News Brief: How Newspapers Aided Genocide in California. an interview w/ Benjamin Madley

Citations Needed | February 15, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
29 min readFeb 15, 2023


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and, if you are so inclined, become a supporter of our work through All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full-length episodes when, for example, we are excited to present an extra guest interview that relates to a previous topic we have discussed.

Adam: This is a spiritual interview follow-up, to keep using our favorite term, that we have used to death, to Episode 172: The Foundational Myth Machine: Indigenous Peoples of North America and Hollywood, which came out last December where we detailed Hollywood’s treatment of Indigenous people in North America, as the title indicates, and also Episode 158: How Notions of Blight and Bareness Were Created to Erase Indigenous Peoples, which dealt with how media contrived and government contrived notions of bareness and blight have been used historically to erase Indigenous people by effectively making them part of nature or making things that were full of life and civilizations as being empty.

Nima: A wilderness to be civilized.

Adam: And one book heavily informed research for both of these episodes, especially Episode 158, and the book was An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873. This was by Dr. Benjamin Madley. This was a book that Nima and I had read and we had talked about for some time. We both really liked it, like I said, it really informed why and how we wrote those other episodes. So we really wanted to get the author of that book on to talk and to kind of expand on the themes of those two episodes, and so I’m really, really excited to do that, because this book, which if you haven’t read it, you should read it, has a ton of history. It’s an award winning book, it won the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Awards for history, but it’s very much consistent with a lot of stuff we talked about on the show, which is a ton of both history, but also has a lot of media and media analysis in its own way, and so we’re excited to have him on to talk about that.

Nima: We are so excited today to be joined by Benjamin Madley, associate professor of History and American Indian Studies at UCLA. He’s written dozens of articles and book chapters, appearing in journals such as the American Historical Review, California History and the Journal of Genocide Research, and he is, as we have been saying, the author of the award winning book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, which was published by Yale University Books. Benjamin Madley joins us now for a special Citations Needed interview.


Nima: We are joined now by Benjamin Madley. Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Benjamin Madley: Thank you so much for having me here.

Adam: So I want to begin by talking about a reoccurring theme of your book, and one, of course, that’s of great interest to us as a media criticism podcast, which is the profound and I think largely the unknown aspect of the media played in facilitating and inciting the genocide of Indigenous people in California. Again, I was obviously drawn to that because of what I do, and I’m so excited to have you on to talk about that aspect of it. I want to begin kind of broadly 30,000 feet, pick your cliche, about the role of journalism in the 19th century, the mid to semi late 19th century, in providing the sort of moral scaffolding and rhetorical and intellectual scaffolding for genocide. I know it’s kind of a big question to start off with, but if you wouldn’t mind indulging me and kind of starting from there.

Benjamin Madley: Sure. Well, first of all, let me give a little context to your listeners, you know, between 1846 and 1873, California’s Indigenous population plummeted. There were perhaps 150,000 Native American people in California before the Gold Rush began, and by 1870, there were about 30,000 survivors. So we’ve talked about this for many decades as a product of diseases, dislocation and starvation. But what I argue in my book, An American Genocide, is that the near annihilation of California’s Indigenous population was not the unavoidable result of two civilizations coming into contact for the first time, but rather it was a case of genocide, sanctioned and facilitated not only by California officials, but also by officials of the United States government. So how did journalists play a role in this catastrophe? Well, they had several roles. One of the things that I argue in this book is that the way that newcomers saw California Indians was very much calibrated by journalistic representations of Indians, as well as artistic and fictional representations of Indians, none of which were accurate. So people thought that traveling across the country, from lands east of the Mississippi River to California, meant that you had to be very heavily armed. People came, not an exaggeration to say, as kind of walking arsenals. They often had a shotgun, rifle or pistol, and some kind of blade like a dagger or bowie knife. But the real threat to them was not Indian people on the overland journey, it was cholera, that was the most dangerous, life-taking risk that an overlander headed to the Gold Rush faced.

