Genocide and the Native American Experience

Political Film Blog
14 min readNov 29, 2019

By Joe Giambrone

It was not until 1948 that a majority of the nations agreed upon a universal definition of genocide. This highly contested wording was not ratified by the United States until November of 1988, forty years after The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide had been agreed to by world leaders. By the standards of this Convention historical policies of the United States and of its settler population toward indigenous Americans would meet these criteria, and Native Americans have indeed suffered genocide across the North American continent.

Genocide is:

… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group … including:

1. (a) Killing members of the group;

2. (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

3. © Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

4. (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

5. (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (United Nations).

All five of these criminal acts were perpetrated on native tribes and bands across the United States. Each native tribe or band could be considered a “group” by this standard, and sufficient historical evidence exists to demonstrate intent to destroy on the part of settlers, state governments and the United States federal government. Additionally, the government of Mexico paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women and children that were collected by white U.S. settlers as an employment option (Molinaro).

These atrocities were part of a concerted effort to appropriate the lands and to relocate the native inhabitants forcibly. As illustrated in President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 State of the Union Address:

The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites.

Jackson absurdly claimed that, “Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself,” even as he went on to describe a continuance of this same policy to seize the lands and to forcibly relocate the native tribes:

… we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange …

This policy drove the genocide, and it was the core reason for the countless slaughters, the incalculable suffering, and the monumental crimes that followed.

Reports of hunting and then beheading or scalping native men, women and children for bounties exist even locally here in Northern California.

Northern newspapers like the Humboldt Times expressed the hope that volunteer militia “will succeed in totally breaking up or exterminating the skulking bands of savages.” Towns offered bounty hunters cash for every head or scalp that was obtained. “It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them. and a saving of many white lives … there is only one kind of treaty that is effective — cold lead.” — Chico Courant, July 28, 1866 (Chatterjee)

Right here in the Shasta County area lived the Yana tribe. A search of tribal histories reveals that:

In Aug. 1864 the neighboring miners organized a massacre of the whole tribe, then numbering about 3,000, of whom all but about 50 were slaughtered in the course of a few days. By 1902, “only about half a dozen” were left alive (Access Geneology).

The condition of “killing members of the group” is so well documented and ingrained in the general public’s understanding of U.S. history that it need not be argued further. What makes it genocide, as per the 1948 law, is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part…” It is here that the statements and actions of officials and military leaders prove the case. This intent is also revealed in the literature and newspapers of the age.

One of America’s best known and highly venerated authors, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), wrote an essay in 1870 wherein he openly called for the “extermination” of Native Americans.

…truly [the “Red Man”] is nothing but a poor, filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator’s worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses. … he is a good, fair, desirable subject for extermination if ever there was one … The scum of the earth (Twain) !

This type of rhetoric could be expected in Nazi Germany. Such blatant genocidal racism would be considered shocking today, especially considering the ongoing series of massacres occurring at the time, perpetrated by federal troops and state militias against native tribes. But this rhetoric was apparently acceptable to readers in 19th century America, and it did not damage Twain’s reputation or popularity in any noticeable fashion. Most of his great literary successes were published after this call for the “extermination” of Indians.

More to the point, the policies of military officers who orchestrated the various slaughters bear directly on the questions of genocidal intent and purpose.

General William Tecumseh Sherman claims perhaps the most damning orders on record. In his campaign against the Sioux, Sherman wrote to General Grant:

I have given general instructions to General Cooke about the Sioux … We most act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children. Nothing less will reach the root of the case. -(Signed) W. T. Sherman, Lieutenant-General, 1866 (Custer).

Sherman’s “general instructions” would be considered evidence at a modern war crimes trial. It is rare that an officer commits such orders to paper, knowing how they could be perceived later and used against him. Sherman felt comfortable enough in his convictions and immersed in the racist anti-Indian environment of the day that he would try to influence officers above him such as General Grant to adopt his clearly genocidal battlefield policy.

Another famous incident occurred when General Phillip Sheridan joked at the surrender of a Comanche Chief who had claimed to be a “good Indian.”

The only good Indians I ever saw were dead. -General Phillip Sheridan, 1869 (Ellis).

