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American Holocaust:

Examination of 19 Century Genocidal Policies of the United States towards American Indians By Lucy Alvarez While many fail to see the experience of American Indians in this country as genocide, in fact the treatment undergone by this group at the hands of the United States government entirely conforms to the internationally adopted definition of the term. Genocide in many instances has become synonymous with the Holocaust, often seen as the epitome of evil. It is important to note however, that although the Holocaust is the most famous example, it is not the only genocide throughout history. An important separation between the initial settler contact of 1492, which caused massive devastation to indigenous populations at the hands of Columbus, and the treatment of American Indians by the United States government during the 19th century must occur when studying genocide as it relates to American Indians. By differentiating between the two historical periods, a distinction occurs between the factors responsible for the genocide perpetuated by colonizers and the genocidal politics of the American government. According to Thornton (1987):

For them [the American Indians] the arrival of the Europeans marked the beginning of a long holocaust, although it came not in ovens, as it did for the Jews. The fires that consumed North American Indians were the fevers brought on by newly encountered diseases, the flashes of settlers and soldiers guns, the ravages of "firewater," the flames of villages and fields burned by the scorched-earth policy of vengeful European Americans. The effects of this holocaust of North American Indians, like that of the Jews, was millions of deaths. In fact, the holocaust of the North American tribes was, in a way, even more destructive than that of the Jews, since many American Indian peoples became extinct (P. Xv-xvii).


In his work American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (1987), Russell Thornton contends that the Holocaust of American Indians spanned centuries and took on many forms and perpetrators. His quote is of particular significance because it not only articulates the experience of American Indians from disease to gunfire but also draws a connection between the experience of the Jews and that of American Indians. A comparative 1

analysis of the experiences of the Jews and American Indians is a technique employed by both scholars that attempt to validate the claim that American Indians endured genocide as well as scholars that attempt to discredit this argument. Despite the parallels made by some between the two events, scholars such as Steven Katz (1996) argue that comparing the American Indian experience to that of the Jews is inappropriate given the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Katz (1996:19) states that "the Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific people." Apart from arguing for the uniqueness of the Holocaust Katz also contends that given "the structure, the character, of the assault against the Native American peoples differs radically from that represented by the Holocaust for several fundamental reasons, the most basic of which is the role that disease has played in this history" (1996:20). Katz thus resides with the school of thought that contests that American Indians did not suffer genocide but rather suffered devastations in their populations as an inevitable result of disease and expansion. Despite opposition by most scholars, the comparison between the Jewish and American Indian genocides is one that nonetheless needs to be made in order to keep the Holocaust relevant and validate the experience of American Indians. Although scholars have proposed the argument of the American Holocaust, there are limitations that restrict the availability of research. Due to the controversial nature of the topic itself much of the predominant literature on genocide fails to cover the topic altogether or argues the widely accepted notion that it was not genocide but rather a consequence of colonization and exposure to disease. In addition, the claim that American Indians endured genocide has only fairly recently surfaced in genocide research however has been advanced through the work of scholars such as Ward Churchill 1997, 2004; Andrea Smith 2005; David


Stannard 1992, 1996 and Russell Thornton 1987 who have dedicated entire books to the subject matter. Apart from the work of these scholars however, a large portion of the research is relegated to excerpts or short chapters in books covering the broader context of genocide. Even within the research on American Indian genocide, few works deal explicitly with the genocidal state policy of the United States towards American Indians and rather cover the more general genocide of indigenous populations in Central, South, and North America. As a result, much research remains to be written in the realm of the American Indian genocide as it relates to the United States government. Instrumental in understanding the American Holocaust is a critical discernment of the meaning and definition of the word "genocide," considering both the limitations of the word as well as the historical context during which the term was coined and the initial intent. Through an understanding of the term, it becomes clear how the stipulations of what constitutes genocide apply to the actions taken on behalf of the United States government towards American Indians. The United States adopted a genocidal state policy implemented through ideologies of dehumanization, which were perpetuated by those in power and facilitated by tactics, which were employed to weaken and inevitably annihilate American Indians. The word genocide gave a name to "a crime without a name" (Lemkin 1946:227); however, since the terms coining a debate has emerged between the originally intended definition and the limitations of the internationally adopted definition. Because of the controversy that has emerged from the definition of genocide it is necessary to understand the term both in historical as well as in political contexts. In conceptualizing the emergence of the term itself, it becomes imperative to distinguish between the originally intended definition of the term and what was later adopted by the international community, which many argue, fails to encompass all the characteristics, which constitute genocide. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer


of Jewish descent, coined the term in 1943 and used it for the first time in print in his 1944 publication Axis of Evil in Occupied Europe (Springer 21). Lemkin (1944) stated:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify 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 (P.227)

