Context: In Aaron Huey’s Ted Talk he made mention of the word “genocide” when describing the formation and expansion of the U.S. at the expense of its indigenous people. Many other scholars and historic figures (like Martin Luther King, Jr., for example) have also used the term. Yet other scholars and historical figures strongly oppose this use of the word for the American context, arguing that is either incorrect or hyperbolic. Throughout the course we’ll be questioning whether the claim of genocide is appropriate, misguided, or just downright erroneous.
Instructions: What follows is an excerpt of a literature review from Villanova University (2014) on the so-called “American Genocide Debate.” This will serve as an introduction to the debate we’ll be having often throughout the course. Read actively and then respond to the prompts on pages 5-6.
Relevant vocabulary, individuals, and institutions:
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish (and Jewish) lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1941, coined the term “genocide” in 1944 from the rooted words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and –cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin helped to initiate the Genocide Convention which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, which defines genocide in legal terms. All participating countries are advised to prevent and punish actions of genocide in war and in peacetime. Although 146 states have ratified the convention, genocide has occurred across the globe on several occasions since 1948 (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur).
Lemkin’s original definition of genocide: A coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.1
The United Nations definition (as found in the Convention): …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 the conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.2
Literature Review on the American Genocide Debate
. . . . The literature on the American genocide debate is divisive; while some scholars maintain that the near annihilation of Native Americans was an unintended tragedy caused predominantly by disease, others boldly assert that genocide took place. Between these two extremes exist two more moderate approaches: one that disaggregates the debate but tends to contribute to the notion that genocide did take place, and one that maintains that the story of the “unavoidable” collision between whites and America’s native population does not cast either side as the hero or the villain; thus, the charge of genocide at an entire society is erroneous. Scholars also disagree on how to define genocidal intent, which historian Gregory Smithers, author of numerous books and articles about Native American history, explains in “Rethinking Genocide in North America”:
Some…define intent broadly, and refer to both the cultural and biological destruction of indigenous people. Other scholars argue that American history lacks evidence of coordinated government efforts to commit genocide on any group of people. During the early years of the Cold War [when the UN Convention was drafting a definition for genocide], the idea that English colonial authorities or the U.S. government had ever acted with genocidal intentions toward Native Americans undermined the notion of American exceptionalism, and struck at the heart of America’s self-identification as a beacon for liberty and freedom in the face of Communist oppression.3
This review will begin with the “unintended tragedy” approach. Historian Steven Katz argues that Native American depopulation “was an unintentional consequence of settler colonialism. . . . [that] occurred despite the sincere and indisputable desire of Europeans to keep the Indian population alive.”4 Although Katz may use the available demographic statistics to argue that most Native Americans died of disease, rather than colonialism and cruelty, Benjamin Madley, an historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is currently writing a book for Yale University Press on the California Indian Genocide, argues that the “emphasis on disease as the prime agent of American Indian demographic decline tends to overshadow the equally undeniable role of violence in the population catastrophe and in the conquest of the United States.”5 Furthermore, his belief that Europeans genuinely wanted American Indians to survive can be disproven by the growing body of literature that highlights annihilationist rhetoric and anti-Indian violence throughout U.S. history. Yet Katz often counters claims of genocide in North America, such as the Pequot War (which was an armed conflict between the Pequot tribe and an alliance of English colonists in 1636-1638). By pointing out that Indian warriors and English soldiers fought together against the Pequot, Katz argues that the Pequot War was “neither genocidal nor racially motivated.”6 This line of thinking, however, is flawed, since the decision to use Indian warriors against the Pequot was more indicative of military convenience and expedience, rather than proof that genocidal intent and racial motivation were absent.
Representing the other extreme are scholars who confidently assert that Europeans and Americans (both its government and settlers/citizens) are guilty of genocide against Native Americans. This group includes Mahmood Mamdani, professor of anthropology, political science, and African studies at Columbia University; Ward Churchill, author, political activist, and former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder;7 and David Stannard, professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii. Mamdani argues that the “United States was built on two monumental crimes: the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. The tendency of the United States is to memorialize other peoples’ crimes but to forget its own—to seek a high moral ground as a pretext to ignore real issues.”8 Similarly, Churchill and Stannard refer to settler colonialism in North America as “the American holocaust” and view European colonization of the Americas as an example of “human incineration and carnage.”9 Each of these scholars makes the mistake that Madley cautions against when he writes that it is “difficult to argue meaningfully about genocide on a national level without…robust local studies to support broad conclusions.”10 As such, both Churchill and Stannard have been criticized for their unsubstantiated and imprecise assessments regarding genocide in North America.11
The next approach is disaggregated but tends to support the conclusion that genocidal intent and action were apparent at various times in U.S. history. This group includes Gregory Smithers and Benjamin Madley, who were both discussed and cited in the introduction. The review of this literature will be the most substantial in both length and content, as the approach contains (mostly) well-documented evidence and analysis supporting its claims, in contrast to the other approaches discussed in this review, and is most useful for the purpose and argument of this paper.