A US Congressman in 1852 expressed the United States’ Indian policy thusly:

The Indian is placed between the upper and nether millstones and must be crushed … Humanity may forbid, but the interest of the white man demands their extinction (Miner).

At what would later be known as the Bear Creek Massacre of Shoshone in Utah, the commander, ColonelPatrick Edward Connor sent word that:

It was not my intention to take any prisoners (Blackhawk).

After killing the 300 male warriors, Connor would leave about 160 women and children alive. However, he did make sure to destroy most of their supplies and provisions including shelter.

I … destroyed over seventy lodges, a large quantity of wheat and other provisions … [and] left a small quantity of wheat for the sustenance of 160 captive [women] and children, whom I left on the field (Blackhawk).

Colonel Connor’s genocidal policy ordering the indiscriminate killing of Indian males was as follows:

You will also destroy every male Indian whom you encounter in the vicinity of the late massacres … immediately hang them, and leave their bodies thus exposed as an example of what evil-doers may expect while I command in this district (Blackhawk).

The Utah Governor at the time, James Doty, praised Connor’s policies.

It struck terror into the heart [of Shoshone] … They now acknowledge the Americans are the masters of this country (Blackhawk).

Notably striking “terror” into the hearts of populations for political purposes is today known as the crime of terrorism. Such a policy would violate Category 2 of the Genocide Convention as it would cause “mental harm” to “members of the group.”

Category 3

The third category of acts that qualify as genocide, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, is also evidenced repeatedly. As entire tribes were uprooted from their fertile ancestral lands and forced to march long distances to less productive lands less suitable for sustaining life, this category was breached in two ways.

The march itself was harsh and would cost the lives of significant numbers of forced marchers. This predictable consequence of forced marches across long distances cannot be considered accidental or natural, and it is therefore inflicting on the group conditions that will destroy some part of the group. The usual victims were children, the elderly and the sick. Numerous such marches were routinely inflicted on tribes as they were forcibly ejected from their homes and lands at gunpoint. The coercive nature of these “migrations” qualifies as genocidal under the Genocide Convention.

One such march occurred in Northern California and is known as California’s Trail of Tears:

In 1863, U.S. soldiers rounded up Indian tribes across Northern California at Chico Landing … Of 461 Indians who set out under guard, only 277 completed the 100-mile, 14-day trek. Many were abandoned, too sick to continue. Some escaped. Others were killed (Roomney).

California State Chico historian Lisa Emmerich described this march bluntly:

We’re talking about state-sponsored genocide (Roomney).

After the forcibly relocated tribes arrived on lands considered of such little value as to be written off by state and federal governments, starvation often followed. In response to imminent death by starvation, tribes would protest and resort to armed struggle. Raiding parties would steal livestock in order to feed their hungry people. This predictable pattern was repeated time and again. Reservation lands were routinely described by tribes as “barren,” as in this account of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1890:

Even those who adopted European ways, having their lands seized, their rights taken away, herded like cattle and forced to march to a distant, barren land … The Ghost Dance that prompted the U.S. government’s massacre at Wounded Knee … [was] a last hope for starving Indians crowded upon the barren reservations without the food and shelter that had been promised them (Ewing).

Regarding the Shoshone tribe, in 1862:

The Indian service in Utah cannot be otherwise than discreditable to the government, unless Congress shall, by liberal appropriations, enable our agents to conduct their operations upon a scale in some measure corresponding with the absolute necessities of the Indians under their charge.

Starvation and desperation set in prior to the escalation of violence that would culminate in the Bear Creek Massacre of 1863. The Indian Service agents saw the situation as salvageable, but no additional provisions were forthcoming from Washington.

Conditions were similar for the Sioux in the Dakotas. In February of 1887 the official response of the U.S. Congress was to send guns and ammunition rather than food aid. The United States had forced tribes into a situation of dependence and then repeatedly failed to meet the minimum needs of the tribes now dependent upon outside aid. Senator Daniel Voorhees of Indiana pointed out the implications of this official policy:

… the Indians are driven into revolt — rebellion, if you please to call it so — and to the savagery of Indian warfare by starvation, it becomes inexpiable crime, in my judgment, on the part of this government to stand silently by and do nothing except furnish arms which may kill them … I look upon the policy … as a crime in the sight of God and man (Coleman).

