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A Nation Born of Genocide
What Christopher Columbus himself says about the Native Americans he encountered differs vastly from what we were taught in school. We were taught that the "Indians" were savages who killed without giving it a second thought. As it turns out, Christopher Columbus was the embodiment of white man's privilege. Here's how Columbus describes the Spaniards' treatment of the Native Americans:
"The Spanish cut off the legs of children who ran from them. They poured people full of boiling soap. They made bets as to who, with one sweep of his sword could cut a person in half. They loosed dogs that devoured an Indian like a hog."
People often get hung up on the number of Native Americans murdered as the primary criteria in determining whether or not the settlers committed genocide. The true estimates about how many Native Americans inhabited North American are all over the place to begin with, ranging from 8 million to 145 million. Additionally, sheer numbers are not the primary driver in the decision.
In her very informative article, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz spells out how an event is determined to be "genocide." Here is what she has to say:
The term "genocide" was coined following the Shoah, or Holocaust, and its prohibition was enshrined in the United Nations convention presented in 1948 and adopted in 1951: the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention is not retroactive but is applicable to US-Indigenous relations since 1988, when the US Senate ratified it. The genocide convention is an essential tool for historical analysis of the effects of colonialism in any era, and particularly in US history.
In the convention, any one of five acts is considered genocide if "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group":
(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.
The followings acts are punishable:
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide.
The term "genocide" is often incorrectly used, such as in Dr. Anderson's assessment, to describe extreme examples of mass murder, the death of vast numbers of people, as, for instance in Cambodia. What took place in Cambodia was horrific, but it does not fall under the terms of the Genocide Convention, as the Convention specifically refers to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, with individuals within that group targeted by a government or its agents because they are members of the group or by attacking the underpinnings of the group's existence as a group being met with the intent to destroy that group in whole or in part. The Cambodian government committed crimes against humanity, but not genocide. Genocide is not an act simply worse than anything else, rather a specific kind of act. The term, "ethnic cleansing," is a descriptive term created by humanitarian interventionists to describe what was said to be happening in the 1990s wars among the republics of Yugoslavia. It is a descriptive term, not a term of international humanitarian law.
Dunbar-Ortiz acknowledges that the Holocaust was the most extreme form of genocide, but also states the bar that the Nazis set does not have to be met for the assault on Native Americans to be considered genocide. She further states:
US history, as well as inherited Indigenous trauma, cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples. From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the twentieth century, this has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, forced removal of Native American children to military-like boarding schools, allotment, and a policy of termination.
Historians estimate that there were about 10 million Native Americans here when Columbus arrived in 1492; only 300,000 remained as of 1900.
Bear River Massacre
Sand Creek Massacre
January 29, 1863. A village of Shoshone near Preston, Idaho, was attacked by the California Volunteers, killing an estimated 384 Native Americans.
November 29, 1864. A 675-man contingent of Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry attacked and destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho, killing and mutilating between 70 and 500 Native Americans.
Undefined date, 1853. The massacre of the Tolowa people of Yontucket in northwestern California. Up to 450 were killed by a "company" organized by American citizens of Crescent City. It was reported that a bonfire was started after and ceremonial clothing, as well as babies (some still alive) were burned.
Wounded Knee Massacre
Camp Grant Massacre
The Marias Massacre
January 23, 1870. A friendly tribe of Piegan Blackfeet Indians were murdered by the U.S. Army in what is now Montana territory. An estimated 173-217 Native Americans were killed.
April 30, 1871. An attack on Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches who had already surrendered to the U.S. Army. It is estimated that 144 Native Americans were killed.
December 29, 1890. It is estimated that 150-300 Native Americans were murdered by the U.S. Army on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
Deaths from disease. exhaustion, starvation
The Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by Andrew Jackson on May 28, gave him legal recourse to relocate Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands further west.
The Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokees to the Western United States, began in 1838. It was 2,200 miles, and resulted in 4,000+ Native American deaths as a result of disease, exhaustion, and starvation.