But when people got to California, they had a lot of weapons with them so they were heavily armed and a heavily armed population is, as we know, prone to be more violent, and a lot of people were interested in trying those weapons out on innocent Native American civilians in California. The the second role that the media played, had to do with journalism in California, which we couldn’t say was ambivalent, but what I saw in researching this book over the course of 10 years, was that journalists writing for small town newspapers, closer to the periphery of the colonized areas of California, tended to be much more outspoken in their advocacy of mass murder, whereas journalists in city areas like San Francisco, Stockton, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, those journalists tended to be more ambivalent, they did a lot of hand wringing, but they often did the reporting from which this book drove so heavily. So the evidence for the mass murder of California Indian people is not hidden away in some secret vault that I happened upon, most of the material presented in this book comes from things that were, in broad daylight, that everybody knew about. So the hundreds of massacres that I catalog are for the most part reported in the newspapers.

Adam: Right, and so that seems like one of the major differences because, like you said, you had a front row seat, given the archival research of the newspapers, to how it was reported. One thing, if you can touch on, is the kind of the non editorial, obviously, we have the editorial aspect, which we’ll get to in a second, but the sort of reporting aspect, to what extent was there a selective moral contextualizing of violence because I think that’s something you touch on, or at least I recall, it’s been a year since I’ve read it, that when there was violence committed by settlers, there was always this issue of first blood, and everything that settlers did was seen as defensive and everything that the Indigenous people, with some exceptions, I know there were certain outrages that even kind of offended the morality of the kind of mid 19th century bourgeois of New York and San Francisco, but for the most part, how was violence contextualized and framed and where does this idea of first blood or kind of defensiveness come from? Because this is something we see a lot, not just in California, sort of, you know, we see it today with various conflicts throughout the globe. So can you comment on how the violence, to the extent there was a double standard, how did that operate?

Benjamin Madley: Yeah, that’s really a terrific question and goes right to the heart of the cycles of violence that continued in California for decades. So the Harvard historian Philip Deloria, has coined this very useful concept which he calls Defensive Conquest. It’s the idea that colonists in what is now the United States rationalized violence against Indigenous people as a kind of necessary preemptive strike against what they saw as inevitable violence against the colonists by Indigenous people. So what happens in California is that there is the largest environmental catastrophe in the state’s history. It’s called the Gold Rush. And the Gold Rush is the largest mass migration in the United States during the 19th century, more than 300,000 newcomers flood into the state suddenly, and in seeking to clothe themselves, acquire labor, feed themselves, do the things that colonists do, they place immense pressures on Indigenous peoples. Their migration triggers not only the environmental catastrophe that is the gold rush, but also mass industrialized fishing, the cutting down of whole forests, and the pasturing of literally millions of livestock across the land.

So when all of this happens, it kicks out the foundations from under traditional Indigenous economies here in California. So Native people have to find food somehow. They often resort to taking livestock, sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, mules, horses, and when they do so, colonists routinely respond with radically disproportionate violence against civilian populations. So a cow goes missing in a canyon and a group of volunteers organize themselves, they go up that canyon, and they kill all the people who live there. They go to their villages, and they massacre them, and then they enslave the survivors. So there are two different ways that journalists, in writing, you know, what we might call the first draft of history, describe this cycle. In some instances, there are sympathetic journalists who editorialize that, you know, this has to be stopped, if the federal government doesn’t step in, California Indian people will be obliterated from the face of the earth. More common, though, is the small town newspaper editor, who suggests amplifying the violence and carrying out a kind of totalizing violence to completely eliminate people, and then have survivors sent to Federal Indian Reservations.

During the Gold Rush, the State of California sold bonds to fund the genocide of the indigenous people by white militias, calling them “Expeditions against the Indians.”

