To the Editor:
Guenter Lewy is right on the whole to say that the European decimation of North American Indian societies was not genocide, but I must make it clear that in my book, Conquest of Paradise (1990), which Mr. Lewy cites, I never suggested such a thing [“Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?,” September].
My discussion of the policy of the English in particular was based on their recurrent descriptions of Indians as subhuman—generally “beastly” and “savage,” “more brutish than the beasts they hunt,” those who “in order to make them Christians . . . must first be made men.” And I pointed out that for the English this meant that Indians, like wild beasts anywhere, would either be fenced in and confined to parks and reservations, broken and tamed, scattered to distant lands (with bounties on those who came back), or hunted down and exterminated.
It is this last element of English policy that occasionally gives off a whiff of genocide. There certainly were examples of great atrocity-filled campaigns against Indians held to be hostile or in possession of wanted lands. The very first war, against the Powhatan Indians of Virginia, was launched by Lord De La Warr in 1610 to get chiefs “to acknowledge no other lord but King James” and to provide regular tributes of corn, skins, and forced laborers for the colonists. If there was resistance, the soldiers were to kidnap the chiefs and their children and educate them “in [our] manners and religion” so that they would “become in time civil and Christian.” It began with a band of soldiers setting on the village of Kecoughtan who “put five to the sword, wounded many others,” “put to flight . . . the rest of the savages,” burned the village, and destroyed the cornfields. This was followed by bloody and cruel war for the next four years.
But it is hard to find in this and similar campaigns a fixed “intent to destroy” the Virginia tribes “as such,” or the race of Indians as a “whole” or even, except in battlefield situations, “in part.” A concerted campaign to eradicate the Indians from the continent would have been too vast and difficult an undertaking for the English even to entertain or formulate—and not really necessary, since there were other prongs of their Indian policies to secure their settlement.
I do think, though, that the question of historical genocide is something of a red herring, an academic legal exercise. The real point is to recognize the blood-soaked violence and imperial racism that infected the core of the European settlers in the Americas, whether or not their actions rose to the level of some concept developed out of the punishment of Nazi Germany.
Cold Spring, New York
To the Editor:
Guenter Lewy states that “the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values.” As the conclusion to a fairly sober-minded article, there is something startlingly disturbing about the moral obtuseness of this statement. Mr. Lewy insinuates that there was no one to blame in the dispossession of the Indians from their lands and in the decline of their civilization.
The American government made moral choices in its policies regarding American Indians. These were tragic in that they were based on racism, selfishness, and an arrogant and unreflective manner toward Indians that did not take into account their human rights and their individual and collective needs. The current state of social and economic marginalization in which many American Indians live is a direct result of those choices and policies. Mr. Lewy’s subtle attempt to blame the victim for the actions of the aggressor is intellectually and morally dishonest.
There may have been no officially stated policy aimed at eradicating the Indians, but the effect of hundreds of different policies across the United States amounted to a full-scale assault on the culture and human rights of American Indians. Genocide can take place without a single shot being fired. Destroying a nation, a community, and a culture is a psychological and a social process, as well as a physical one. In his study of Sioux culture, Erik Erikson wrote:
The Sioux, under traumatic conditions, has lost the reality for which the last historical form of his communal integrity was fitted. . . . Step by step the Sioux has been denied the bases for collective identity formation and with it that reservoir of collective integrity from which the individual must derive his stature as a social being.
The American government forcibly assimilated Sioux children and taught them that their culture and identity were primitive and without value and dignity.
Mr. Lewy has used smoke and mirrors to shroud, and make more acceptable, the painful and brutal truths of American history.
To the Editor:
At what point did Guenter Lewy’s “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?” stop reading like historical analysis and begin sounding like a series of justifications and absolutions for horrible misdeeds? For me, it was somewhere between the surprising opening gambit on how many actually died (maybe only a million, not so bad) and the argument that accounts of American troops actively spreading smallpox were “debatable,” despite Mr. Lewy’s citation of official sources confirming these events. As he continues his breezy, understated apologia through two centuries of Native-American history—the soldiers at Sand Creek and elsewhere in the West showed a “lamentable deficiency in discipline,” he tells us—one wonders whether Mr. Lewy even means for us to take him seriously.
To the Editor:
Guenter Lewy’s challenge to one of the pillars of political correctness, the supposed genocide of the “first Americans,” and Commentary’s courage in publishing it are quite admirable. But Mr. Lewy omits an argument that would strengthen his case.
Disease and armed conflict with Europeans were not the only major factors contributing to the decline of the Native-American population. Another was internecine warfare between the Indian tribes themselves. Our history is replete with stories of one tribe virtually wiping out another, and of continual conflict among the great federations of tribes like the Iroquois Nation, the Chippewa, the Cherokee, and the Sioux. Ironically, the Indian leaders most honored in American history are those like Tecumseh, Pontiac, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse who overcame intertribal conflicts sufficiently to form alliances powerful enough to halt and even drive back westward-moving pioneers. That they were finally unsuccessful speaks volumes as to the depth of intertribal hostilities.