The devastating numbers above explain why the forced "removal" of the Cherokees was called The Trail of Tears. However, the removal was more expansive than just the Cherokees. It involved the Five Civilized Tribes, so named because they had adopted various aspects of European society, including farming techniques, cloting, and housing. Many had also converted to Christianity. In addition to the Cherokees, the Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chicksaw were removed. There are a number of often overlooked facts here.
Not surprisingly, greed and white privilege led to the Indian Removal Act. Although the creation and passage of the original Cherokee Nation constitution had been completed and the Cherokee Supreme Court had already been established, it didn't matter once gold was discovered. Formerly peaceful white communities began to turn on their Native American neighbors. The easiest solution for Washington became the "removal" of the Cherokees, forcing them to leave behind their land, farms and homes.
The Cherokees had their champions in Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, who spoke out against this act. The Reverend Samuel Worcester even argued against extinguishing Indian rights to the land in the state. Surprisingly, he won the case as the Supreme Court upheld Cherokee sovereignty. Little did that matter to Andrew Jackson, who defined the court and ordered the removal. (As a result, Empire has continued to violate the terms of treaties with Native American citizens ever since, most recently at Standing Rock, where greedy corporations pursued a modern-day version of gold at the expense of Native Americans.)
The Trail of Tears
A journey of broken hearts
Indian Boarding Schools
Kill the Indian, save the man
The idea behind Indian boarding schools was to kill the "Indian," but save the man by immersing children in white man's culture. Children were taken from their families and put into boarding schools. Here, assimilation began immediately. Their hair was cut, uniforms were handed out (no traditional dress was allowed), They were forced to learn and speak in English; no traditional languages were allowed. They went to school in the morning, and learned the trades in the afternoon. The ultimate goal, however, of the school was the same as the massacres.
“Early assimilation policies were to steal Native American land,” says Christy Abeyta, an alum and current teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School. “If we can assimilate these Native Americans into the dominant culture then they have no need for reservations, they’re going to migrate into urban areas and there will be no need to maintain tribal lands, because they would have lost their culture, the language, all ties to what they held so sacred…and that was the land.”
Nobody tells the story better than somebody who has lived through the boarding school experience.
“They got us when we were young. I used to speak my native tongue when I went down there, and I can’t even talk now. They beat it out of me."
“If you spoke your language, they held you down, put a bar of soap in your mouth.”
With all due respect to what we traditionally refer to as "The Holocaust," and without diminishing its historical significance or the horrifying human aspects, it was not the first and only holocaust that has happened throughout history. Indeed, what the marauding Europeans inflicted upon the Native Americans in their quest to find "the new world" cannot be called anything but genocide. The event is our American holocaust. Yet, we barely pay lip service to this momentus event.
In addition to massacres, the infidels also understood that Native Americans had never been exposed to the many diseases that they carried. While many died as a result of contracting these diseases, disease itself became a weapon for the white man.
“You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Native Americans were also the victim of cultural genocide, taught to reject their own culture and become assimilated into the white man's world.
Our schools do not teach the truth about our history and our interactions with Native Americans. It is up to us to educate our children about our history. These are some materials and links. If, in your quest for information, you find other web sites or books that are helpful, please send suggestions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The files below are for Roxanne Dumbar-Ortiz's excellent "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States." On the left is a downloadable PDF file. The book can also be ordered from Beacon Press. The image on the right is a link to their site.
United to End Genocide
National Congress of American Indians
Indian Country Today
Indian Country Today celebrates and serves today's Native American nation.
The National Congress of American Indians is a clearinghouse for all tribal information.
Although broad in scope, this website details atrocities committed against Native Americans.
Native American Activism 1960s-Present
Heroes of Native American Resistance
American Indian Movement
The staff of Indian Country Today has put together a pretty good list of Native American resistance heroes. You can even download a report.
AIM was founded to turn the attention of Indian people toward a renewal of spirituality which would impart the strength of resolve needed to reverse the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America.
The Zinn Education Project has a great overview of Native American activism from the sixties to the present.