Nima: Yeah, so I kind of want to talk about this idea of the editorial side of these media outlets, right? So in your book, An American Genocide, you right that by 1861, quote, “two San Francisco newspapers now openly condoned genocide,” end quote. These are The Daily Alta California and The Daily Evening Bulletin, the latter of which would write in an editorial, as you share in your book, quote:

“While we believe the manner in which the Indians are being exterminated as perfectly horrible, we are disposed to make every possible allowance for our people.”

End quote.

So this Benjamin, to us, and as you write in your book, is this kind of quintessential editorial posture and you mentioned it earlier, this idea of hand wringing from city papers. There’s a concern about violence, but of course, it’s used to then justify the violence itself, right? Explicitly lobbying for genocide. Can you talk about these papers? Who owned them, what interests the owners maybe might have in exterminating, you know, surplus Indigenous populations?

Benjamin Madley: Well, to begin, it’s important to understand that the journalists operating in the city environments had far more freedom because their lives were not as endangered as journalists who stood up on behalf of California Indians in rural areas. So I’ll give you an example just to give you a sense of this. Bret Harte wrote a very clear description of a massacre that happened in northwestern California, he went to Doula Island across the water from the city of Eureka, and he wrote a detailed description of this absolutely horrible scene of mass murder. It’s detailed in the book. I won’t go into the details now because it might disturb some listeners, and we haven’t really warned them, but he wrote a really clear, full-throated description of what happened that can only be read as a kind of prosecutorial piece of journalism. But he had to leave town because his life was in danger. So he fled and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, which was relatively safe for people writing that kind of thing. Some of the editorials that you will find in the small town papers that I quote in the book, say things like, ‘Anyone who stands up for Native American people should also be killed.’ So people didn’t have complete freedom of action, because their lives and the lives of their loved ones could be in danger if they wrote the wrong thing.

Adam: Yeah, because one thing to note is that there was this kind of franchise model of extermination, where anyone could kind of create a militia, and there was basically a bounty component to it. So it seemed like there was kind of this, when you sort of deputize an entire population in effect, right, or at least people are going to know, be brothers with, and be married to people whose livelihoods depend on collecting scalps, for want of a better term. It seems like the pressure to kind of fit in and to rationalize these things would be tremendous, not not to kind of justify it, but that it seemed like because they, again, you write about how they kind of democratized genocide in a way. Everyone kind of bought into it, which I thought was one of the more fascinating aspects of the book.

Benjamin Madley: Right, let me just explain that for folks so they can get a little sense of how this works. So during the years that I’m writing about in the book, there are fully 24 separate volunteer state militia operations that are launched by California, but the way that the process worked is very specific. People got together in a local region, they elected officers, they had to post a bond, then they had to apply for approval from the governor of the state of California. Once the governor gave them approval, the governor could send them weapons. Thousands and thousands of weapons were distributed and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and then after they completed their operation, they would put forward a bill before the State Senate in assembly to receive reimbursement for the operation that they had carried out. So these 24 state militia expeditions between 1850 and 1861, killed an absolute minimum of 1,340 California Indian people, and they were then supported by three bills passed by the state legislature in the 1850s. They’re raised up to $1.51 million to fund these operations, and that’s an absolutely enormous amount of money at the time. This is the single largest line item in the State of California’s budget for all of these years, just paying the interest on it. So what’s important here about this is that by demonstrating that the state of California would not punish Indian killers, but instead magnanimously reward them, these 24 militia expeditions helped to inspire vigilantes, who then killed a minimum of 6,460 additional California Indian people during these same years. So this is a very profitable business, this business of Indian killing. It’s profitable not only for the participants who had salaries, and were remunerated for the use of their horses or their weapons, but also for the investors, the people who loaned money to the state of California, primarily through bond purchases. So there’s a lot riding on keeping the killing going because this is a big business, and the federal government is also involved because the federal government, through Congress, votes to reimburse the state of California nearly a million dollars for these operations, and then when the army is carrying out the killing, I think journalists are also quite cautious about crossing the army, which has its own operations completely separate from the vigilante campaigns are those 24 state militia operations. And in one instance, there is a really horrific major massacre, it’s called the Bloody Island Massacre, which takes place in 1850, on Clear Lake, north of San Francisco, and there’s a captain, a regular captain in the army, who describes these events in really chilling detail but then the general in charge of the Western Department of the United States puts together, I think, what we can only describe as a cover up campaign, and then the newspapers, including The Daily Alta California, begin to step back, and they leave this US Army captain essentially out in the cold, allowing this general to smear his name and to suggest that these events didn’t really happen as described.