Smithers acknowledges that the “one narrative approach” to British-American Indian relations is flawed and there existed no structural rationale for genocide in colonial North America; instead, he prefers to use the phrase “selective threats of genocide” against Native Americans.12 Smithers explores the development and evolution of growing suspicion and anxiety towards Native Americans throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These fears fostered a “nagging sense of vulnerability, … growing racialized distrust of Indians, … [and culminated in the] objective of protecting settler societies by eliminating the threat posed by Native American warriors.”13 Colonists, being nervous about “unprovoked” attacks, developed a psychology that “in moments of stress…resulted in determination to exterminate.”14 To prove such claims, Smithers provides short case studies of Virginian and Puritan settlers.15 Smithers then moves to the early republic and highlights how the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution “united all white Americans in a socioeconomic community of common interest.”16 Over time, racial anxiety increased, as did the level of “ideological intensity to frontier violence and the quest for territorial and economic aggrandizement. . . . [Increasingly, there was an] explicit belief that exterminating Native American peoples could indeed be seen as a ‘just’ means for…[expansion] from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.”17 To prove such claims, Smithers provides short case studies of frontier violence, the Yuki Indian genocide, and cultural genocide, while also exploring the effect of citizenship laws based on race. . . .
Madley provides the best examples of sound methodology when it comes to answering the American genocide question. His work includes a detailed analysis of the Yuki Indian genocide and Pequot War, along with a rubric of markers for assistance in locating possible occurrences of genocide in North America.18 For the Yuki catastrophe, Madley asserts that genocide took place, as the events in California fit the legal definition set forth by the United Nations:
First, multiple perpetrators articulated, in word and deed, their “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical racial [or] religious group as such.” Second, at various times a range of perpetrators committed all five acts of genocide listed in the convention. “Killing” included murders and massacres. Rapes and beatings amounted to “causing serious bodily harm” on the basis of group identity. Reservation employees and Washington officials had ample evidence of both Indian malnutrition and settler violence on the reservation, but took little corrective action. By setting and staying this course despite years of severe population decline, some of these officials seem to have been “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Further, because the imposed conditions of malnutrition and overwork predictably lowered Indian fertility while increasing miscarriages and stillbirths, federal decision-makers also appear guilty of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” Finally, various state officials, slave raiders, and federal officials were all involved in “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” State legislators legalized abduction and indenture of Indian minors; slavers exploited indenture laws; and federal officials prevented army intervention to protect their legal wards.19
To fit the UN definition, Madley was obliged to prove intent. To do this he demonstrated how California Governor John Weller and state legislators, though never explicitly calling for Yuki extermination, “emphatically approved genocide ex post facto (retroactive effect or force), by paying… [settlers] for their killings.”20 These individuals also “commanded soldiers not to intervene to protect their legal wards, . . . and chose not to provide adequate food to reservation Yuki when it was well within their power and responsibility to do so.”21 Madley also finds evidence to support the claim that the U.S. Congress was guilty of intent, as they approved the citizen killing campaign “by helping California pay for it.”22
Madley contends that “annihilationist statements, massacres, state-sponsored body-part bounties, and mass death in government custody are four ways of locating, and ultimately, defining prima facie (accepted as correct until proven otherwise) cases of genocide.”23 To provide strong examples of each, Madley travels through American history, pointing out where each of the four markers emerged and how they evolved over time.24 His analysis, even before outlining his precise case studies of the Pequot War and Yuki genocide, seems to provide enough evidence that genocide, on the whole, occurred in North America, though that is not his stated purpose in outlining these four markers. Though Madley’s work is impressive, it would be improved with the inclusion of case studies that do not constitute genocide, so as to strengthen his argument by way of comparison.
