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Genocide by Any Other Name...

"There was no room for Indians in Jefferson's empire of liberty," writes Jones. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson himself spoke frankly of what we would today call genocide. "We must leave it to yourself to decide [whether] the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal," Jefferson once wrote to Clark's older brother, the storied Indian fighter George Rogers Clark. "The same world would scarcely do for them and us."

Jonathan Kirsch, review of William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Landon Y. Jones, Los Angeles Times, 6/6/04

It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the atrocities—intentional, neglectful, or accidental—perpetuated on Indian people by the conquering culture, and later by the very government that assumed responsibility for their protection.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), "Reflections on the Quincentenary," Journal of Legal Commentary, Spring 1992

The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.

David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World


The case for genocide
In Chapter 1 of his A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes the Europeans' genocidal actions against the Natives they encountered. Some lowlights:

[Columbus] took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death.

So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

In two years, through muder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

"Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives . . . . But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then . . . . The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians . . . ." [quote from Bartolomé de las Casas]

The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades."

Cortés then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy — to paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed.

In Peru, that other Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the same reasons....

In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early as Columbus had set it in the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any permanent English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian village.

Not able to enslave the Indians, and not able to live with them, the English decided to exterminate them. Edmund Morgan writes, in his history of early Virginia, American Slavery, American Freedom:

Since the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their corn wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn . . . . Within two or three years of the massacre the English had avenged the deaths of that day many times over.

The murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnaper, and troublemaker became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.

It's important to note that all this happened before epidemics such as smallpox decimated the remaining Indians. This point is obvious if you think about it. The first colonizers didn't intentionally transport people with diseases to their New World settlements. Except for one Negro in Cortes's fleet, they were reasonably healthy. (That man inadvertently sowed smallpox among the Indians of Mexico, a major factor in their defeat.)

The pattern is clear. Again and again the first Europeans subjugated, enslaved, and slaughtered the Natives they encountered. Only after these genocidal actions did large numbers of colonists arrive, bringing with them their filthy habits and diseases. Only then did epidemics sweep through the remaining Indian populations, finishing the extermination the Europeans had begun intentionally.

Nevertheless, it's true that microbes, not men, killed most of the Americas' Native inhabitants. Let's see why the term "genocide" still applies.

Genocide defined
In Indians Are Us? Ward Churchill observes that Article II of the United Nation's 1948 Convention on Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide specifies five categories of activity considered genocidal—and therefore criminal under international law—when directed against an identified national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. He notes that only one of these categories involves outright killing. The five categories are:

For a good history of this subject, read The Genocide of Native Americans: A Sociological View.

Unfortunately, many Americans, even (especially?) educated ones who should know better, are in denial. They refuse to acknowledge that their ancestors committed genocide against the Indians. In Darken Up, A-Hole: Reflections on Indian Mascots and White Rage (8/10/05), Tim Wise laments these people—namely:

Folks like conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, who, in a debate with me at Western Washington University in May, insisted that terming the process genocide was absurd. It was, to him, merely an emotional appeal on my part, devoid of content; calculated to gain applause at the expense of honesty. To Dinesh, genocide was an inappropriate term because most of the Indians who perished died from diseases, not warfare waged by whites.

That Dinesh has never read the definition of genocide, readily available in the United Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention, certainly was no surprise. But had he done so, he would have seen that in order to qualify as genocide, one does not have to directly kill anyone per se. Rather, genocide describes any of the following acts, committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group's destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring the children of the group to another.

In fact, each of these categories has been met in the case of American Indians. And had it not been for conquest, those diseases to which Indians had no resistance—and which colonists praised as the "work of God," clearing the land for them—wouldn't have ravaged the native populations as they did. To imply that such deaths were merely accidental or incidental would be like saying the Nazis bore no responsibility for the 1.6 million or so Jews who died of disease and starvation in the camps, rather than having been gassed or shot. But try saying that at your local neighborhood synagogue and see how far you get—with good reason.

The same denial is evident on the Internet, as I quickly found out when I trolled Usenet. With the preceding background in mind, we present some exchanges on the subject.

Subjugation, not genocide?
>> When I think of genocide I think of what the Germans did to the Jews; a merciless, methodical attempt at the utter destruction of a people, root and branch. What the Americans did to the Indians was conquest and subjucation, quite a different thing no matter how violently accomplished. <<

Read the quote above for the actual definition of genocide. Besides, if you conquer and subjugate a population based on its ethnicity, while killing a large number of people in the process, I'd call it genocide by any standard. Not a different thing at all.

