well as stories of resistance, trauma and commemoration.
Chris Steele: The main thesis of your book is that you name settler colonialism in the U.S. for what it was, which was full-on genocide, where calls for extermination were made and committed. Your research is meticulous; can you speak about the implications of your research that shows that genocide was not only committed by vigilantes, but by the state government and the federal government? Can you give a summary of how all those topics interconnected in California?
Benjamin Madley: When I was a graduate student at Oxford, I came across reports of massacres in California, and this connected for me with the stories I’d heard as a boy growing up in a little town called Happy Camp on the Klamath River in far northern California, where Karuk and Shasta people had told me about the killings that took place there. I’d always wondered if those were localized massacres or if they happened elsewhere in the state. What I found in the research is that in general, California’s Indigenous population plunged perhaps from 150,000 people to just 30,000 survivors between 1846 and 1870 and certainly, diseases, dislocation and starvation caused many of these deaths, but what I found was this was not the near-annihilation of a people simply based upon the unavoidable result of two civilizations coming into contact. It was, in fact, genocide, sanctioned and facilitated by California officials.
This article was originally published in truthout