The final approach in the existing literature is best represented by author and former professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Guenter Lewy, who maintains that
the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash. The Indians were not prepared to give up the nomadic life of the hunter for the sedentary life of the farmer. The new Americans, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, were unwilling to grant the original inhabitants of the continent the vast preserve of land required by the Indians’ way of life. The consequence was a conflict in which there were few heroes, but which was far from a simple tale of hapless victims and merciless aggressors. To fling the charge of genocide at an entire society serves neither the interests of the Indians nor those of history.25
Lewy points out that ever since Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1881), which documented a series of injustices and crimes towards Native Americans perpetrated by the U.S. government and citizenry, scholars have used “exaggeration and one-sided indictments” when addressing the Native American genocide question. As an example, Lewy discusses how the claims of biological warfare are extremely unsubstantiated but have come to be regarded as fact.26 Though Lewy acknowledges the annihilationist rhetoric of settlers, citizens, and, at times, officials throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he argues it is overemphasized in the literature, while the other part of the story—settler and citizen opposition to and criticism of anti-Indian violence and rhetoric—is largely ignored by the literature. While Lewy’s arguments are certainly worth exploring, he loses credibility when he critiques Jackson’s alleged hyperbole while incorrectly identifying the year her seminal work was published; Lewy indicates that A Century of Dishonor was published in 1888, even though it was actually printed in 1881. An additional weakness in Lewy’s work is that, like Katz, Lewy asserts that the “most important reason for the Indians’ catastrophic decline” was the spread of “highly contagious diseases to which they had no immunity.”27 This logic is flawed, as disease may have been the leading cause for some Indian tribes, but perhaps not all.28
Unlike Madley, Lewy argues that the Pequot War was not a genocidal event:
The evidence belies this. The use of fire as a weapon of war was not unusual for either Europeans or Indians, and every contemporary account stresses that the burning of the fort was an act of self-protection, not part of a pre-planned massacre. In later stages of the Pequot war, moreover, the colonists spared women, children, and the elderly, further contradicting the idea of genocidal intention.29
Lewy makes similar arguments about the Wounded Knee massacre and actions of Generals Sherman and Sheridan across Georgia and in the Shenandoah Valley.30 He does, however, admit that the massacres in California, “where both the perpetrators and their supporters openly acknowledged a desire to destroy the Indians as an ethnic entity, might indeed be regarded under the terms of the [UN] convention as exhibiting genocidal intent.”31 Yet Lewy believes it is ill-conceived to apply [the UN definition of] genocide to events that took place hundreds of years earlier; but if that is to be done, it should never condemn an entire society:
Guilt is personal, and for good reason the Genocide Convention provides that only “persons” can be charged with the crime. . . . As for the larger society, even if some elements in the white population, mainly in the West, at times advocated extermination, no official of the U.S. government ever seriously proposed it. Genocide was never American policy, nor was it the result of policy.32
To put it perhaps more succinctly, one could look to historian Richard White: “…finding specific instances of genocide does not make the entirety of American Indian policy genocidal.”33
. . . . The issue of genocide in North America is also relevant for policymakers, who, as the truth surfaces, may face increased pressure for apologies and reparations to the 5,220,000 U.S. citizens of self-reported Native American ancestry.34 This can be likened to the apology and $1.6 billion that Congress awarded to the 82,210 Japanese Americans after the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II had not been justified by military necessity but rather was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”35 Or perhaps policymakers might experience increased pressure to deal with the tragedy that is Native American reservations today, where close to a million people live in conditions similar to those in the developing world. . . . What responsibility should the U.S. government bear for these tragedies? Detailed case studies will help to answer this question.
