U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Let’s have a conversation about genocide

Here in California a story broke out a couple of weeks ago which sheds a bright light on a topic American historians have attempted to leave in the dark for far too long. A student of Native American origin in a local state college challenged her history instructor in a US history survey on the applicability of the term ‘genocide’ for the destruction of Native peoples in American history. It appears that the instructor introduced the term genocide in his lecture only to suggest that it was inapplicable—since it was not a product of a premeditated conspiracy and since most Natives died of disease. After the student did some research on the matter she decided to raise her concerns in a subsequent class. According to the news story, the instructor asked her to come speak with him after class to continue the conversation, but the student refused to back down and insisted on discussing this topic in front of the class. At this point the instructor maintained that the student was hijacking the class. Though this was contested by the university as impossible, news accounts suggested that the instructor proceeded to expel the student form the course.

What shook me most about this story is that I know many historians who might have answered in a similar manner. Indeed, a while ago I might have argued along similar lines—though I do think I would have handled it better. When I studied American history I never heard the word genocide pronounced in class or in any informal discussions of American history—indeed, I barely heard much about Native Americans at all. The foundational sin of American history, as I knew it, was slavery, not genocidal extermination of Natives. When I first heard the word genocide employed to portray Native American history, I was a bit confused. Surely, this could not be the case if historians haven’t regarded American history in such terms. After all, if anyone would know, it would be historians. And genocide is a big and loaded term not to be used as an afterthought. From the little I did know by then about early American history, primarily from Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and Jared Diamond’s Gun, Germs, and Steel, I concluded that indeed Native American history is one of the most tragic affairs in the history of the world, but it was more of a terrible historical accident that brought death and destruction—primarily by disease—to Native Americans, than a purposeful project actively carried out by Euro American settlers.

Having studied and read more American history and particularly history of Native peoples, I am not only frustrated with—and ashamed at—myself for thinking as I did, but with the American historical establishment that has refused to fully scrutinize its complicity in colonial and settler colonial projects. It is time we talk about genocide so that history teachers and students do not continue to perpetuate this reprehensible complicity. At the very least we can teach the history of Native peoples and openly discuss the applicability of the term. Furthermore, the very notion of accusing a student of hijacking a class is reflective of how warped our notions of teaching are. That students in the humanities must stand up to a teacher to introduce their ideas in class, I think, hints at the absurdity of teaching humanities in a disempowering lecture format—but that’s another discussion that merits a post of its own.

So let us review the UN definition for genocide. Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Surely, for the history of Natives in America, whether we begin our narrative with the destruction of the Taino in the Caribbean islands, we start our survey with the annihilation of the Pequots in New England, or we regard the entire colonial enterprise as enacting one or many genocides—for there were numerous Native nations—the term genocide applies.

In North America the story of genocidal violence begins with the first incursions of Spanish Conquistadores into the North American continent during the 16th century and runs until the end of the 19th century. Over three hundred years Europeans and Euro Americans engaged in practices of total violence with the intent of eliminating populations. Indeed, almost every time white people engaged in violence with Natives—which ultimately occurred in the case of the vast majority of interactions with Native groups—the affair ended with Europeans unleashing total warfare with the intent of extirpation. Virtually every war with Natives ended with the indiscriminate killing of women, children, and men, destruction of villages and crops, and the appropriation of almost all the newly “cleared” lands in some fashion for the use of white people. We do not need to focus on well known murderous sprees, such as the Pequot Massacre (also known as the Mystic Massacre) (1637), the Gnadenhutten Massacre (1782), or the Sand Creek Massacre (1864) to realize that the agenda of the settler colonial project in America was to eliminate Natives so white people could inherit their land—by whatever means necessary.

Extirpatory violence committed against whole populations occurred so consistently and was carried out in such a system-wide manner over hundreds of years in North America that not to regard what occurred as genocide/s is in my opinion outrageous, whether we use the UN definition or any other I can think of. That at no point a council came together in a secluded castle to discuss a “final solution” in secrecy, or that there was not a single body responsible for the implementation of genocide—as so many seem to expect when employing the term—is just to show that genocides can take many forms. Moreover, as Patrick Wolfe argues, in the context of contemporary discourse over the meaning of Native and colonial histories, to refer to what happened to Natives as “merely” ‘ethnocide,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘cultural genocide,’ or any other more palatable alternative to the term genocide, in effect belittles one of the saddest affairs in world history. (1)

[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4 (2006), 402.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great piece. As an early Americanist, there is nothing shocking about which you write. Since the authors and the commenters here frequently examine the “idea of America,” I am curious about the opinions of those focused on 19th and 20th century America think and what their reflexive default notions of American history is and isn’t.

    Amazingly enough, I find myself thinking about 9-11 with this post. Specifically, I am reminded of John Yoo’s infamous “torture memo.” It was in this memo Yoo relied on the notion that “unlawful combatants” were not covered as prisoners of war by the Geneva Conventions. Yoo relied on an precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873 in the Modoc Indian Prisoners decision. Yoo argued that detainees in Cuban were outside the legal protections of society, but were subject to the power of the governmental sovereign. The parallels in the methodology in dealing with the threat of stateless terrorist combatants of the 1870s with those of the early 2000s are chilling. Perhaps that is why “Geronimo” was to code word for Osama bin Laden by the Navy Seals in Pakistan.

    • Thank Brian. That’s a great point about the use of the 1873 precedent. Never thought about the parallels between 9/11 and Indian policy.

  2. I am mulling over whether genocide can indeed exist when the Weltanschauung of a people completely contains the paradigm of economic and cultural destruction. What percentage of a people must represent the counter-paradigm before the moral implications of genocide become identifiable?

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