Tag Archives: Genocide

California’s Apology for its Treatment of Native Peoples

California Governor Gavin Newsom has issued an apology for his state’s historic treatment of native peoples. Because one in eight Americans is a Californian by birth or residence, this is a significant act.

Despite having spent twenty-four of the last twenty-nine years in New York, I still consider myself a Californian. I grew up not far from the Mission San Buenaventura. We traveled almost daily along the route followed by Father Serra as he began his march to establish California’s mission system. At the elementary school I attended we learned a bit about Spanish California. Every time I entered that school parking lot, I passed the mural that you see above, a historic text giving a very biased interpretation of the settlement of Spanish California. We learned in school that their was a series of missions in California, that the missionaries worked hard to establish them, that they were courageous and heroic figures. We learned nothing, however, about native peoples. The junior high schools in town all were named after Spanish explorers. But native peoples simply were not part of the story. The closest any of us got was, perhaps, reading Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins or, if we were particularly unfortunate, a staging of the Ramona pageant based upon Helen Hunt Jackson’s dreadful novel. Native Americans, we always were told when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, were all gone.

Governor Newsom has taken an important first step. Apologies alone are seldom enough, but Americans have such a perverse unwillingness to confront their nation’s violent past. You can see this with the reaction to H.R. 40, a proposed piece of legislation that would establish a commission to merely study the possibilities and potential need for reparations for African Americans for centuries of racism. Those of us who teach Native American history are used to receiving a cold response when we suggest repartations (Try it some time. It’s fun! Next time you are at a gathering, try suggesting that the the United States ought to pay reparations to native peoples for the historic injustices they have faced. See how it goes, and report back!).

As Newsom said, what Californians did to Native Americans was a genocide. “No other way to describe it and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.” Thanks to the work of historians like Brendan Lindsay and Benjamin Madley, that story is already being told. Newsom’s announcement might have the educational effect of making more Californians aware of their state’s brutal past.

I wrote about California’s native peoples in the second edition of Native America. The entire book is filled with connections to places to which my family and I have connections–the Dakotas in Minnesota, the Crows in Montana, and the Caddos in Texas. And the Chumash in Southern California. I suppose that I am not alone in writing books that, whatever we might say they are about, are at least part of our own story, part of our efforts to make sense of our own past.

Nearly everywhere I speak, I make the point that nearly all white people in North America are the beneficiaries of specific policies like “Indian Removal”, and the larger generalized processes that resulted in Native American dispossession. The states where I have spent most of my time–New York and California–the country and the continent on which I live, could not have developed in the way that they did without a systematic program of Native American dispossession.

Governor Newsom apologized to California’s native peoples. In person. So many of his predecessors, and their supporters, would have exterminated Native Americans if they could have. Any look at the history books makes clear how hard they tried. An apology is a simple gesture that we often make difficult owing to our fears, our pride, or our lack of empathy. Newsom will take some heat for the apology, but the need for it is crystal clear.

“Our Hemisphere”: On That Pro-Columbus Editorial in the WSJ.

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a troubling editorial by Alejandro Bermudez, the executive director of ACI Prensa, a Spanish-language Catholic news service.

Under the headline “Catholics Against Columbus,” Bermudez expressed his concerns about the decision made by leaders at Notre Dame University to cover a dozen murals that covered parts of the life of Christopher Columbus. Bermudez quoted Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s President, who argued that “the murals’ depiction of Columbus as beneficient explorer and friend of the native peoples hides from view the darker side of this story.”

Bermudez did not buy this for a second. “What exactly is the dark side of the Columbus story?” he asks. “The facts do not add up to rash charges of genocide and murder made by his critics. If anything, they reveal a man who was not perfect but still ahead of his time.”

Making an omelette? You are going to have to break a few eggs. The Columbian encounter, Bermudez said, “certainly had its faults,” but in the end it was all worth it. “As a Catholic,” Bermudez continued, “I particularly value Columbus for bringing the first of many missionaries who showed millions of people the path to salvation.”

If indigenous people were hurt in the process, Bermudez seemed to suggest that they had it coming. Indians were nasty, he suggests. They lived lives of violence. They engaged in human sacrifice, he wrote, and “this indigenous practice vanished thanks to the advent of Christianity in our hemisphere.”

Our hemisphere, he writes. Setting up a straw man, Bermudez argues that “the notion that indigenous life was perfect and Western culture the locus of all evil is as absurd as white supremacy.” Which is literally why no respectable historian has ever made that argument.

Bermudez worries that covering the Columbus murals in South Bend is part of a larger assault on Catholicism. “If murals that portray Columbus bringing the faith to this hemisphere are not welcome at a Catholic university, what part of Catholic identity is?”

Certainly not that extension of the crusades that destroyed millions of lives on a global scale. But Bermudez does not care about native peoples or the catastrophic consequences of colonialism. He is worried that great white men and their historical legacy are under assault. Whatever they did, it was no worse than the savages whose lands they took, whose souls they saved, whose bodies they enslaved.

I find arguments like these exhausting. Let’s be clear: The Columbian Encounter, so-called, is the beginning of a horror story for the native peoples of the Americas, North, South, and Central, as well as the indigenous population of the Caribbean, who were quickly destroyed as autonomous peoples by the Spanish newcomers.  Columbus, his supporters might argue, gets too much of the blame.  He did nothing to native peoples in North America because he never set foot on the North American continent.  This much is true, but Columbus has become, and perhaps always has been, a symbol standing in for the “fundamental violence of discovery,” as I class it in the second chapter of Native America.

The sort of sentiments expressed by Bermudez are nothing new, of course. Back in 2017, for instance, a long-time conservative radio personality in Rochester tweeted out that “other than the birth, death, & resurrection of Jesus, the discovery of the Americas by Columbus was the most important event in human history.” There are a lot of obvious problems with this argument, but this sort of sentiment has been widely embraced on the political right.  Matt Walsh, a columnist for The Blaze who tweets @MattWalshBlog, told his many followers to not “let anyone tell you it’s wrong to celebrate the great men who built our civilization.”  Kurt Schlichter, another pundit aggressively active on Twitter, said that “the European conquest of the Americas was history’s greatest achievement.”  You may remember the controversy from two years ago when the Daily Wire posted an incredibly racist and offensive video, since removed from their site with apologies from the editor, depicting the Americas in 1491 as a land of savagery, cannibalism, and superstition that was refined and civilized by Christopher Columbus. The opinion piece by Bermudez echoes all of this.

And the President, our Bronze Creon, back in 2017 proclaimed that

“the permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation. Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.”

Not one mention of native peoples.  We are witnessing a reaction against the very notion that native peoples have a place in this American story that is worth remembering and retelling. Their suffering, their destruction, the rapacity of European colonization–it all is the price the people of “Our Hemisphere” have paid for civility and Christianity.