Nima: Right. So before we actually go into the next thing, I know that you were providing some context about the rural reporting versus the maybe city reporting and the different kinds of contexts in which journalists were able to write. I want to make sure that we don’t go away from where you are heading first, so you know, if you could maybe just talk about those two papers or anything else around the more urban areas and kind of, you know, what the incentives were for maybe the owners to have certain editorial lines there.

Benjamin Madley: Right. Well, one thing to understand is that reportage in mid 19th century California was extremely different from the way the reporting works now. So first of all, papers were pretty unequivocal about their political affiliations, papers were clearly abolitionist and Republican or they were pretty clearly Democrat and pro slavery, and there are even very clear delineations about what kind of Democrat paper or what kind of Republican or Whig paper that newspaper was, and that was about the editor. But the majority of the news coming in is actually provided by non journalists, non professionals who are simply writing in to report what’s happening in their area, and so very often the people reporting on the killing, are not attempting to conceal what’s happening. They’re saying, ‘Well, you know, there is mass killing going on,’ what they are concealing is the kind of killing. So they’re quite happy to talk about the killing of adult male California Indian people, and where they obfuscate and where it gets tricky for them, or for militia generals or militia colonels writing in their reports, is what they’re doing in terms of elders, children and women, and you get sometimes really ridiculous reports that suggest that several hundred Native American people were killed in a campaign, and not a single one of them was a woman or a child, despite the person presenting exactly what the tactics were, and the tactics were relatively consistent across time and space in these three hundred plus massacres. There was a night march or an early dawn march, encirclement of a California Indian village or town, there was first a barrage with long distance weapons, it could be cannons, but it was more likely rifles, which had a far far longer range than spears or bows and arrows, then they would close in with shorter range weapons like shotguns or pistols. The next step was to move in and carry out close range killing, and then they often pursued survivors. So this pattern of massacre is described again and again and again in these local reports but they’re not reports from the editor per se. If they are by the editor, the editor is distilling a conversation or a correspondence that they have with an eyewitness.

Adam: Yeah. In Vietnam, they would just plant guns on everybody and call them all combatants. You know, I want to circle back a little bit about the kind of supercharging of genocide via the kind of vigilante model. It reminds me a lot of, in a very perverse way, Thomas Jefferson’s effort to get rid of primogeniture and entail in Virginia because he wanted to effectively democratize slavery because he thought it would make it last longer as an institution if it wasn’t just the elites who had a slave. His vision was for every Yeoman farmer to have one or two slaves, which ended up working, it kind of gave people buy in and it’s a similar perverse form of democratizing this horrific thing.

Benjamin Madley: Yeah, one of the things that happened in terms of unfree labor that’s interesting to note, is that in some instances people had unfree or very poorly paid California Indian laborers, they were then targeted by people who did not have access to that sort of reserve labor pool, and vigilantes or militiamen sometimes came to those farms or to those businesses and killed Native Americans who worked for non Indian people.

Adam: Right.

Benjamin Madley: One of the things I think is going on there is that those people are not bought into that system.

Adam: To circle back to an episode we did on the idea of blight and bareness and this idea of Terra Nullius, this idea that you had to sell California is a kind of empty space or a quasi empty space, and in the absence of it being an empty space, the humans that are there are effectively zoological, they are animals. Can we talk about the idea of, I know, this is a much smaller element of the journalism and various forms of dispatches, but can we talk about the kind of selling of the West, because obviously, you know, the Gold Rush, in many ways sold itself but still, there was tracks sent back to the east in New York, even to Europe, of incentivizing immigration and immigration that had to sell this kind of idea of openness so everyone can come and get their plots of land. Can we talk about the role of dispatches in that and sort of contriving this idea of nothing’s here and to the extent to which humans are here they’re basically animals?