But if you think the European invaders didn't try to exterminate the Indians mercilessly and methodically, a few facts may be enlightening:

On the mainland, we know for sure that our fellow-countrymen have, through their cruelty and wickedness, depopulated and laid waste an area which once boasted more than ten kingdoms, each of them larger in area than the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. The whole region, once teeming with human beings, is now deserted over a distance of more than two thousand leagues: a distance, that is, greater than the journey from Seville to Jerusalem and back again.

At a conservative estimate, the despotic and diabolical behaviour of the Christians has, over the last forty years, led to the unjust and totally unwarranted deaths of more than twelve million souls, women and children among them, and there are grounds for believing my own estimate of more than fifteen million to be nearer the mark.

Bartolomé de las Casas, preface, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1542

The extirpation of Indians, of course, did not begin with America's founding fathers. United States citizens and public servants like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, were only following a tradition that had long been established by European colonists. Like most American traditions, it was chartered by religious zealots. Puritan Saints who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony, within a decade of its founding in 1630, passed what amounts to the first gun-control legislature on the continent when it legislated that settlers could not "...shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion, or at any game except an Indian or a wolf" (quoted in Lopez, 1978, p. 170). Lopez notes that the Puritans used similar tactics in liquidating both wolves and Indians: "He set out poisoned meat for the wolf and gave the Indian blankets infected with smallpox. He raided the wolf's den to dig out and destroy the pups, and stole the Indian's children" (1978, pp. 170-171).

White "settlers" required little prodding to kill Indians, but the Colonial governments spared no expense in ridding the New World of its old inhabitants. Just as bounties were paid for the legs, tails, or ears of animals regarded as a nuisance to "civilization," so were bounties paid for the scalps of Indians. "By 1717, all the New England colonies had bounties in place, as did New Jersey. Massachusetts rescinded its Scalp Act in 1722, on the grounds that it had become 'ineffectual,' but reinstated it by public demand in 1747" (Churchill, 1997, p. 182).

David Rider, "Indians" and Animals: A Comparative Essay

Euro-Americans greedy only for land?
>> The Americans wanted the Indians land not their lives. <<

They wanted the land and the people off it (unless they remained as slaves to work it). The two are inseparable.

The following passage, adapted from the paper "First Contact" by Trace A. DeMeyer, describes the slave trade begun by Columbus. It proves the Europeans did want lives as well as land:

What the encyclopedia does not emphasize or deny is that Columbus was a major supplier of slaves prior to 1500, and it's estimated that he brought some 6,000 Native people to Europe.

Columbus's first contact was in 1492, when he captured some two dozen of the Arawak tribe of the Caribbean. With a fleet of 17 ships, some 1,200 colonists and 34 horses, he returned in Nov. 1493. On his way he briefly stopped in St. Croix, where members of his group captured four Indian men and two women in a canoe. They cut the head off one man with an ax and took the others aboard as captives to send to Spain as slaves. It's the first recorded instance of a killing by Columbus's group. (Source:  500 Nations by Alvin M. Josephy Jr.)

Even though Spain monarchs hesitated to sanction the capturing of Indians, the cruel Columbus did not stop shipping Indians in chains to the slave markets of Cadiz and Seville. In 1503, the Queen gave her permission and "required a share in the profit" of his slave trade. By the 1520s, slave raiding in Florida and the Carolina coast was common.

Records show that in 1603, the British began to abduct Native Americans from New England and the Virginia coast, taking them to England. Abductions played a major role in the British plan for colonization. They said they took Indians as slaves to learn about the lay of the land, the language, and to acquire mediators. If a ship returned to England, it was filled with Native American slaves who were forced to toil as oarsmen.

Thomas Hunt kidnapped 27 Indians in 1614 from Massachusetts and took them to Spain for sale. A few were sold and the rest taken by Spanish friars and Christianized. As children learn in the movie Squanto, one of those Native warriors escaped and returned to his people in 1619, only to find them dead from disease, a European form of germ warfare.

Again, note that the European slave-raiding began before the epidemics decimated whole tribes. So the Europeans didn't just wipe out the Indians with disease, then take a few stragglers into captivity. Their policy was to kill and enslave people before disease became a factor.

See Those Evil European Invaders for more on the subject.

Natives just as greedy and bloodthirsty?
>> I think all people have the ability to be bastards given the opportunity. And many Indians, when given the right opportunity were mercenary, greedy and self-serving. <<

An old and very tired argument. No one is saying Indians weren't and aren't capable of killing people. But the fact is, whites did kill people in much greater numbers than Indians did. Moreover, this onslaught was a state-sanctioned policy, not the capricious actions of individuals or small groups.

