American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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The Native nations of North America have endured relentless campaigns intent on destroying them and all aspects of their cultures for more than 500 years. Indeed, with varying intensity, government policies, corporate enterprises, and religious missions directed against American Indians can be best described as implements of genocide.


Although states have long sought to eradicate identifiably different groups, tribes, and peoples for thousands of years, the notion of genocide has a relatively recent origin, combining ancient root words, genos (people) and cide (killing). The term, coined by Raphael Lemkin, came into common usage only after the Second World War, largely in response to the systematic destruction of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others deemed subhuman by the Nazi regime. In 1946, the United Nations codified the concept in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Article II defined it as acts "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," including inflicting physical and/or psychological harm, fostering living conditions likely to lead to death and destruction, killing, the removal of children, and curtailing reproduction. Although not drafted to include the American Indian experience, activists and advocates began to reference genocide following the rise of Red Power amid the Vietnam War. More recently, the Columbian Quincentenary in 1992 sparked a wave of analytic inquiries and political applications of genocide to Native American history.


In contrast to many genocides, which have been characterized by a single, systematic, state-sponsored program directed at annihilation during a specific period of time, the Native nations of North America have endured a more diffuse, extended, plural, and unrelenting onslaught. The number of tribes and nations, their geographic locations, and their unique histories of interaction with European-Americans make the discussion of genocide much more complicated, as does the range of colonial powers (principally Spain, France, and Great Britain), newly established states (specifically the United States and Canada), and nongovernmental actors (especially corporate entities and Christian missionaries). As a consequence, one might be tempted to speak of multiple genocides or overlapping genocidal impulses, rather than a single destructive policy or event. Particularity and diversity, however, should not distract from the shared experience of destruction and dispossession.

Depopulation and Devastation

American Indian tribes experienced massive depopulation following (and in some cases in advance of) their exchanges with Europeans and European-Americans. Indigenous communities routinely lost at least 90 percent of their members, resulting in an overall drop from more (and perhaps much more) than 5 million in the present-day United States to a low of 250,000 in 1890. To be sure, many (arguably most) of these deaths resulted from epidemic diseases; however, many others were caused by state violence, policies directed at removal, and efforts to assimilate Native Americans. In fact, guided by explicitly racist ideologies that rendered them as primitives, animals, hostiles, predators, and impediments to progress, the genocidal projects directed at American Indians exhibit two equally destructive features (biological and cultural) at once. On one hand, an array of policies and programs sought to eradicate individuals and their cultural, spiritual, and traditional beliefs and behaviors. On the other hand, more "enlightened" policies and programs intended to create new, non-Indian people through the replacement of native languages, institutions, and practice with the supposedly superior elements of Western civilization.


Ever since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, American Indians have endured the effects of ideologies and actions aimed at their destruction. Importantly, these effects meet the United Nations definition of genocide.

Organized violence is perhaps the clearest expression of efforts to exterminate American Indians. For more than five centuries, military campaigns and vigilante actions proved pivotal to strategies to address the "Indian problem." George Washington compared indigenous peoples with wolves, deserving the same treatment, and Colonel John M. Chivington declared in 1864, "Kill them all boys, nits make lice" (Stannard, 1993, 131). The governor of California officially urged the extermination of all American Indians in his state during 1851; General William Sheridan affirmed nearly two decades later, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead" (Drinnon, 1990, 539). The press also sometimes endorsed murderous actions, offering news coverage and editorials inciting settlers to take up arms against Native communities. Killing, often on a massive scale, followed from these provocations.

The soldiers with Columbus delighted in the torture and mutilation of men, women, and children. Author Barry Lopez, summarizing a report by the Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, wrote: " 'Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight,' he says, 'as no age can parallel. . . .' 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, at first sight, in less than a moment.' They used nursing infants for dog food" (Mass Crimes, 2003). Lopez writes, "One day, in front of Las Casas, the Spanish dismembered, beheaded or raped three thousand people." Las Casas referred to the Spanish incursion as "a continuous recreational slaughter" (Lopez, 1990, 6–7).

