The Indigenous Genocide We Refuse To Acknowledge

(Photo credit: Public Domain, altered by author)While precise numbers are impossible to retrieve, an estimated 56 million Natives of the Americas were either killed by Europeans or died of European diseases between Christopher Columbus arriving in 1492 and the year 1600. The overwhelming loss of human life was so immense that scientists believe the event caused a global climate change, wherein the earth cooled due to dramatic loss of population. But the death toll did not dissipate there. Through massacres, forced removals, biological warfare, and separation of children, the United States of America managed to reduce their native populations from millions to a mere 230,306 by the 1900 census.Adolf Hitler cited the United States’ as inspiration for his own Holocaust, which accounted for the loss of 6 million Jews. In his writings, Hitler praised America for how they “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.” His minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, on numerous occasions referenced the United States’ history with native populations as a direct educative tool for their own Final Solution.Yet, why does the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans receive significantly less collective mortification than the Holocaust?Perhaps because, in the American context, the Holocaust was conducted by the “other.” The Germans, the Nazi Party, the opposition. It is far easier to condemn crimes against humanity committed by an enemy than to recognise such atrocities within our own legacy. Rewording Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion for what they truly were, deliberated genocide, would push our most revered U.S. presidents of the 19th century off their propagandised pedestals.The Presidents Who Massacred NationsIt should hardly be a surprise that our founding fathers were racist towards Natives. In the Declaration of Independence, the very foundation of our country’s identity, indigenous peoples are referred to as “merciless Indian savages.”[i] It only gets worse from there. A peruse through national archives reveals what some of our most celebrated presidents felt in regards to Native populations;“[When we] lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi… in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy them all.” — Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. President.“Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority, [the Native tribes] must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” — Andrew Jackson, 7th U.S. President“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President(“The only good Indians are dead Indians” derives from Union General Phillip Sheridan, who responded to a Comanche Chieftain calling himself good with, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”)More disturbing than their blatantly white supremacist sentiments, virtually every president from America’s foundation up to the eve of the 20th century were active participants of the extermination of indigenous peoples. Andrew Jackson is perhaps most notorious of all, with his mandated Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears, which forcibly displaced over 125,000 Natives, including the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations. In his purge of the Southeast, to clear land for slave plantations, Jackson caused the deaths of thousands of Natives on the 5,000 mile trek, systemically bringing entire Nations to virtual extinction in the infertile wastelands west of the Mississippi.But ethnic cleansing was not only unique to the man on our twenty dollar bill. The men on our one and five dollar bills each did their parts in propelling the genocide.George Washington, the United States’ first president, earned the name “the Town-destroyer” by the Seneca Nation, on account of his rampaging campaign to uproot Iroquois villages throughout the Northeast. Under his presidency, treaty protected Native lands were stolen by settlers, and when Nations objected to the blatant breaking of legal agreements, Washington responded not with rebuke to the illegally intruding white settlers, but with a 5,000 man army to quell any resistance from the Nations. The two pronged aim of his ‘Indian Policy’ was the purchasing of Native lands and assimilation of Native peoples into American society. While on paper it was proposed that these objectives would be “directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and humanity”[ii], the reality was in direct opposition of just and humane. When Native Nations refused to sell their land, Washington mandated they be taken by force, using the term “extirpate” as a description of the bloody process. As for the assimilation, the acts of kidnapping children from their Nations, placing them in intensive boarding schools, forbidding they speak their native tongues or practice their cultural beliefs, and abusively brainwashing so as to “kill the Indian” inside of them does not exemplify “justice and humanity.” Washington set a precedent for how our government was to regard Native Americans for the next century.“American Progress” by John Gast (1872) depicting Manifest Destiny’s claiming of Native lands.The beloved Abraham Lincoln, venerated for abolishing slavery, was also far from guiltless. His administration displaced tens of thousands of natives with the Homestead Act, which subsequently resulted in thousands of deaths. In Lincoln’s removal of Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from their homelands, the Nations were involuntarily made to make a 450 mile trek, accounting for the loss of over 2,000 lives, only to undergo further intensive ethnic cleansing, crop burnings and raids by the U.S. military. Across the plains in Minnesota, Lincoln signed an 1862 order to execute 38 Dakota Sioux, the largest mass execution in US history. The men sentenced to death were fighting in defense of raiding white settlers, after the government broke peace treaties with the Dakotas. To give perspective on the matter, Lincoln never ordered a single Confederate officer or general be executed, despite the Civil War killing over 400,000 Union soldiers. The sentiment was clear: If you revolt and are indigenous, you deserve execution. If you revolt and are white, you deserve a slap on the wrist and possibly a commemorative statue or two.Taking Ownership for Our PastIn line with Governor Peter Burnett’s 1851 vow to ambush Native Americans until they became “extinct,” the State of California had over 16,000 Natives slaughtered by federal troops and state sponsored militias in just 30 years. Tens of thousands more were raped, enslaved, kidnapped, murdered or died of starvation and disease in the process of displacement. For the Yuki Nation alone, who numbered between 6,000 and 20,000 in 1854, only 300 remained by 1864.