By David Swanson
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been given much deserved credit for protesting racism by sitting out the Star Spangled Banner, which not only glorifies war (which everyone, including Kaepernick is totally cool with) but also includes racism in an unsung verse and was written by a racist slave owner whose earlier version had included anti-Muslim bigotry. As long as we’re opening our eyes to unpleasant history hiding in plain sight, it’s worth asking why the 49ers is not a team name that everyone associates with genocide. Why isn’t Kaepernick protesting his uniform?
Of course, protesting one injustice is worthy of infinite thanks, and I don’t actually expect anyone who speaks out on one thing to also protest everything else. But I’ve just read a terrific new book that I suspect unearths a history that most Californians are largely unaware of. The book is An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, by Benjamin Madley, from Yale University Press. I doubt I’ve seen a better researched and documented book on anything ever. While the book maintains an engaging chronological account, and while there is plenty of uncertainty in the records used, the 198 pages of appendices listing particular killings, and the 73 pages of notes back up an overwhelming case of genocide by the UN’s legal definition.
When the United States stole half of Mexico, including California, had humane enlightenment taken over, I suspect we would all be more aware of how it went and of what had gone before. Californians would probably commemorate with horror the atrocities inflicted on the native people of California by Russians, Spaniards, and Mexicans, had those atrocities not been dramatically escalated by the 49ers. In such an alternative history, California’s current population of people with native ancestry would be much larger, and their records and histories more intact as well.
Even given what actually happened, if we were in the habit today of thinking of Native Americans as real people and/or if we outgrew the habit of distinguishing what the U.S. military does in a place like Iraq (“war”) from what a less-heavily armed African despot does (“genocide”) then U.S. history books in schools wouldn’t leap from the war on Mexico to the Civil War, with the implication of (oh so boring) peace in between. Among the wars fought in between was a war on the people of California. Yes, it was a one-sided slaughter of a relatively unarmed population. Yes, the victims were also put to work in camps and beaten and tortured and starved, driven from their homes, and ravaged by disease. But if you think any current U.S. wars lack any of those tactics, you’ve been consuming too much U.S. media.
“The direct and deliberate killing of Indians in California between 1846 and 1873 was more lethal and sustained [than] anywhere else in the United States or its colonial antecedents,” writes Madley. “State and federal policies,” he writes, “in combination with vigilante violence, played major roles in the near-annihilation of California Indians during the first twenty-seven years of U.S. rule. . . . [reducing] California Indian numbers by at least 80 percent, from perhaps 150,000 to some 30,000. In less than three decades newcomers — with the support of both the state and federal governments — nearly exterminated California’s Indians.”
This is not secret history. It is just unwanted history. Newspapers, state legislators, and Congress members are on record favoring extermination of people whom they characterized as less than people. Yet they were people who had created a sustainable and admirable and largely peaceful way of life. California was not full of wars until the people whose descendants would declare war to be part of “human nature” arrived.
They arrived first in numbers too small to fight all the inhabitants. More common than mass killings until 1849 was slavery. But the dehumanizing effects of slavery, with white people watching native people fed at troughs like pigs, with Indians worked to death and replaced by others, contributed to the thinking that imagined Indians as wild beasts, akin to wolves, in need of being exterminated. At the same time, the line of propaganda was developed that held that murdering Indians would “teach the others a lesson.” And eventually the dominant rationalization would be the pretense that the elimination of the Indians was simply inevitable, lying outside of any human control, even that of the humans doing it.
But that wouldn’t become a prevalent view until the arrival of the 49ers, of those who’d left everything behind to hunt for yellow rocks — and first among them were those who came from Oregon. What happened then resembled what had happened further east and what happens today in Palestine. Lawless bands hunted Indians for sport or to seize their gold. If Indians responded with (much lesser) violence, the cycle escalated dramatically into large-scale killings of entire villages.
The 49ers flooded in from the east as well. While only 4% of the deaths on the trip west were due to fighting with Indians, the emigrants arrived very heavily armed for fear of that much-hyped danger. Those who came by sea came very heavily armed as well. Immigrants soon discovered that if you killed a white person you’d be arrested, while if you killed an Indian you would not be. “Free Labor” believers killed Indians as unfair competition for work, since the Indians were being worked essentially as slaves. The deluge of new arrivals cut into Indians’ food supplies, forcing them to pursue sustenance in the new economy. But they were unwanted, despised as non-Christians, and feared as monsters.
California’s Founding Fathers in 1849 created an Apartheid state in which Indians could not vote or exercise other basic rights. Slavery, however, was pursued without the explicit name for it. Systems were created legally and tolerated extra-legally wherein Indians could be indentured, kept in debt, punished for crimes, and leased out, making them slaves in all but name. While Madley doesn’t mention it, I would be surprised if this form of slavery did not serve as a model for that developed for African Americans in the Southeast post-Reconstruction — and, of course, by extension, for mass incarceration and prison labor in the United States today. Slavery by other names in California continued without a pause right through the Emancipation Proclamation and beyond, with the leasing of Indian prisoners remaining legal and murderous enslaving raids on free Indians rolling right along with no televised athletes to condemn them.