Similarly, British colonists engaged in scorched-earth campaigns against indigenous peoples, burning villages and slaughtering their occupants, perhaps most notably during the Pequot War and King Philip's War. American forces waged an unrelenting series of wars in the nineteenth century, each punctuated by massacres such as those at Sand Creek in 1864 and Wounded Knee in 1890. Moreover, during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bounties were awarded for American Indian scalps.

Organized violence was expressed in another form of destruction as well, namely removal, which resulted in many deaths and the loss of indigenous traditions. Eager to claim natural resources, secure labor, and seize land, the dispossession and displacement marked British colonial efforts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as well as federal and state government programs in the nineteenth century. The Trail of Tears clearly illustrates these undertakings and their implications. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole all faced involuntary removal, the usurpation of national sovereignty, internment in concentration camps, forced marches from areas in the southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma, violence, and intimidation. Combined, these traumas resulted in mortality rates ranging between 25 and 50 percent. The Cherokee Nation, for instance, lost between 4,000 and 8,000 citizens during its trek westward. This pattern of ethnic cleansing would repeat itself for the next half century, as tribal groups were pushed out of their homelands and onto reservations.

Internment of formerly free indigenous peoples on reservations dramatically altered their lives and living conditions. Conventional means of dwelling and subsistence were irrevocably altered following relocation, and, with such alterations, entire ways of knowing, being, and relating to the world suffered relentless assault. Corruption and government assistance programs brought with them malnourishment, worsening public health, and diminished life expectancy. At the same time, the traditional sources of physical and spiritual power were systematically eradicated. On one hand, white entrepreneurs and policy makers targeted the buffalo, for instance, hunting it to near extinction and with it the horse cultures of the plains dependent on it. On the other hand, lawmakers and missionaries undermined and in many cases outlawed indigenous cultural practices and traditions. Spiritual traditions, including the Sundance and the Potlatch, became criminal offenses.

Seemingly more benevolent programs like boarding schools, which were designed to educate and uplift Native Americans, often had equally disastrous intentions and consequences. In reality, such undertakings sought to transform American Indians, erasing them as they made them more "American." The boarding school system stressed assimilation. American Indian children were removed from their home communities, often taken against their parents' wishes, if not by outright force, and taken to distant residential schools. Here, their hair was cut, and they were made to dress in alien and awkward attire. Living a life of structure and discipline, they were forced to speak English exclusively and taught European-American history, customs, and rituals. Stripped of their cultures and isolated, children often experienced homesickness. They became vulnerable as well to physical and mental abuse and disease— which sometimes resulted in death. Boarding schools aimed, in the words of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Industrial School, to "[k]ill the Indian and save the man," contributed in a very real way mightily to the genocide of Native Americans.

More recently, American Indian communities have suffered from a more subtle form of genocide: population control. For many decades, until at least the late 1970s, the Indian Health Service subjected Native American women to involuntary sterilization, medical interventions with no other intent than to reduce reproduction. Some estimates suggest that upward of one-third of American Indian women of childbearing age underwent the procedure during the short period of its execution.

Past genocidal policies and practices continue to reverberate in Indian Country today, manifesting themselves in a range of social problems, including alcoholism and drug abuse, suicide and interpersonal violence, and the high number of high-school dropouts. Significantly, as they have done for more than five centuries, American Indians survive against the odds, fighting efforts to destroy Native cultures and communities, while struggling to defend the validity and vitality of indigenous traditions, languages, and rights.

C. Richard King

Further Reading
"Mass Crimes Against Humanity and Genocides: Past Genocide of Natives in North America." 2003. Religious citing Barry Lopez. Available at: Accessed May 30, 2006.; Drinnon, Richard. 1990. Facing West: Indian Hating and Empire Building. New York: Schoken Books.; Lopez, Barry. 1990. The Rediscovery of North America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.; Niezen, Ronald. 2000. Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in the Age of Nation Building. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Stannard, David E. 1993. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.; Thorton, Russell. 1990. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Trafzer, Clifford E., and Joel R. Hyer, eds. 1999. "Exterminate Them." In Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Slavery of Native Americans During the California Gold Rush, 1848–1868. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.; Wallace, David. 1997. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875–1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

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