Benjamin Madley: Right. So if we take a kind of global look at Euro-American colonialism around the world, we’re going to see this theme repeating itself again and again. So it could be Tabula Rasa, could be Vacuum Domicilium, it could be Terra Nullius. You can see this idea for example, in German Southwest Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the German colonists and administrators and journalists are talking about the idea that the land is empty. You could go to Australia in the early 19th century and see a very similar discourse, and you see that same discourse here in the colonial era in the United States, this suggestion that either the land is empty or it is not settled thickly enough or exploited enough in a capitalist sense of land exploitation, to validate ownership. These are ideas that are espoused not only in Britain, but also by many early colonists. So the problem with that whole idea is that there are people there. So, journalists talked about the American West as a vast, empty desert, but of course it wasn’t. So if you’re going to inscribe your colonial fantasy on the land, you have to realize that vision of emptiness, and the way to realize that vision of emptiness is through mass murder.

Nima: So one of the things that I’d love for you to talk about Benjamin, is what you write about in your book, this myth of inevitable extinction, and, you know, I mean, part of it really, I think, has to do with all of these different ways to justify the consequences of Manifest Destiny, of colonialism, of this idea that there’s this vast, open, unpopulated wilderness, that if there are people there, than they are really not fully human, can be completely annihilated, you know, which gets to what you had spoken about in terms of really committing genocide as almost pre emptive violence. But can you talk about this concept that you discuss in your book, this idea of the myth of inevitable extinction.

Benjamin Madley: So there are really two forms of this myth of inevitable extinction, which is a way of naturalizing atrocity. One form of this myth is providential or theological. So when Puritan colonists or newcomers came to colonial New England and found empty land, they saw this as Providence helping them. They either did not acknowledge or didn’t understand that this newly empty land, empty villages they were encountering, was the product of epidemic firestorms brought from the Old World to the new. That idea then leads to days of Thanksgiving, after, for example, the Mystic Massacre in colonial Connecticut, the idea that god is part of this process of emptying the land, and that it is inevitable, it is god’s will that Indigenous people will be swept from the earth. That idea of naturalizing atrocity or naturalizing the catastrophe of colonialism, then changes a little bit and becomes more about nature by the time California is being invaded and colonized. So you get a lot of phrases from journalists, saying things like, ‘The California Indian will vanish like the dew upon the lily as the rays of the morning sun strike.’ So what was so convenient about this idea of inevitable extinction was that it took the hand of the human, and policymakers, and individuals off the tiller of history, replaced it with nature. So people could then feel, quite perversely, that mass murder was simply speeding a god ordained or naturally ordained process. So people came to talk about how to both ethically euthanize, for want of a better word, to euthanize the original Indigenous peoples of the state of California. So debate sometimes became about whether it was less cruel, more humane to simply kill everybody all at once by massacring them or to put them on a reservation where many thought that California Indian people would die a slow but inevitable death. What’s important to realize, I think, in all of this, I just want to emphasize survival. So, Willi Bauer, who is Concaw and Wailaki, man and a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he said something along the lines of the fact that the specter of genocide hangs over California Indian history but California Indian survival is something worthy of Marvel. It’s something that I think about a great deal, because people survived against what seemed like all the impossible odds, thousands of soldiers, vigilantes and militiamen hunting down every last human being, and yet, California Indian people survived.