See Savage Indians for more on the differences between European and Native warfare.

Sure, Native people warred among themselves, enslaved each other, and betrayed each other to the Europeans—on a small scale. No one is suggesting Natives are better than Euro-Americans individually. The issue we're discussing is the culture as a whole. A civilization has values that aren't necessarily reflected in each person, family, or village.

>> And that's the thing, non-Indian Americans today still benefit by the acts of our less enlightened predecessors. What you gonna do, go back to the old country? <<

How about upholding the treaties we signed as written?

Saying that the conquered benefited from conquest, that the slave benefited from slavery, is a constant refrain in these debates. Naturally, no debaters have ever been conquered or enslaved, nor would they submit themselves, their families, or their communities to subjugation. Their argument is specious, as they'd quickly realize if they gave it any thought.

When Hitler offered to share his cosmopolitan German culture with the uncultured bumpkins of middle America, guess what? Boobus Americanus fought tooth and nail against Hitler and his proffered benefits. Oddly, they didn't even consider adopting the best aspects of German culture: its industry, science, art, theater, and music. Could it be because freedom trumps every alleged benefit?

All societies believe their culture is superior. If a culture is flawed, if it can't cope with a given environment, a society changes it. Native societies did modify their cultures when Europeans arrived, adopting the best foreign elements (horses, guns) and ignoring others. Natives still feel their cultures are superior in many ways, which is why they're fighting to keep them.

The key question the naysayers haven't addressed is how Native cultures would've evolved over the same 500 years since Columbus. Comparing our modern society now to their "primitive" societies then is a false comparison. Compare Native life in 1492 to European life in 1492 and you'll see the question of which is best is far from clear.

>> If you're white and feel guilty do something constructive about it like by helping modern Indians instead of bewailing the sins of our forefathers. <<

Bewailing the sins of our forefathers is constructive because it cuts through the veil of denial. The veil people like you are trying your best to maintain, I might add. But that's not all people are doing. Spike Lee is making his movies, Natives like Todd Clark are working through organizations like AIM, and I'm publishing my multicultural comic book.

Was disease the "big killer"?
>> Disease was the big killer — probably 80% to 90% — not a deliberate policy. This is not to excuse the acts of any of the colonial powers — merely to inject a little historical and scientific accuracy. <<

Statements like this ignore the reality of the situation. First, killing was generally a deliberate ploy, as we've already established. The Spanish and English colonizers deemed it legal or moral to exterminate any Indians who didn't agree with colonial policy.

Obviously, the Europeans didn't encounter all the Indians immediately because the American continents were vast. Disease traveled faster than men on horseback could. But that doesn't change what the Europeans did do and what they would've done if they'd encountered healthy Indians. Whenever the choice was "live and let live" or "live and let die," they chose the latter.

Second, the epidemics didn't happen in a vacuum. Killing or enslaving the strongest members of Native society, moving them off their productive farming and hunting grounds to inhospitable wastelands, promising them food to make up for their stolen livelihoods and then letting them starve...all these things contributed hugely to the epidemics that swept Indian country. Euro-Americans deliberately took steps to destroy Native peoples and cultures, which is why the UN rightly lists these efforts as components of genocide. Then the oppressors stood back and watched, like the guards at Auschwitz, while disease, alcohol, and despair finished the job they started.

It's as if Euro-Americans pushed Natives off a cliff, then said, "It wasn't our fault. They died because of gravity. We can't do anything about the laws of nature. If they'd been smart, they would've invented parachutes to save themselves. But the poor brutes weren't civilized, so they fell to their inevitable end."

The following posting explains how disease was part of the Euro-American strategy, not an exception to it:

Native Americans: Weapons of Mass Destruction

Diseases were not fast enough to accomplish the dreaded annihilation, so they combined this biological warfare with the sword, guns and hunting dogs as the Spanish did to exterminate the "vermin." That the mercilessness of the British was not forgotten by invading settlers can be seen on the "trail of tears." On the trail of tears, which was nearly 300 miles in length, the Cherokee Indians were deliberately marched past areas known to have outbreaks of cholera and other epidemic diseases. To add to their debilitated state from diseases, the freezing weather, and the forced death march, they were fed spoiled flour and rancid meat. Nearly 8,000 died on this march out of 17,000.

