I’d like to direct readers’ attention to an upcoming special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, focusing on historical and contemporary issues relating to dispossession, violence, and colonialism against indigenous peoples in the Americas. For interested readers, there are some preliminary articles from this issue that are now available online. The violent dispossession of indigenous peoples was a predominant feature of American territorial expansion, and created enduring settler-colonial institutions and relations that continue to structure indigenous-U.S. politics (Steinman 2012). This violence was perhaps most pronounced and systematic in mid-19th century California. Here state and local officials explicitly sanctioned numerous collective efforts by militias and settler groups to decimate indigenous peoples, and passed numerous laws and statutes that relegated indigenous peoples to extreme social and political marginality (Almaguer 1994; Madley 2008, 2009). Although basic facts of this violent colonization and settlement are relatively well-known, it is only recently that historians have begun to systematically document and explore the state’s violent past.
While the relation of these issues to social movement research may not be immediately apparent, I do believe that they have important bearing on our scholarship for two reasons. First, the political, cultural, and demographic legacies of anti-indigenous violence and dispossession powerfully affect the form and content of contemporary indigenous political mobilization, as Erich Steinman (2012) has recently shown. Second, such violent episodes often feature numerous collective processes that are foundational to the study of social movements, including framing, collective identity formation, repression, and elite decision making (Owens et al. 2013). There have been some recent efforts to utilize theoretical tools from social movements research to explore the collective aspects of other historical and contemporary cases of mass violence (e.g. Hagan and Rymond-Richmond 2008; Owens forthcoming; Su 2011). These studies provide a useful starting point for further historical and comparative exploration from a social movements perspective.
Of course, whether or not cases of anti-indigenous violence and dispossession in the Americas, and in particular California, qualify as “genocide” are subjects of heated historical and legal debates – ones which collective action scholars should not be expected to settle. Whatever the juridical status of these events, we do possess the theoretical and analytical tools to improve knowledge of how meso-level determinants and mechanisms work within these larger episodes. As the study of various forms of violence increasingly moves towards a meso- and micro-level of analysis (Bartov 2003; Collins 2008; King 2004), social movement scholars have important contributions to offer.
Almaguer, Tomas. 1994. Racial Fault Lines: the Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Bartov, Omer. (2003) “Seeking the Roots of Modern Genocide: On the Macro- and Microhistory of Mass Murder,” in R. Gellately and B. Kiernan (eds.) The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press: 75-96.
Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hagan, John, and Wenona Rymond-Richmond. 2008. “The Collective Dynamics of Racial Dehumanization and Genocidal Victimization in Darfur.” American Sociological Review 73(6): 875-902.
King, Charles. 2004. “The Micro-Politics of Social Violence.” World Politics 56(3): 431-455.
Madley, Benjamin. 2008. “California’s Yuki Indians: Defining Genocide in Native American History.” Western Historical Quarterly 39(3):309–32
Madley, Benjamin. 2009. American Genocide: The California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. Yale University Ph.D. dissertation, History Department.
Owens, Peter B. Forthcoming. “The Collective Dynamics of Genocidal Violence in Cambodia, 1975-1979.” Social Science History.
Owens, Peter B., Yang Su, and David A. Snow. 2013. “Social Scientific Inquiry into Genocide and Mass Killing.” Annual Review of Sociology 39: 69-84.
Steinman, Erich. 2012. ” Settler Colonial Power and the American Indian Sovereignty Movement: Forms of Domination, Strategies of Transformation.” American Journal of Sociology 117(4): 1073-1130.
Su, Yang. 2011. Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.