Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?
On September 21, the National Museum of the American Indian will open its doors. In an interview early this year, the museum’s founding director, W. Richard West, declared that the new institution would not shy away from such difficult subjects as the effort to eradicate American-Indian culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a safe bet that someone will also, inevitably, raise the issue of genocide. The story of the encounter between European settlers and America’s native population does not make for pleasant reading. Among early accounts, perhaps the most famous is Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1888), a doleful recitation of forced removals, killings, and callous disregard. Jackson’s book, which clearly captured some essential elements of what happened, also set a pattern of exaggeration and one-sided indictment that has persisted to this day.
Thus, according to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a “vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record.” By the end of the 19th century, writes David E. Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawaii, native Americans had undergone the “worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.” In the judgment of Lenore A. Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr., “there can be no more monumental example of sustained genocide—certainly none involving a ‘race’ of people as broad and complex as this—anywhere in the annals of human history.” The sweeping charge of genocide against the Indians became especially popular during the Vietnam war, when historians opposed to that conflict began drawing parallels between our actions in Southeast Asia and earlier examples of a supposedly ingrained American viciousness toward non-white peoples. The historian Richard Drinnon, referring to the troops under the command of the Indian scout Kit Carson, called them “forerunners of the Burning Fifth Marines” who set fire to Vietnamese villages, while in The American Indian: The First Victim (1972), Jay David urged contemporary readers to recall how America’s civilization had originated in “theft and murder” and “efforts toward . . . genocide.” Further accusations of genocide marked the run-up to the 1992 quincentenary of the landing of Columbus. The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution branding this event “an invasion” that resulted in the “slavery and genocide of native people.” In a widely read book, The Conquest of Paradise (1990), Kirkpatrick Sale charged the English and their American successors with pursuing a policy of extermination that had continued unabated for four centuries. Later works have followed suit. In the 1999 Encyclopedia of Genocide, edited by the scholar Israel Charny, an article by Ward Churchill argues that extermination was the “express objective” of the U.S. government. To the Cambodia expert Ben Kiernan, similarly, genocide is the “only appropriate way” to describe how white settlers treated the Indians. And so forth.
About the Author
Guenter Lewy is the author of, among other works, The Catholic Church & Nazi Germany, Religion & Revolution, America in Vietnam, and The Cause that Failed: Communism in American Political Life. His new book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, is forthcoming from the University of Utah Press.