Unique within Lemkins definition is his assertion that mass killings play a role in accomplishing genocide. Mass killings in some respects evolved into a point of contention within the realm of genocide literature with many scholars differentiating between genocide and mass killing; however, Lemkin notes that mass killings are at times a means used to accomplish genocide. Thus, Lemkin demonstrates that rather than being two separate concepts, there exists a relationship between genocide and mass killing, a point that is absent in the internationally adopted definition. Raphael Lemkins definition encompasses a far broader scope, which covers many of the definitional issues that evolved out of the narrow definition, because of pressures from many prominent countries who heavily influenced the wording. Despite the restricting nature of the term even in working within the confines of the adopted definition, the actions taken on behalf of the United States fully conform to the international definition of the term. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide known as the CPPCG (YUN 1946: 288). The Sixth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly was referred a draft resolution submitted by the representatives of Cuba, India and Panama, drawing the attention of the Economic and Social Council to the crime of genocide where subsequently the representative of Cuba "urged that genocide be declared an international crime" (YUN 1946:288). In later discussions, the Sixth


Committee addressed important problems, which some cite as leading to the compromised and limited definition of genocide. Among one of the most crucial points of contention was whether political groups should be among the groups protected by the convention (YUN 1948:290). Ultimately, the Committee decided to exclude political and social groups, due in large part to opposition from the Soviet Union for such terms being included in the definition. The original draft of the convention included "references to ,,cultural genocide (as opposed to ,,physical genocide), which was opposed by Canada and other Western countries (Springer 2006: 25). The Committee decided "by 25 votes to 16, with 4 abstentions, not to include provisions relating to cultural genocide" (YUN 1948: 290). According to Article 2 of the Convention (1948):

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (P.293).

Many argue that the compromised definition adopted by the United Nations fails to adhere to Lemkins original definition as a result of intentional exclusion by countries which amended the definition in order to absolve themselves of complicity in genocides. The exclusion of both "political groups" and "cultural genocide" greatly restricted the definition of genocide leading to many criticisms. Apart from the limitations of the definition there is also a failure on the part of the international community to follow through on the implied commitment to prevent and prosecute perpetrators of genocide. 5

Article 3 of the Convention (1948) states:

The following acts shall be punishable: (a) Genocide; (b) Conspiracy to commit genocide; (c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide; (d) Attempt to commit genocide; (e) Complicity in genocide (P. 293-294).

Given the stipulations of this article it becomes evident that to commit the crime of genocide does not explicitly require the killing of people but can also encompass planning, encouraging, or persuading other individuals to commit genocide (Springer 24). As a result, Article 3 of the Convention is particularly detrimental to the United States government upon examining our treatment of American Indians. Prominent figures such as Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson encouraged and persuaded generals and citizens alike to individually commit genocidal acts against American Indians. Thus, despite the exclusion of concepts such as cultural genocide and "political groups" the actions taken by the United States towards American Indians in the 19th century still demonstrate the countrys complicity in committing genocide. Through state policy the government conspired to commit genocide against the American Indian population even if a widely public campaign of genocide in a mass scale as that of Hitler was not prevalent. The United States genocidal state policy towards the American Indians was implemented over hundreds of years predominantly through ideologies of dehumanization which were perpetuated by those in power. "U.S. policies towards Indians did not mandate genocide" (Kiernan 2007:310) at least not in the conventional means such as those openly advocated by Nazi Germany however the end result in many instances was the same if not worse than the Holocaust. Whether through campaigns advocated by the media or correspondence between Presidents and generals, the policies of the United States towards American Indians encapsulated


the genocidal rhetoric that would later resurrect in Nazi Germany. Throughout the course of history Indians were perceived as "savages" and as such were "hunted like wild beasts" (Stannard 1992: 119) this lead to the reinforcement of an ideology that permeated throughout the United States during the 19th century. According to Stannard (1992):

[Since] the Indians were mere beasts, it followed that there was no cause for moral outrage when it was learned that, among other atrocities, the victorious troops had amused themselves by skinning the bodies of some Indians ,,from the hips downward, to make boot tops or leggings (119-120).

Stannard conveys the dehumanizing ideology which caused soldiers and citizens alike to treat American Indians as animals and mutilate their bodies for enjoyment. Newspapers of the period disseminated genocidal rhetoric that advocated for the annihilation of the American Indians and in many instances preceded brutal massacres. A year prior to the massacre of Sand Creek in 1864 for example, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News blatantly advocated for genocide stating that "they [American Indians] are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth" (Stannard 1992:129). Whether from editorials in newspapers or government authorities, policies of extermination were advocated and led to massacres from Wounded Knee in South Dakota to the extermination of entire tribes in California. Prominent American leaders "maintained colonial and even genocidal views toward Indians" (Kiernan 2007:318). These views in turn led to their ideologies which heavily influenced policies at the time and led to state sanctioned massacres by the United States Cavalry. United States policies were influenced most heavily by the ideologies of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, both of which repeatedly dehumanized American Indians and advocated for their extinction. In his work Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007) Ben Kiernan explicitly cites the link