Another logical step in biological warfare is the deliberate withholding of treatments for diseases. One case among the Native Americans is the Apaches and their fight with tuberculosis. "Tuberculosis was allowed to affect the Apaches, e.g., the government could have returned the people to the southwest, which at the time was a popular remedy for TB. Instead, the government refused to allow the sick and dying Apaches to come home. So...not overtly, but certainly covertly, the government exercised revenge on the Apaches. And, if they could do that to one tribe, they could do it to all who resisted the encroachment." In many cases there may have been no deliberate attempt at withholding a cure, but the end result was welcomed.

Is that enough historical accuracy for you? If not, some additional quotes will show the Euro-Americans' deadly intent:

When the Spaniards had collected a great deal of gold from the Indians, they shut them up in three big houses, crowding in as many as they could, then set fire to the houses, burning alive all that were in them, yet those Indians had given no cause nor made any resistance.

Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1542

When we asked them for food...they mocked us like the others. In view of this, the corners of the pueblo were taken by four men, and four others with two servants began to seize those natives who showed themselves. We put them in an estufa [kiva]...We set fire to the big pueblo...where we thought some were burned to death because of the cries they uttered. We at once took out the prisoners [from the kiva], two at a time, and lined them up against some cottonwoods close to the pueblo, where they were garroted and shot many times until they were dead. Sixteen were executed, not counting those who burned to death....This was a remarkable deed for so few people in the midst of so many enemies.

Diego Perez de Luxan, writing about the Puaray Indians during the Espejo expedition to New Mexico, 1583

The Spaniards repeated this pattern frequently. At most of the pueblos they visited, they demanded food, shelter, and labor. If the Indians didn't provide it, they took it by force. If the Indians resisted, acted in self-defense, the Spaniards attacked them viciously until they were dead or vanquished.

And after they vanquished the Indians physically, they went to work on them mentally. They took the Indians' women and children, banned their religions, and forced them into the wage economy. They did whatever they could to eradicate their independence of action and thought.

From a book review of Women and the Conquest of California, 1542-1840 in the LA Times, 5/30/01:

Of course, it was the flesh-and-blood women of the New World who felt the real sting of the Spanish conquest. Native American women were occasionally subjected to rape and other sexual outrages but even more often to a form of subjugation that was physical and spiritual—they were pressured to convert to Christianity, embrace the Hispanic culture and the European work ethic and submit to the authority of the various men in their lives, including their priests and their husbands.

Bouvier argues that the friars seized on seemingly mundane matters in a calculated effort to extinguish the indigenous culture of California and remake the Native Americans in their own image. An emphasis on eating three meals a day in the European fashion, she points out, represented an effort to restructure the lives of the Native Americans according to "the Western model . . . of worship, work and rest, punctuated by meals."

Killing and subjugation and brainwashing to destroy the Indian identity. Sounds like ethnic cleansing to me. Whether Europeans killed a million, 100,000, or "only" 10,000 Natives directly, their culture-crushing acts qualify as genocide.

What did the colonizers know?
I don't know if the colonizers realized their diseases were fatal to the Indians. Perhaps not. As noted above, if diseases hadn't killed the Indians, the colonizers would've found some other way to do it. The trade in alcohol, the broken treaties, and the massacres are all evidence of that.

That stems, again, from the fundamental difference in worldviews.

>> As I said before, there is plenty of blame here, there is no need to blame [Europeans] for what they did not do. <<

If you break into someone's house and accidentally let the cat out, are you responsible for the cat's escape?

Here's a quote from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, a book I highly recommend:

In colonial times, everyone knew about the plague. Even before the Mayflower sailed, King James of England gave thanks to "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us" for sending "this wonderful plague among the salvages [sic]."

It's still not clear the Europeans knew they themselves were transmitting diseases like the plague. But they were clearly happy to see the Indians die. As Lies explains, they quickly occupied Native villages after the inhabitants died out, in some cases robbing the graves they found.

If cheering on the plague isn't an immoral attitude, I'm not sure what is. So yes, we can blame the Europeans for their beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs. They sought to conquer foreign territory and, one way or another, make the Native opposition disappear.

See Adolf Hitler:  A True American for more evidence of the Euro-American attempts to commit genocide through disease.

The genocide continues
Since the extermination of most (but thankfully not all) Native people, the United States has continued to tolerate, accept, or encourage genocide. The well-known dismissal of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust was merely the most blatant example. These actions prove the genocide of Indians was no fluke.