Adam: I want to talk a bit about this word genocide, you don’t use it to be provocative, in fact, the entire premise of your book is you start with a very specific legal definition and you work your way backwards proving it like a prosecutor would prove it at a war crimes tribunal. Because the sort of historical fidelity, you argue to great effect, is important. It’s important that we sort of call things what they are, and not be squeamish about it. And I want to talk about the reaction to that in certain quarters, you obviously have something in a lot of history and a lot of historians, but also in popular culture. It’s not unique to the American right, but they’re very, it’s gotten more and more acute with this kind of anti critical race theory, you know, anti teaching slavery stuff you see come out of Florida, etcetera. There’s this idea that we can sort of criticize America in the past, but we can’t do so in these existential terms, right? You see this, much of the reaction for the 1619 Project and that kind of stuff, that there’s this effort by far left academics to sort of sully the sort of founding myths, and they’re going to fight and die on that hill to the last breath in certain right-wing quarters and getting some sort of centrist liberal quarters as well. But there’s this idea that we cannot be fundamentally based on genocide, and your book makes a very kind of sober legal argument that that’s not the case, and to the extent to which historical accuracy asserts itself, it’s not really meant to make us feel good. There’s no law of nature that says history has to make us fondly look back on John Wayne and feel good about it. Can you talk about any pushback you’ve got about using the G word, why do you think it’s important that we be specific with this term, and how you kind of oriented into this broader reaction and push back against the sort of fall from, you know, the Garden of Eden kind of perspectives of American history?

Benjamin Madley: Yeah, well, first of all, I think it is very important to be precise with the term genocide. It’s a politically charged and explosive word, and it needs to be taken very seriously. What’s happened in a lot of contemporary discourse is that it’s just sort of thrown around like a rhetorical grenade, and people don’t take it as seriously as I think they should. This is the crime of crimes as one legal scholar described it, and not everything is genocide, but some very particular things are. So when I’m talking about genocide, I’m talking about the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which is not only a very specific, international legal treaty now signed by almost every nation on earth, but it’s also a law that is further defined and detailed by an ever expanding body of case law, and that helps us to be precise when we talk about this. I’m using this term not to prosecute anyone, you can’t prosecute people who are dead, and you also can’t prosecute people for crimes that there was no law against when they committed them. But I think it’s very important that we be able to compare and contrast events across both time and space. Why? Because it helps us to understand when a genocide is coming, the more we understand about it, the better we will be able to have early determination of when genocide is coming, and having a public understanding of what genocide is, can also help us as a democracy, as citizens in a democracy, to press our own government or governments to take action when we see genocide in play, and perhaps most importantly, I think we need to understand as humans around the world, what are the currents and ideas and processes that lead to genocide so that we can try to create healthier, non genocidal regimes everywhere. Now in terms of the way that the political response to this book has developed, a very important moment for this book, I think, was the former governor of the state of California, Jerry Brown, endorsing this book and becoming, in doing so, the first governor of any state in the United States to acknowledge the genocide taken place in his state. Second, also very important development for this book politically, was the current Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to publicly apologize for this genocide, and these are not the only governors who have addressed mass violence against Native American people in their states. But they are some of the only US governors ever to really talk about and acknowledge genocide in their state. Those are very important developments, and in this era of racial reckoning that we inhabit, I think this is a very healthy development for all of us.

Adam: Was there any policy changes paired with that contrition? Because I feel like you see this a lot with Canadian leftists, they talk about how they’re really good at apologizing for genocide, but never do anything about it in terms of reparations. Is there any effort to redistribute any resources?

Benjamin Madley: Yeah, I mean, one thing that Gavin Newsom did was to establish a Truth and Healing Commission that is ongoing to address the State of California’s policies and relationships to California Indian people. There have been some things that have changed on a local level as a result of this more open, real conversation about genocide in terms of the Landback movement, in terms of the state and municipalities are returning some land to California Indian people, and we’ll have to see how it all plays out. But I think that this may also have some impact for California Indian tribes that are not recognized by the federal government, but are seeking recognition from Washington, DC.

