Genocide of California Indians Examined

Nov. 7 conference will focus on the deaths of 100,000 Native Americans during Gold Rush era

picture of settlers shooting indians

An all-day conference on Nov. 7 will address what a growing number of scholars have come to regard as the genocide of California Indians.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The Gold Rush brought prosperity to many of the estimated 300,000 prospectors who flocked to California between 1848 and 1855. For a large majority of California Indians, however, the Gold Rush was lethal.

An all-day conference at UC Riverside on Friday, Nov. 7, will address what a growing number of scholars have come to regard as the genocide of California Indians. The symposium, “Killing California Indians: Genocide in the Gold Rush Era,” will bring together historians and Native Americans from throughout the state.

The event begins at 9 a.m. and continues until 4 p.m. in Highlander Union Building 379. It is free and open to the public. Parking permits may be purchased at the kiosk on West Campus Drive near the University Avenue entrance to the campus. Sponsors are the Rupert Costo Endowment, California Center for Native Nations, Native American Education Program and Native American Student Programs.

More than 120,000 Indians were living in California when the Gold Rush started in 1848. Between 1848 and 1868, as many as 100,000 Indians died from disease, malnutrition, enslavement and murder, said Cliff Trafzer, distinguished professor of history, Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs, and director of the California Center for Native Nations at UCR.

Articles published in California newspapers of the time and other sources make it clear that the experience of Native Americans during the Gold Rush meets the United Nations definition of genocide, Trafzer said.

“Some say it was not genocide, it was ethnic cleansing,” Trafzer said. “Indian people say, ‘What’s the difference?’ More than 80 percent of California Indians died in a 20-year period. Our hope is that the conference will encourage more research by our students on aspects of the genocide and will create an awareness among Californians and people around the world that this took place. We hope it will encourage the state Department of Education to recognize that what happened to California Indians was genocide and is worthy of inclusion in state textbooks.”

Participants in the morning panel include:

  • Jack Norton, emeritus professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University and author of “Genocide in Northwestern California, When Our Worlds Cried.” He is of Hupa/Cherokee descent and an enrolled member of the Yurok Nation. He was the first California Indian to be appointed to the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs at UC Riverside.
  • Brendan Lindsay, assistant professor of history at Sacramento State University and author of “Murder State, California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873.” He earned his Ph.D. in history at UCR.
  • James Fenelon, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. He is Lakota/Dakota from Standing Rock, and wrote “Culturicide, Resistance, and Survival of the Lakota (SiouxNation)” and co-authored “Indigenous Peoples and Globalization.”

Participating in the first of two afternoon panels will be:

  • George Harwood Phillips, emeritus professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the second scholar named to the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs at UCR. Among his books are “Vineyards and Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771-1877,” “Chiefs and Challengers: Indian Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California,” and “Indians and Indian Agents: The Origins of the Reservation System in California, 1849-1852.”
  • Michelle Lorimer, who teaches in the CSU San Bernardino Department of History. She earned her Ph.D. in history at UCR. Lorimer and Trafzer co-authored an article, “Silencing California Indian Genocide in Social Studies Texts,” that was published in 2013 in the peer-reviewed journal American Behavioral Scientist.
  • Benjamin Madley, an assistant professor of history at UCLA.He is transforming his dissertation, “American Genocide: The California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873,” into a book for Yale University Press.

The conference will conclude with a Native American community panel whose participants include:

  • James Ramos, San Bernardino County supervisor, Third District, and past chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians
  • Larry Myers, chairman of the California Indian Heritage Center Foundation Board of Directors and former longtime executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) , Pomo
  • William Mungary, former NAHC chairperson and current board member of the California Indian Heritage Center Foundation, Paiute/Apache
  • Steven Newcomb, indigenous law research coordinator at the Sycuan education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist with Indian Country Today, Shawnee/Lenape
  • Daisy Ocampo, a UC Riverside Ph.D. student, Caxcan-Zoque
  • Sean Milanovich, tribal cultural specialist, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
  • Gregg Castro, former tribal chair of the Salinan Nation, researcher and scholar in Salinan cultural history and language preservation, advisor to the California Indian Storytelling Association, Salinan/Ohlone
  • Meranda Roberts, a UC Riverside Ph.D. student, Paiute

For more information contact Trafzer at

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