Militias that engaged in mass-murder against Indians were not punished, but rather compensated by the state and federal government. The latter tore up all 18 existing treaties, stripping California Indians of any legal protections. California’s 1850 Militia Acts, following in the tradition of the U.S. Second Amendment (Hallowed By Its Name) created compulsory and voluntary militias of “all free, white, able-bodied male citizens” aged 18-45, and voluntary militias — 303 of them in which 35,000 Californians participated between 1851 and 1866. Local authorities offered $5 for every Indian head brought to them. And federal authorities back east in Congress funded genocide by California militias repeatedly and knowingly, including on December 20th, 1860, the day after South Carolina seceded (and the eve of one of oh so many wars for “freedom”).
Do Californians know this history? Do they know that Carson Pass and Fremont and Kelseyville and other place names honor mass murderers? Do they know the precedents for the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s, and for the Nazis’ camps of the same era? Do we know that this history is still alive? That the people of Diego Garcia, a whole population evicted from its land, is demanding to return after 50 years? Do we know where most of the world’s current and unprecedented number of refugees come from? That they flee U.S. wars? Do we think about what U.S. troops are doing permanently based in 175 nations, most if not all of which they have sometimes referred to as “Indian Country”?
In the Philippines, the United States built bases on land belonging to the indigenous Aetas people, who “ended up combing military trash to survive.”
During World War II the U.S. Navy seized the small Hawaiian island of Koho’alawe for a weapons testing range and ordered its inhabitants to leave. The island has been devastated.
In 1942, the Navy displaced Aleutian Islanders.
President Harry Truman made up his mind that the 170 native inhabitants of Bikini Atoll had no right to their island. He had them evicted in February and March of 1946, and dumped as refugees on other islands without means of support or a social structure in place. In the coming years, the United States would remove 147 people from Enewetak Atoll and all the people on Lib Island. U.S. atomic and hydrogen bomb testing rendered various depopulated and still-populated islands uninhabitable, leading to further displacements. Up through the 1960s, the U.S. military displaced hundreds of people from Kwajalein Atoll. A super-densely populated ghetto was created on Ebeye.
On Vieques, off Puerto Rico, the Navy displaced thousands of inhabitants between 1941 and 1947, announced plans to evict the remaining 8,000 in 1961, but was forced to back off and — in 2003 — to stop bombing the island.
On nearby Culebra, the Navy displaced thousands between 1948 and 1950 and attempted to remove those remaining up through the 1970s.
The Navy is right now looking at the island of Pagan as a possible replacement for Vieques, the population already having been removed by a volcanic eruption. Of course, any possibility of return would be greatly diminished.
Beginning during World War II and continuing through the 1950s, the U.S. military displaced a quarter million Okinawans, or half the population, from their land, forcing people into refugee camps and shipping thousands of them off to Bolivia — where land and money were promised but not delivered.
In 1953, the United States made a deal with Denmark to remove 150 Inughuit people from Thule, Greenland, giving them four days to get out or face bulldozers. They are being denied the right to return.
There are periods during which such behavior is justified as anti-Communism and periods during which it is supposedly counter-Terrorism. But what explains its steady, continuous existence since long before gold was discovered in California up through this day?
On August 1st of 2014 the Deputy Speaker of Israel’s Parliament posted on his FaceBook page a plan for the complete destruction of the people of Gaza using concentration camps. He had laid out a somewhat similar plan in a July 15th, 2014, column.
Another member of the Israeli Parliament, Ayelet Shaked, called for genocide in Gaza at the start of the current war, writing: “Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
Taking a slightly different approach, Middle East scholar Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University has been widely quoted in Israeli media saying, “The only thing that can deter [Gazans] is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”
The Times of Israel published a column on August 1st, 2014, and later unpublished it, with the headline “When Genocide Is Permissible.” The answer turned out to be: now.
On August 5th, 2014, Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, published a column with the headline “In Gaza, There Is No Such Thing as ‘Innocent Civilians’.” Eiland wrote: “We should have declared war against the state of Gaza (rather than against the Hamas organization). . . . [T]he right thing to do is to shut down the crossings, prevent the entry of any goods, including food, and definitely prevent the supply of gas and electricity.”
It’s all part of putting Gaza “on a diet,” in the grotesque wording of an advisor to a former Israeli Prime Minister, echoing language and action from the genocide of the people of California.
I urge anyone who cares to take a close look at what was done to California and at what is being done to Palestine, and tell me what the difference is. Those pursuing genocide now hope that past genocides will be forgotten, and that in the future present genocides will be forgotten. Who’s to say they’re wrong? We are!