between agriculture and genocide. He notes that "genocides resulted from a ruthless policy of conquest in which Indian land was the prize and Indians the obstacle" (2007: 310) which led to "agrarian ideology [serving] to reinforce genocidal thinking when it was accompanied by expansionism and racism" (316). Beginning in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson introduced a U.S. Indian policy with genocidal undertones which were later implemented under the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (Kiernan 2007). Rather than an openly mandated U.S. policy, genocide became a tactic employed by Jefferson. He would advocate its use amongst other politicians and military officials a course of action when deemed necessary and often left it to the discretion of particular individuals rather than giving direct orders. Jefferson "thus employed what we might call ,,ethnic cleansing as a wartime defensive weapon and a means of seizing new land" (Kiernan 2007: 320). The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was particularly harmful to American Indians and set in motion a series of events that would take place during presidencies of both Jefferson and Madison. Upon procuring the Louisiana territory Jefferson "formally proposed their [American Indian] deportation, instituting the U.S. policy of voluntary or forced removal" recommending that Indians "should see only the present age of their history" (Kiernan 2007:327). The relationship between agriculture and land acquisition only served to further Jeffersons ideologies and solidify the fate of American Indians. Indian massacres for Jefferson were not something to be condemned but rather revered and celebrated in his eyes. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 in eastern Colorado was inarguably one of the bloodiest and most heinous massacres of American Indians demonstrating the force with which the United States military overpowered and brutalized innocent victims. Colonel John Chivington commanded roughly 700 hundred heavily armed soldiers who invaded a village inhabited mostly by women and children, with the entire Indian population unarmed. Enforcing


his policy to "kill and scalp all, little and big" (Stannard 1992:131) Colonel Chivington and his men opened fire and killed almost all of the 400 men, women, and children. Amongst the carnage almost all of the men, women, and children were scalped with many individuals being mutilated by the soldiers during the massacre. Jefferson commented that the brutal Sand Creek Massacre was "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier" (Stannard 1992:134) complimenting rather than condemning the actions of Colonel Chivington and his men. Jefferson "continued to see ethnic cleansing and even genocide as legitimate responses to war and opportunity" (Kiernan 2007:327) driven by his desire to expand and gain Indian territory. This expansionist desire and drive to gain Indian territory culminated in the genocidal policies during the administration of Andrew Jackson. Although credited with being particularly destructive in his treatment of American Indians, he was merely implementing a plan that had been laid out years before by Jefferson. Unlike Jefferson who advocated genocidal policies, Jackson participated in genocidal massacres and committed torturous acts of brutality against American Indians. According to Stannard (1992):

[He] Supervised the mutilation of 800 or so Creek Indian corpses-the bodies of men, woman, and children that he and his men had massacred-cutting off their noses to count and preserve a record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins (P. 121).

Jacksons ideology thus not only reiterated the beliefs of his predecessor but he took a much more vocal approach advocating for the annihilation of American Indians through a great deal of genocidal rhetoric. Jackson recommended that "American troops specifically seek out and systematically kill Indian women and children who were in hiding, in order to complete their extermination" (Stannard 1992:121). This statement alone conveys the genocidal rhetoric and 9

policy that Jackson adopted in his view of American Indians. In encouraging troops to kill Indian women and children Jackson was advocating actions that would prevent future generations of Indians from being born ensuring the annihilation of American Indians as a people. Under Madisons administration the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830 was passed by Congress which led to devastating population losses by Indians who were forcibly removed from their homelands and continued to impact generations to come. Five tribes in particular which were known as the 5 civilized tribes were targeted consisting of the Choctaw, the Seminole, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee (Stannard 1992). Despite peacefully co-existing and having assimilated to some degree tribes were targeted, the Cherokee being the most impacted of the five tribes. The forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears "like other government-sponsored Indian death marches, intentionally took native men, women, and children through areas where it was known that cholera and other epidemic diseases were raging" (Stannard 1992: 124). Jacksons policies and most notably forced relocation of American Indians served to perpetuate the genocide in both indirect and direct manners, although not outright killing all of the Indians that were relocated, the conditions under which they were moved facilitated massive deaths. "Many survived the hardships of the journey only to be stricken with disease in the new lands or to die there of starvation" (Thornton 1987: 118) thus not only did the journey kill a great deal of Indians but thousands more perished as a direct result of the removal and inhumane conditions they were forced to endure. The accounts of the the Trail of Tears forces us to draw the parallels between the forced removal of the Indians and the displacement of Jews decades later. When

drawing the parallels between the Jewish and American holocausts two essential questions are posed by Venables (1990):

What of those Jews who were removed from their homes to undertake slave labor and died of the atrocious conditions imposed upon them? Are removals which dont end in gas chambers or


killing fields, but which cause the unwarranted death of innocents, to be omitted from holocausts? (P. 34).