From Rogue Nation USA by Christopher Hitchens in Mother Jones (May/June 2001):

In 1994, several smaller states went to the U.N., urgently pleading for a small but decisive increase in the world body's presence in Rwanda. Advance warning had been given of the Intentions of the Hutu militia, and word of their plans had been authoritatively leaked to local peacekeepers. Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. envoy to the U.N., was instructed to block the proposal to send more troops. After the self-inflicted debacle in Somalia, the United States had decided that Africa was boring and dangerous and that its pleas should go unheard. The Hutu genocide plan went off without a hitch; the United States then approved a military intervention by the French government, which sent its troops to protect the mass murderers against the rebellion of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Do yourself a favor and look up the date on which the United States actually ratified the 1948 Convention on Genocide (40 years after its passage at the United Nations) or the last time it refused to recognize a genocide (the 1915-1923 massacre of Armenians, the subject of a failed congressional resolution last fall).

For more on US-sanctioned killing, see Why Don't "They" Like Us?:  Iraq, Why Don't "They" Like Us?:  Israel, and Prison Abuse Shows America's Values.

In conclusion
As you can see in this posting and the readers' responses, we Americans are predisposed to think we didn't do anything wrong. Our cultural mindset is to be the cowboy hero, not the Nazi villain. Or as observers have put it:

No historian would accept accounts of Nazi officials as to what happened in Nazi Germany because these accounts were written to justify that regime. Yet American historians are still subjective about their own history with a few exceptions. They try to justify and rationalize what happened, give excuses or lay blame on a few exceptionally cruel generals or wild frontiersmen. There were too many massacres for them to be accidental. There were too many buffalo for them to become extinct in a period of five years. Genocide is colonial policy, not accident.

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz (Cheyenne), The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting in Judgment on America

Our nation's values also include obfuscating and misleading history lessons that are designed to make Americans feel good about our country's past and to delude ourselves about the truth. Americans like to think that this continent was sparsely populated with Indians and we bought it fair and square. In fact, it was densely populated with people who took pity on inept colonizers and helped them survive their tough, early years in this foreign place. In the end, the Americans stole or coerced 98 percent of this land from those who occupied it before Columbus. And the Americans invented remarkably creative stories to justify both the past theft of this continent and their present control and continued theft of the remaining two percent of the land over which Indians still exercise sovereign authority.

David Rider, Slave on a Dollar (Sacagawea essay)

We would like to believe that the singular focus and greed of our ancestors is a thing of the past which we have grown beyond. This is our necessary myth. We always place the crime in some buried chunk of the bygone years, so that we can become innocents and, thus, in our own eyes we are simply victims of earlier evil deeds.

Charles Bowden, The Sonoran Desert

Genocide in the Stereotype of the Month contest
Medved:  Reject the lie of white "genocide" against Natives
Pope:  Church didn't alienate Natives, impose foreign culture
Indians invent "mythology" about "holocaust" around campfire
Indians suffer "dependency"; genocide was a "coincidence"
Indians' killing "parallels that of the Spanish Inquisition"
Minnesota teacher says killing of Indians wasn't genocide
Columnist thinks cultural genocide means language loss
Genocide called "one of the less embarrassing tragedies"
Columnist:  Europeans didn't kill Indians for their land
Denver Post:  Columbus-led genocide is a "narrow view"
Lewis & Clark committee rejects a mention of genocide
The Road to El Dorado ignores genocide of Natives

More commentary on genocide
Getting Comfy With Genocide:  Is the word losing its power to shock us into action?
"Balanced" view of Wounded Knee
Genocide not so bad?
The wisdom of Albert Speer
Mortensen reads De Las Casas
Fun with (fictional) genocide
Ozians just like Indians
Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and us
How many Indians died?
Americans afraid to say "genocide"
Oops, America's mistake

More information on genocide
Why learn this history stuff anyway?
Your heroes are not our heroes
The genocide of Native Americans:  a sociological view
Imagining the unimaginable

Related links
The facts about blankets with smallpox
Those evil European invaders
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Adolf Hitler:  a true American

Readers respond
"[T]he word 'genocide' will have to be changed before it cannot be used to describe the crimes fostered against the Native populations of the New World."
Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?  "The violent collision between whites and America's native population was probably unavoidable."
"When, in your consideration, did the genocide against Natives in the territories now called the US and Canada end?"
"Based on this definition, genocide was not carried out by the United States Government against the Indian Nations."
"This lie [about US policy] has been perpetuated and believed by fools and hate-mongers, but never quoted—wonder why?"
"I'm sorry, but the American public is guilty of aiding and abetting the holocaust here, every single one of them."
"This land was available...because of the Great Die Off."
Whites "knew that certain diseases spread from human to human via casual...contact."
"If it is the fault of 'White America', then nothing I can do...can change things."
"Your reasoning would lead to almost all wars of conquest being called genocide."
"The first Europeans who came to this country did not know there was anyone here."

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