To the Editor:
Guenter Lewy’s superb essay on the radical interpreters of the American-Indian catastrophe only begins to plumb the depths of their dishonesty. Straining against the fact that the huge majority of the Indians were victims of disease rather than massacre, pseudo-scholars such as David E. Stannard and Ward Churchill have attempted to make their case by falsifying the history of the Holocaust.
In his notorious 1996 essay, “Uniqueness as Denial: The Politics of Genocide Scholarship,” Stannard wrote that millions of Jewish deaths during the Holocaust were attributable to “the same so-called natural phenomena . . . that were also the immediate cause of death for many of the Americas’ indigenous people.” He maintains that “fully half the Jewish victims of the Holocaust . . . died from disease and destitution,” and not from gassing or shooting. He adds that Jewish historians who distinguish the American founding from the Final Solution are motivated by a theology of “chosenness” involving “the maintenance of blood purity” and by the need to justify the “territorial expansionism” of their “theocratic state,” Israel.
In his book, A Little Matter of Genocide (1997), Ward Churchill asserts that the murder of Europe’s Jews was never a “fixed policy objective” for the Nazis. Instead, he discovers “a rather erratic and contradictory hodgepodge of anti-Jewish policies.” He claims that Jewish academics are engaged in a conspiracy to suppress all other historical instances of genocide, including that of the American Indians. He accuses these “Holocaust exclusivists” of seeking to maintain “the privileged political status of Israel,” to reinforce “Judaism’s theological belief in itself as comprising a ‘special’ or ‘chosen’ people,” and to conceal “Israel’s ongoing genocide” against Arabs.
In the light of these statements, it may be necessary to warn of a convergence between certain forms of radical left-wing “scholarship” and the views of far-right Holocaust deniers.
To the Editor:
I appreciate Guenter Lewy’s article pointing out the anachronistic fallacies and imprecision involved in imputing genocidal intent to the Europeans who explored and settled in North America over the course of four centuries. But Mr. Lewy errs regarding the 1868 Battle of the Washita, in which Custer’s 7th Regiment surprised Black Kettle’s largely peaceable band of Cheyenne. The battle site is a mile west of the present-day town of Cheyenne in west-central Oklahoma, not Kansas.
John R. Traffas
Guenter Lewy writes:
One of the purposes of my essay was to provide context for what Kirkpatrick Sale calls “the blood-soaked violence and imperial racism” often practiced by European settlers. The widespread pattern of Indian-hating on the frontier was, in large measure, a result of the Indians’ brutal mode of warfare, which included the killing of captured women and children and the infliction of grisly tortures on prisoners that put the medieval Inquisition to shame. There is nothing wrong, I submit, with calling these practices “beastly” and “savage.” The extreme cruelty with which most Indian tribes treated their captives does not excuse the massacres that we know to have taken place, but it helps us understand why they occurred.
Pace Mr. Sale, a critical discussion of the alleged genocide against native Americans is not just “an academic legal exercise” or “something of a red herring.” The notion that the United States is guilty of genocide against the Indians has gained wide currency in Western Europe, where it helps fuel anti-Americanism. In this country, too, as I tried to demonstrate, the charge is hardly limited to figures on the fringe of the academic profession like Ward Churchill and David E. Stannard. To his credit, W. Richard West has seen to it that the new National Museum of the American Indian, which he directs, is not an Indian Holocaust Museum. But as West explained in an interview in the Washington Post on September 13, he made this decision so as not to let tragedies and horrors overwhelm the message of Indian survival. That is why, he said, the displays “don’t wallow in the genocide, broken promises, and bloody wars of the 19th century.” West, too, it appears, considers the genocide of the Indians a historical fact.
Noam Schimmel regards my essay as morally obtuse because I call the sad fate of the Indians a tragedy rather than a crime, and because I speak of “an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values.” The dispossession of the Indians from their lands did indeed often involve profit-hungry speculators and broken treaties, and for these it is appropriate to assign blame; but it remains true that, seen as a whole, the westward movement was as unstoppable as other great population movements of the past. For considerations of space I did not dwell on federal policies that involved the destruction of Indian cultures and tribal structures, but there are other good reasons not to include these efforts at forced acculturation in a discussion of genocide. Not only did the United Nations committee preparing the Genocide Convention quite deliberately omit the term “cultural genocide” from the final definition, but the use of this concept wrongly equates cultural intolerance with physical extermination. To suggest that “genocide can take place without a single shot being fired” dilutes and distorts the meaning of the term.
J. McDermott has me citing “official sources” confirming the charge that American troops actively spread smallpox; I do not find any such sources in my article. The accusation of biological warfare, allegedly carried out by the U.S. Army against the Mandans, remains a canard unsubstantiated by a shred of reliable historical evidence.
I thank Tom Rath for drawing attention to the destructive consequences of intertribal warfare. The historian Richard White has suggested that more Indians lost their lives in such fighting than were killed in warfare with whites. I also welcome Paul Bogdanor’s informative discussion of the falsification of the history of the Holocaust by David E. Stannard and Ward Churchill. Lastly, I acknowledge my deficient knowledge of American geography, which, as John R. Traffas points out, made me place the battle of the Washita in Kansas rather than in Oklahoma.