[iii]Despite the California State Department of Education’s refusal to acknowledge these events in their history curriculum, on June of 2019, California State Governor Gavin Newsom gave a formal apology for the state-led ethnic-cleansing of Native Americans. It was the first time the government of any U.S. state formally used the word genocide to describe their actions. While such an admission does not correct the wrongs of the past, it is anomalous, and opens up the potential for further change.Canada has officially used the term genocide in governmental statements regarding their shameful past with the Inuit, Métis, and First Nations. Mexico went a step further when their Prime Minister demanded Spain apologise for invading the region of Mexico which resulted in an pre-colonial indigenous population of 25.2 million dissipating to less than 700,000 by 1623. (Predictably, Spain refused.) Yet the United States federal government has never classified our past as a genocide. The closest we have come to such an acknowledgement was President Obama’s 2009 apology to Native Americans. Despite it being the first (and only) official apology from the US government to Natives, the messaging of the apology was bureaucratically watered down. From the bill’s inception on the senate floor by Senator Sam Brownback, to the desk of the Oval Office, wording was altered, statements were redacted, and the final result became an intentionally vague apology, “on behalf of the people of the United States.” While the bill recognised “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States,” all responsibility on the government’s part for inflicting said violence, maltreatment and neglect was omitted. The bill presented the past as a citizen problem, not a governmental problem. The word genocide was positively absent.Wasco-Wishram fishers over Celilo Falls, a large trading community that has inhabited the banks of present day Columbia River for over 15,000 years. The falls and village site have since been submerged by the federal government’s construction of The Dalles Dam.The Value of WordsWhy does a mere lack of language matter so much? An apology is an apology, whether or not they used the word genocide, right?Well, according to the UN, genocide is to be classified as:“Any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, 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,· Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[iv]All signatories of the UN’s definition, which includes the United States, are imposed to “prevent and punish” cases of genocide.If the U.S. government were to officially admit to committing genocide on Native Americans, by means of mass killings, bodily and mental harm, deliberate infliction on group conditions of life, eugenics to prevent births, and forcible transferring of children, they would be just as ethically obligated to the provision of reparations as Germany is to Holocaust victims. We elude from the word genocide because of the responsibility such a confession entails.The next step is for the United States federal government to issue a second, more direct apology to Native Americans wherein they clearly acknowledge the government’s responsibility and classify the events of the past as direct acts of genocide. Canada has done so, California has done so, and while they both have serious wrongs to mend and work to do, their admittance of genocide creates a space for growth. To quote Gov. Newsom: “It’s called a genocide. (…) [There’s] no other way to describe it and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books. (…) We can never undo the wrongs inflicted (…) but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.”Of course, such an apology will realistically have to wait for the next presidential administration. Despite a few sprinkled efforts to aid Native Relations, President Donald Trump has spent his political and business careers actively working to oppress and steal from Native Americans. Through the 90s and 2000s, Trump lobbied, advertised, and spread intentional misinformation against multiple Nations he felt to be competition to his casinos. On several occasions, including before the House subcommittee, Trump exclaimed that certain Native American businessmen should not have the right to own and manage casinos because they “don’t look like Indians to me,” on account of them having both Native and African American ancestry. He further shared the conspiracy that the Native American casino industry was owned by the Mafia, despite the Department of Justice concluding that “there has not been widespread or successful effort by organized crime to infiltrate Indian gaming operations.” Unconvinced, Trump launched an anonymous ad campaign, bankrolled by his own casino company, to spread falsehoods and racially charged fears about a Mohawk Nation’s expansion in the Catskill Mountains. The ads featured heroin needles and cocaine lines, with the narrator accusing the Mohawk Nation of being in the mob, asking the viewer, “Are these the new neighbours you want?” Because Trump never reported the 1 million dollars he poured into the advertisements under his lobbying spending, he was issued a 250,000 dollar fine and made to give a public apology.But his contention with Native Americans did not end there.Protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, San Francisco, 2016. (Photo credit: Pax Ahisma Gethen)Just four days into his presidency, Trump signed off on an oil pipeline, previously rejected by President Obama, which cut through Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux protected sacred lands in North Dakota. Sioux leaders have filed lawsuits, Sioux members have protested, and numerous other Nations across the country have united in solidarity, all to no avail. Not only does the pipeline break the law of binding treaties, but poses a severe water contamination threat for the local reservations. And Standing Rock is not a singular phenomenon. The Trump administration has made numerous attempts to remove Native lands from the Federal Trust, so as to sell them off for profit. An estimated 1/5 of the United States’ oil, gas and coal reserves are on Native lands, which the Trump administration aims to privatise. Already, Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which are sacred to the Hopi, Pueblo and Ute Nations, have been reduced in size and opened to oil and gas bidding. Combined, the selling off of these sacred lands has been part of the largest rollback of public lands protections in U.S. history. Down on the U.S. — Mexico border, dynamite has been used to demolish a Tohono O’odham Nation’s ancient burial ground to make way for Trump’s border wall. And, to add insult to injury, as of 2019, President Trump has designated November, which is National Native American Heritage month, to now be National Founders Month, declaring that, “for more than two centuries, the American experiment in self-government has been the antithesis to tyranny”, while failing to publish any statement for Native American Heritage month on the White House website.The Trump presidency has proven to hold no concern for Indigenous lands, rights, public health, or sacred sites. Trump’s approval among Native Americans is abysmal, and the expectation that he would ever acknowledge the government’s hand in genocide is non-existent. This is a man who publicly idolises Andrew Jackson and has his portrait hanging in the Oval Office. It is painfully evident that any hope for healing of our Native Nations is dependent on a new president.Until that day comes, let us as individuals call our history what it was; genocide.[i][ii] “George Washington to The Commissioners for Negotiating a Treaty with the Southern Indians, 29 August 1789,” The Writings of George Washington, 30:392 & 392N.[iii] Report of Indians on the Reservations within the California Superintendency (Report). Washington, DC: Office of Indian Affairs. 1865[iv]*TyOSYxfWPVCKR_RwoLJO1A.png
© Davy Mellado, 2022. All rights reserved.