Over the weekend, an article floating around on Facebook caught my eye.
It appeared in Indian Country Today Media Network: A professor at Cal State Sacramento University allegedly told his class that he didn’t like using the term “genocide” to describe what happened to Native Americans in the United States.
A Native student stood up and disagreed. Then, according to the story, the professor dismissed class and disenrolled the Native woman from the course.
The University has already put out a statement on the matter, claiming that the student was not disenrolled and that the issue is being investigated.
This incident is the perfect encapsulation of the Native American “genocide” debate: a muddled sequence of events, a Native speaking her mind, and white academics pushing back.
It reminds me of an article by Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts who has frequently written on the topic of genocide.
“In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values… To fling the charge of genocide at an entire society serves neither the interests of the Indians nor those of history.”
The article mentions Native acts of barbarism against the colonists and that Natives were fighting each other before Europeans showed up.
I’m willing to bet that the professor at Cal State shares a similar perspective.
It’s difficult to navigate the academic literature on what happened to the Native Americans. It skews heavily European and is put into a Eurocentric context. Lewy’s article is a good example of this.
When it comes down to it, disease is what ultimately expunges “genocide” from the American historical lexicon. The vast majority of Native deaths were due to germs brought over from Europe, something the Europeans had no control over.
Also, the United States government, though involved in the removal of tribes from their lands and certainly culpable in acts of violence against Natives, never made genocide their official policy. Scholars argue that it was never the explicit aim of the United States government to cleanse the land of Natives.
Yet the reality colonization created for modern day Natives speaks to a trauma that goes beyond, as many white scholars suggest, isolated acts of aggression or, as Lewy egregiously implies, two equally violent societies trading atrocities.
If these murderous acts, horrifying in their brutality and systematic in their execution, cannot be classified as “genocide,” then perhaps American society can avoid dealing with the unpleasant reality of modern Native American life, for which American society is largely if not entirely culpable.
To write off what happened to the Natives as a tragedy and not acknowledge it as the calculated result of colonial efforts completely ignores the way Natives feel about the situation and serves the purpose of maintaining the concept of manifest destiny, a philosophy that is alive and well today.
And scholars with their long screeds, their obsession with semantics, their verbiage – however impressive they might be and whatever journal they might be published in – will not save the Native child born into poverty on the reservation. They will not save the Native woman who was assaulted. They will not save the Native man shot by police.
Did war exist before the white man appeared in America? Yes. Did tribes commit atrocities? That is unfortunately human nature.
But these facts do not absolve the inhumane crimes committed against Native peoples at the hands of white colonists, nor do they erase this stain on our nation’s history: America was made possible by the death of a people.
While scholars debate whether to call what happened to the Natives genocide, ethnocide, or simply a “tragedy,” Natives continue to live and die under conditions only made possible through colonization.
America will never call what happened to the Native Americans “genocide.”
Doing so, as Lewy observed, would be a condemnation of our entire nation.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.