. . . . As President Andrew Jackson himself once stated, “Our conduct toward these people [Native Americans] is deeply interesting to our national character.”36 It should be in the name of decency, justice, and historical veracity that Americans seek the truth about how their past influenced, altered, and, in some cases, destroyed Native American cultures and groups. As political theorist Hannah Arendt so eloquently explains, “[e]very generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum, is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors.”37 With those burdens and blessings come responsibilities to seek and speak the truth and make amends for past wrongs. And yet high school teams across America and one NFL team continue to use the Redskins as their mascots, despite the fact that the term has its origins in the bounty programs of colonial America, as explained by one Native American:
Back not so long ago, when there was a bounty on the heads of the Indian people…the trappers would bring in Indian scalps along with the other skins they had managed to trap or shoot. . . . The term came from the bloody mess that one saw when looking at the scalp. . . . [W]hen we see or hear that term…we don’t see a football team. [Instead] we see the bloody pieces of scalps that were hacked off of our men, women and even our children…we hear the screams as our people were killed…and “skinned’ just like animals.38
Several high school teams recently caught the attention of whistle-blowers when playing Redskin teams. High school students in Alabama and Tennessee had the audacity to display Trail of Tears signs that mocked the tragic event (an episode of ethnic cleansing that resulted in the forced removal of 100,000 Native Americans from their homes, 4,000-8,000 of which died in the journey), highlighting what some view as “racism and insensitivity” towards Native Americans.39 One high school in Alabama created a breakthrough sign for their football team which read, “Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a Trail of Tears Round 2.”40 Equally as shocking were the corresponding unapologetic student tweets on Twitter in the subsequent days after the images went viral (see images on page 6). Why is ethnic cleansing, death, suffering, and injustice considered a joke at these American high schools? It is likely that dehumanization of Native Americans will continue so long as Americans bask in the glory of their blessings rather than wrestle with the studies of their past sins, genocide or not.
What are the similarities and differences between Lemkin and the UN’s definition of genocide? Are there any problems with either of these definitions?
Why do you think this debate “matters”? If you don’t think it matters, explain why.
There are four approaches to the “American Genocide Debate” in the current literature. Summarize these approaches below:
Which approach does the article support? Why? Do you think this approach was convincing? Why or why not?
What is your response to the arguments made regarding “Red Skins” teams and the posters displayed at several high school stadiums?
1 Lemkin, Raphael. “Chapter IX. Genocide,” in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation—Analysis of Government—Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, 1944), 79.
2 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), 280.
3 Smithers, 323.
4 Smithers, 329.
5 Madley 2015, 100.
6 Smithers, 332.
7 Churchill was fired from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2007 after an investigation into his research found that he had engaged in “research misconduct.” Churchill then filed a lawsuit against the University of Colorado, claiming that he had been fired for his provocative, and often politically unpopular, views. Through a series of appeals, the case came close to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, however the Court declined to hear the case.
8 Mamdani, Mahmood. (2002). “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism.” American Anthropologist, 104(3), 773.
9 Smithers, 330.
10 Madley 2015, 108.
11 Madley, Benjamin. “California’s Yuki Indians: Defining Genocide in Native American History,” The Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3 (Autumn 2008), 331.
12 Smithers, 327-328, 341.
13 Smithers, 333.
14 Smithers, 331.
15 Smithers, 324-333.
16 Smithers, 333.
17 Smithers, 333-334.
18 Madley 2015, 109.
19 Madley 2008, 328-329.
20 Madley 2008, 330.
21 Madley 2008, 330.
22 Madley 2008, 330.
23 Madley 2015, 109.
24 Madley 2015, 109-119.
25 Lewy, Guenter. "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?" George Mason University: History News Network. September 2004. http://www.historynewsnetwork.org/article/7302.
28 Madley 2008, 332.
33 Madley 2015, 105.
34 Madley 2015, 101.
35 Bishop, Katherine. "Day of Apology and 'Sigh of Relief.'" The New York Times. August 1, 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/11/us/day-of-apology-and-sigh-of-relief.html.
36 Jennings, Patrick. "Andrew Jackson Speaks: Indian Removal." The Nomadic Spirit. 1995. http://www.synaptic.bc.ca/ejournal/jackson.htm#.VUZa_5p0zIU.
37 Weiner, Brian, “Introduction: Past Wrongs, Present Responsibilities,” in Sins of the Parents: The Politics of National Apologies in the United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 1.
38 Wicks, Mike, ed. "Mascots: Redskins." American Indian Cultural Support (AICS). 1998. http://www.aics.org/mascot/redskins.html.
39 Miller, Danielle. "'Trail of Tears' Signs Mocking Genocide at Multiple High Schools." Last Real Indians. http://lastrealindians.com/trail-of-tears-signs-mocking-genocide-at-multiple-high-schools-point-to-epidemic-of-racism-and-insensitivity-against-native-americans-by-danielle-miller/.
40 Miller, Danielle. "'Trail of Tears' Signs Mocking Genocide at Multiple High Schools." Last Real Indians. http://lastrealindians.com/trail-of-tears-signs-mocking-genocide-at-multiple-high-schools-point-to-epidemic-of-racism-and-insensitivity-against-native-americans-by-danielle-miller/.