This spring, the US Congress passed a unanimous resolution condemning ISIS for its genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites. “Naming these crimes is important,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after the vote, “but what is essential is to stop them.” It’s far too late to stop the genocidal crimes committed against California Indians that Benjamin Madley chronicles in An American Genocide; nevertheless, Madley is convinced that it’s still necessary to name them.
There are several reasons for this. Scholarly studies of genocide—like actual accusations of genocide—usually steer clear of North America, and Madley wants to change that. He also writes because in a world of genocidal violence, claims of American innocence and exceptionalism are dangerous. This dire election season has featured more than the usual number of references to our traditions, values, and history, and one assumption among pundits and politicians has been that our traditions and values protect us from going over to the dark side. This is sometimes the case, but not always. When candidates summon the darker angels of our nature and call for overwhelming violence against those who kill us, threaten us, hate us, or simply annoy us, they beckon us to go where the nation has, in numerous ways, gone before.
Madley’s book is grim reading. Along with Stacey Smith, in Freedom’s Frontier, and John Mack Faragher, in his new and chilling Eternity Street, Madley is turning the history of 19th-century California decidedly noir. An American Genocide is not an elegant book, but it is a commanding one. The details—forgotten murders, massacres, and the disappearance of entire communities—sometimes bleed into one another, but there’s a purpose to the repetitiveness. It’s like watching bodies being piled on a pyre. The accumulation matters; it allows the book to make its case and avoid becoming a mere polemic.
“Genocide” is a powerful word, but one whose impact has been diminished through overuse. Madley doesn’t use the word carelessly, even though he’s writing about US policy toward American Indians, a subject that often leads people to toss the term around quite loosely. His book does not contend, as more polemical works do, that all Indian policy was genocidal. He concentrates instead on a particular place and time: California from 1846 to 1873.
Accusations of genocide in California are hardly new. Many historians, anthropologists, and Indian activists have made them, but An American Genocide stands apart for two reasons. First, Madley is interested not just in spectacular crimes, but also in their institutional basis. Second, he doesn’t use the term “genocide” for its shock value; instead, he considers the term carefully before applying it to state and federal policies.
In defining genocide, Madley relies on the criteria of the United Nations Genocide Convention, which has served as the basis for the genocide trials of defendants from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and has been employed at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In the words of the UNGC, acts qualify as genocide if they are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” It is intent, not motive, that matters in establishing the fact of genocide, and the acts can include killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, imposing conditions calculated to physically destroy the group in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to others. Madley moves through several decades of California history, methodically giving examples of each and tagging the incidents like corpses in a morgue. He has also compiled nearly 200 pages of appendices detailing the killings, with sources.