An American genocide: New works lift the veil on European invasion


Peter Burnett, California’s first governor, expressed the prevailing colonialist point of view of his time thusly: “A war of extermination will continue to be waged until the Indian race becomes extinct.” 

His dire proclamation sums up the essence of Benjamin Madley’s scholarly text, “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe.” Madley has meticulously researched the written and oral records that reflect a concerted effort on the part of the foreign invaders to destroy native peoples, their communities and their cultures under the mythical banner of Manifest Destiny.  

As an educator, I have always endeavored to offer an alternative view of the mainstream ideology that struggles to rationalize the invasion of our First People’s homeland and the intent to eliminate their existence. Early on, I had to step gingerly around this taboo subject, as it was politically, educationally and historically incorrect to suggest there had been some horrendous wrongdoing. Instead, it was taught that Europeans came to “settle” what they perceived as an undeveloped, uncivilized and untamed “promised land” inhabited by heathen savages. 

The 10 million (or more) indigenous people who had settled here for thousands and thousands of years experienced a starkly different reality.

Post-modernists will applaud contemporary efforts to deconstruct these power relationships and the ideologies that underpinned the alien invasion. Finally, the veil is being lifted by both courageous scholars like Madley and native people themselves. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” serves as a strong companion volume.  

Dunbar-Ortiz highlights the same colonial doctrines and practices prevalent throughout the wider continent. Perhaps the intellectual climate in modern America has evolved and a new receptivity to recognizing the closeted history of our country can spring forth. No more fake news.

This is all to the greater good; however, much of the current discussion misses the even deeper truths that underlie modern behavior. 

Why, one might ask, do political entities around the world repeat the pattern of genocide over and over again? 

What causes so-called civilizations to continuously indulge in warfare and

Did pre-agricultural societies engage in environmental destruction to the degree that we are now witnessing and finding ourselves incapable of stopping? 

What happened to the innumerable hunter-gatherer cosmologies that regarded human life as an interconnected part of the natural world with the mandate to preserve and protect? 

With the global population continuing to explode beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth, what will the future bring?

Perhaps answers to these perplexing questions are embedded in Homo sapiens’ very DNA—that is, both our biological DNA and our equally powerful cultural DNA. 

Warfare, over-population, genocide, ecocide and even poverty would not persist unless they were hardwired into our physical and social being. Our human hubris seduces us into believing we’re the captains of our fate, but a deeper truth may lie in the inevitability of reality as it is. Here’s a haiku to consider:


Immutable laws                                                                                                     

       Governing the universe                                                                                            

                Predetermine choice…?


The coyotesque mystery of life presents us with two contradictory scenarios. If all is as it must be and we’re merely a function of the three Fates who weave our destiny, what good does it do to struggle against horrific behaviors? They’re inevitable. Yet humans do sense some capacity to modify our patterns of behavior. Free will exists on some level, and we can choose to take effective action.  

Rather than merely bemoaning human inhumanity, of which the genocide inflicted on native peoples is but one example, perhaps we could take a step back and gaze more deeply into the darker side of civilization. 

If we’re truly interested in preventing horrible history from repeating itself, we might best be served by plunging into the murky depths of our biological and cultural heritage. 

With a clearer sense of our hidden roots, perhaps we could steer a new course based on an understanding of the power of those elemental forces.    

And do read Madley and Dunbar-Ortiz’s books for an eye-opening view into our deconstructed history. Perhaps the insights embodied in these stunning explorations can serve as the beginning of a new creation story.                    

Mukayam Kai Iniiko, or, in Miwok, “We are all related.” 


John Littleton is a retired educator and anthropologist with an avid interest in indigenous cultures and the natural world. He lives in Point Reyes Station.