Venables (1990) denotes the similarities between the two populations and while the destinations were different from gas chambers, which produced an eminent death to reservations, environments yielding slow death, in the end thousands of innocent lives were lost. As a result of the Trail of Tears among other policies and actions undertaken by Jackson, he is viewed as committing some of the worst atrocities against American Indians during the 19th century. The Trail of Tears therefore is a prominent example of U.S. tactics employed to weaken and inevitably annihilate American Indians. As a direct result of Jacksons U.S. policy the Cherokee endured devastating population losses with "more than 8,000 Cherokee men, women and children [dying] as a result of their expulsion from their homeland" (Stannard 1992:124). Although the Cherokee suffered the greatest losses, all of the 5 civilized tribes were devastated as a result of Jacksons policies. Again a parallel is drawn between the experiences of the Jews and American Indians with Stannard (1992) contending that "the higher death rate of the Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokee was equal to that of Jews in Germany, Hungary and Rumania between 1939 and 1945" (124) demonstrating the scope of the devastation both groups faced during the death marches that each respectively endured. Rather than adopting an approach comparable to Hitlers gas chambers to quickly exterminate large masses of Indians, U.S. policy came to dictate a slower and more indirect approach through a series of brutal massacres, forced relocations to reservations, starvation, and conditions that if not resulting in direct killing greatly weakened American Indians. A particularly insidious practice of the United States was "the officially initiated separations (kidnappings in effect) of Indian children from their families for purposes of educating them in non-Indian ways usually under Christian auspices" (Legters 1988: 773). Not only did this 11

procedure lead to the weakening of Indian culture it was also "patently genocidal by the UN definition (Legters 1988:773) which clearly stipulates in the second article of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that genocide that forcibly removing children of one group to another constitutes committing genocide. Therefore, given the fact that the United States government adopted a policy in which many Indian children were removed from their group and sent to residential or "boarding schools" and often given to white families to adopt, it is evident that the United States was complicit in committing genocide. Kiernan (2007) notes that in 1854 "the California super intendent of Indian Affairs reported that slavers often murdered Indian parents while abducting the children leading to "an estimated 10,000 California Indians [who were] sold or indentured" (352). Thus Indian children were not only massacred alongside their parents, forced to endure death marches in which many succumbed to disease and starvation, but were also kidnapped from their families or had their parents murdered and were sold into servanthood or shipped to boarding schools and forced to assimilate. The targeting of Indian children was thus done with the aim of preventing further generations from being born carrying out the genocidal rhetoric embedded within the U.S. Indian policy. Bested expressed by Ward Churchill (1997): The American holocaust was and remains unparalleled, both in terms of its magnitude and the degree to which its goals were met, and in terms of the extent to which its ferocity was sustained over time by not one but several participating groups (P. 4) Churchill (1997) thus refers to the experience of American Indians as an American Holocaust, using rhetoric that is reminiscent of the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany. He also establishes an important point by noting the participation of several groups in attempting to accomplish the goal of total Indian extermination. Although many as the prime example of genocide use the Holocaust, it is "not necessary to adopt this horrific standard to establish genocide (Legters


1988:772). Through a closer examination of United States Indian policy the treatment of the government through forced relocations, placement in reservations, and removal of Indian children it becomes evident that the United States should be held accountable for its actions punishable under article 3 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The United States conforms to all five acts noted under the article and while the treatment of American Indians continues to go unrecognized as genocide, it cannot be named anything less. From the genocidal rhetoric of past presidents, to countless massacres and inhumane treatment although we did not exterminate all of the Indians, we accomplished a devastation that resulted in near extinction. Hitler failed to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe, so too the United States failed to exterminate all of the Indians in the United States yet given the actions taken because of policies under both governments, the occurrence of genocide cannot continue to go unrecognized.


Bibliography Churchill, Ward. 1997. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Katz, Steven T. 1996. "The Uniqueness of the Holocaust: The Historical Dimension." Pp. 1938 in Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives of Comparative Genocide. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Kiernan, Ben. 2007. Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Legters, Lyman. 1988. "The American Genocide." Policy Studies Journal 16(4):768-777. Lemkin, Raphael. 1946. "Genocide." American Scholar. 15(2): 227-230 Springer, Jane. 2006. Genocide. Toronto: House of Anansi Press. Stannard, David. 1992. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press. Thornton, Russell. 1987. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Venables, Robert W. 1990. "The Cost of Columbus: Was There a Holocaust?" Northeast Indian Quarterly Fall: 29-36.



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