Nima: So, you know, one thing you mentioned earlier, is this idea that media depictions of Native Americans were born not only, of course, from the news reports, but largely from art, and it’s kind of amazing that, as you have written about this genocide being enacted in California, California is also, and you know, only only a few decades after what you’re writing about becomes the center of American mythmaking in Hollywood. So, you know, how do you think this idea of these foundational myths of civilization versus savagery, of the good versus the bad, of the noble versus the expendable,how did the reality of what you have read about, reported on, written about really brought up from these news reports, right, written as news reports, and sometimes editorials, but then kind of seeing that be adapted and adopted, I guess, into this medium of film, then becoming the almost singular representation of the Indigenous people of this continent, and how, you know, in the very place where this genocide took place, that then becomes again, as I said, the center of mythmaking?

Benjamin Madley: So I would say that this myth making machine about Native people has very, very deep roots, and if we look at the illustrated version of Columbus’ journal, published in Switzerland, and the illustrations there are the illustrations that accompany the publication of Amerigo Vespucci’s journal of his voyage. The art there, in both instances, was made by people who never came to the western hemisphere. Pure fantasy. That, I think, we could say also builds on it in even Greco Roman tradition of imagining the areas beyond the known world as containing people with giant feet or ears that hang down to their ankles. You can see these things looking back in the canon of European art. So the idea of projecting imagination, from the West, on to Native people is a very, very old idea. But it had some very powerful legal ramifications for Europeans coming to the western hemisphere, because if they could make the argument that Native American people were, for example, cannibals or practice strange sexual acts, these then became justifications for land theft, for enslavement, and from murder, even on a mass scale. So this is very deeply ingrained in the way that the West sees Indigenous peoples in the western hemisphere that then is made extremely powerful by the gravity of film as a myth making machine. So, as someone who routinely teaches Native American history, it’s always one of the first things that I do at the beginning of courses is to have lectures and to speak candidly about the misrepresentation of Native Americans in literature, and especially film and television, because that’s such a popular and powerful medium for embedding myths in people’s mind.

Adam: And dehumanization right.

Benjamin Madley: And dehumanization. Yes. And all kinds of inaccurate ideas about that.

Nima: So before we let you go — and thank you for staying with us for this, this has been really, really just incredibly illuminating — can you tell us what you are up to currently, where folks can find maybe more of your writing, what you are studying and researching these days and what we can expect from you in the future?

Benjamin Madley: Sure. One of my recent projects is called The Third Vector: Specific Pathogens and Colonial Disease Ecologies North of Mexico. It’s about the idea that understanding epidemics in North America has as much to do with the Pacific world as it does with the Atlantic world, and that we ought to be thinking carefully about the ways in which colonialism radically modified the environment, thus facilitating the spread and the amplification of the lethality of mass epidemics in North America. That’s a project that I’ve been working on, and I’m currently working on a new book, which is about Native American miners in the California gold rush, and it’s in a sense, the flip side of this story, because it’s a story about how people survived those horrible catastrophic gold rush years.

Nima: I can’t imagine why the work on epidemics would be relevant today, but I’m sure somehow it will resonate in some way. This has been so fantastic. I think that’s a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Benjamin Madley, associate professor of History and American Indian Studies at UCLA. He has written dozens of articles and book chapters appearing in journals such as The American Historical Review, California History, and the Journal of Genocide Research. He is also the author of the award winning book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, which was published by Yale University Press. Benjamin, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Benjamin Madley: Thank you.


Adam: I think, you know, we had Josie Duffy Rice on a few weeks ago talking about the contemporaneous media reports that whitewashed and soft peddled what was basically a prison for youth in Alabama in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and she asked the question, and this is one of the sort of great questions that comes up a lot on our show, which is, is bad media worse than no media?

Nima: Right.

Adam: And she kind of made the argument that bad media is preferable.

Nima: Because that at least exists and you can analyze it, right? There’s not just a total silence, but also, right.

