Monday, January 13, 2020

The Genocide of Calfornia's Indigenous Peoples

Scholars estimate very conservatively that at the time the Spaniards first arrived in California in 1769 to begin colonizing the land, there were at least 310,000 Indigenous people living here, and they were organized into as many as 500 or more different individual political units, individual groupings.

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.

California’s first legislature convened in 1850, one of the very first things that it did was to ban all Native Americans from voting, and then they banned Indigenous people with one-half of Native blood or more from giving evidence for or against whites in most civil and criminal cases, and they denied Indigenous people the right to serve as jurors. Then they banned Native Americans from serving as attorneys and justices, so when you think about what that means, in combination, these laws largely shut Indigenous people out of participation in (and protection by) the state legal system, so this amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to would-be Native-killers. That’s kind of the first stage, and that’s similar to some other genocides — that targeted victim groups are denied protection or participation in the legal system and are stripped of any political rights as well.

Then in that same year, 1850, the government legalized unfree Indigenous labor; this led to a truly genocidal slave system. It had multiple genocidal impacts. First of all, when slave raiders would arrive at a village, they would typically kill anyone who resisted, anyone who tried to run away, and many of the older men and women, and then people would be marched away to be sold, and anybody who tried to escape or resisted during that process also was usually killed. Once people got to the place where they were going to be sold, they were scattered, so it would be very difficult for the community to reproduce itself either biologically or socially, and finally, when people reached the places where they would work as unfree laborers they were often treated as disposable and worked to death.
Between 1850 and 1870, Los Angeles’s Indigenous population fell from 3,693 to just 219 survivors. Slavery played a huge part in this genocide, but there was also a state-sponsored killing machine, and it was built by state legislators, so what they did was to authorize no fewer than two dozen separate state militia expeditions against California Native people between 1850 and 1861 which killed at least 1,340. They paid for this by passing three different bills in the 1850s that raised over one-and-a-half million dollars — a huge amount of money at this time in history, both for past and future militia operations. It was important because this policy transcended the number of people that it killed directly, by demonstrating that the state government would not punish killers but instead actually reward them.

These militia expeditions and the policies that supported them helped inspire huge numbers of vigilantes to go out on their own killing sprees, and they took the lives of an absolute minimum 6,460 Indigenous people in California between 1846 and 1873. The U.S. Army and its auxiliaries also killed at least 1,680 Native Americans in California during these years, and that institution was of course directly funded by Congress, but Congress also reimbursed the state of California for most of the money that it spent on hunting Indigenous people through its militias.

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