Adam: Sure, you know, but then again, you could ask yourself, in the question of the California genocide, the extent to which the media really did help lay the groundwork for genocide. But would that genocide have happened anyway or were they just kind of providing the moral lubricant for the masses and for those back East? Because, like you said, some of the coverage was relatively decent, right? But some were just outright like, ‘Hey, these people are savages, come and do what you want,’ and so it’s one of these things when you’re reading it, you’re like, oh, clearly, you have thousands of people being killed at once under very dubious pretenses. There’s not really any way any rational person can say this as a defensive war, right? And so that requires, one of the great recurring themes of the show that I’m fascinated with and you’re fascinated with, which is like, how do you get otherwise moral people to do immoral things?

Nima: Sure.

Adam: You obviously, you have a kind of steady state of racism and moral superiority, but you kind of need an extra oomph, and one of those extra oomphs is this idea of like, ‘Oh, the white man is under attack by the savage race,’ ‘They weren’t using the land,’ all these tropes, which makes it so people can see thousands and thousands of people die and go, ‘Oh well they had it coming.’

Nima: Right. It’s not just the dehumanization, it’s the moral justification of reclamation or nobility in your colonialism, in your patronage, as white settlers, to be better stewards of the land than the Native people that you are displacing, that you are murdering, on purpose, but then laying that groundwork, and not only laying the groundwork through political rhetoric or through military conquest, but actually having this allegedly disinterested media voice create those justifications in print, you know, not just because the printing press is powerful, but because when you kind of have that seemingly disinterested, objective voice, it’s not the editorial voice of the US government for manifest destiny, it is then journalists report on things, but also using the justification of white supremacy, of colonialist genocide, to then spread the justification around through the publication of this so that you kind of launder the dehumanization through something other than simply just being murderous assholes.

Adam: Yeah. Madley said this stuff is not ancient history either. It has, I mean, this is the stuff people are litigating now with all the panic around critical race theory and wokeness in schools, people are trying to not, they don’t just want to ignore or put aside what happened because they care deeply about it, you know, why do so many people care about making sure that the quote-unquote “white man” doesn’t look like a baddy, and it’s so much to do with national mythmaking. National mythmaking is so important. It’s such a visceral driving force to where you can say, ‘Oh, we made mistakes, and we had the mulligan of slavery, but let’s sort of gloss over that, but we have to existentially foundationally be good,’ and it’s such a fascinating concept to me, because, again, a lot of countries have those but a lot of countries don’t. You know, a lot of nations, a lot of peoples historically, they don’t really have foundational myths, and they don’t really give a shit. But yet, this obsession with maintaining the moral and spiritual hygiene of America as passed is a fascinating one, and books like this do such a thorough, sober job of debunking that, that it becomes, like you said Nima, he had people who were mad at him for that, and it’s gotten more acute of late. And why do we need to hang on to these myths? Why is it so important to our national and personal and social self esteem that we have these foundation myths? You know, I don’t know. I mean, I have theories.

Nima: The story of America is one of disinformation. It is born through that, I mean, we heard through the State of the Union address, we heard the talking point repeated that out of any nation this one was not born of geography or ethnicity, but of an idea. This is a country born of an idea, and so when you have that kind of foundational myth making, the idea of freedom, the idea of independence, the idea of possibility, of dreams being able to come true, that foundational myth, again, not bound by centuries long, millennia long Indigenous people being in a place and then creating a nation state. No, a state born of an idea relies on the mythmaking of the nobility of that idea, and because the actual history of this nation is so bloodsoaked and is so not one of freedom and independence for all, but maybe for you know, landed gentry, that’s why the story of America is one built fundamentally on this kind of disinformation, which is why education winds up being the battleground that it is.

Adam: Yeah, because if it wasn’t important, the leading Republican nominee for 2024 wouldn’t talk about it nonstop. It’s like the main thing he talks about.

Nima: Yes, and that’s why I think having conversations like the one we just had with Professor Madley and talking about why these myths are so important is fundamental to what we do here on the show and I’m glad we were able to have a conversation. But that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief.

Thank you all for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. So, thank you again for listening. We will be back very soon with another full-length episode of Citations Needed. So stay tuned for that. Until then, our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, February 15, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.