A moral crime undoubtedly, but it would not be codified as illegal and then ratified by the U.S. Congress for another 101 years.

On Population Reduction

The original indigenous population of North America has been estimated on the low end at “1,153,000” (Mooney). At the upper end:

Henry F. Dobyns … estimates a [pre-Colombian] … population north of Mexico of 9,800,000 to 12,250,000 … In all candor, it also should be pointed out that the earlier, low population estimates had the effect of making the European conquest of North America more palatable to white Americans (Newcomb).

Newcomb concedes the inexactness of the methodologies available to anthropologists. Actual populations may have varied significantly higher or lower than Dobyns’ calculations.

By 1890 the official U.S. census count of “Indian Territory and on Indian reservations” was 325,464. This census is the first to tabulate the “entire American Indian population (Gibson and Lennon).”

Centuries of war, forced relocations and the decimation of the buffalo food source contributed heavily to the destruction of native societies, as did diseases imported from Europe, and some deliberately introduced as biological warfare. At the core of this destruction was simply the unending invasion of white Europeans onto Indian lands made possible only because of superior military strength and technology.

In 2000, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, himself a Native American, acknowledged his agency’s culpability in these historic crimes:

… it must be acknowledged that the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a scale so ghastly that it cannot be dismissed as merely the inevitable consequence of the clash of competing ways of life (Gover).

Of course it was the result of numerous policies motivated by greed, racism and an imbalance of power and technology. It was for exploitation and resource extraction, for the taking of land with no higher moral purpose than self-enrichment and profit.

Gover would go on to admit the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ participation in the forced relocation and indoctrination of native children through the boarding school system.

Category 5

The practice of taking Native American children from their tribes for the purpose of converting them to “Christian” non-Indian U.S. citizens at state-sponsored boarding schools breached the fifth category defined in the Convention against Genocide. This practice showed the clear intent of the dominant white society and institutions to wipe away all native culture, language, religion and customs — in short to destroy the native civilizations entirely. Indian children were terrorized and tortured for noncompliance and for speaking their native tongues. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs was responsible for the Indian boarding school system as a whole.

Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually (Gover).

The Carlisle Pennsylvania Indian school was notoriously zealous in its explicit policies to rid Indian children of their native heritage:

Let all that is Indian within you die! … You cannot become truly American citizens, industrious, intelligent, cultured, civilized until the INDIAN within you is DEAD. -Reverend A. J. Lippincott, Carlisle commencement address (Adams).

Recent research has focused on these boarding schools, and on their effects upon the many thousands of native children processed through them. From the children’s perspective, these schools were torturous mind-control facilities and totalitarian psychological warfare operations aimed at forcing them to abandon their families, tribes and cultures:

Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. Forget their teachings. They are ignorant and unGodly. … Indians are not clean. … You will never amount to anything. … Don’t cry. Crying never solved anything. Write home once every month. In English. Tell your mother that you are doing very well … Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. We forbid you to speak it. If you are heard speaking it you will kneel on a navy bean for one hour. Don’t cry. Crying never solved anything. We will ask if you have learned your lesson. You will answer. In English. Spare the rod and spoil the child. We will not spare the rod (LeGarde Grover).

Conclusions

It would be difficult to argue that Native Americans, who once freely roamed the continent unmolested, experienced anything other than outright genocide. Some historians have tried to obfuscate and to ignore the obvious evidence of the deliberate destruction of numerous indigenous societies. These apologetics do not persuade. The truth is a dark and painful past that should be taught for what it is, and as truthfully as possible regardless of present day biases and expectations of the dominant American culture.

Category 4 of the Genocide Convention was also touched upon and documented much later in the twentieth century. Sterilization of native women was exposed in the 1970s and was the subject of a 1976 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. This report was criticized for only looking at a small part of the system, but it still concluded that more than 3,000 Indian women of childbearing age had undergone sterilization at government run health facilities, often without informed consent. Native activists and groups such as Women of All Red Nations (WARN) disputed the limited scope of the GAO study, and they have estimated sterilization rates as high as “80 percent on some reservations (Smith).”

Although the technical term genocide did not exist during the period of conquest, the net result was the same. Numerous native societies were decimated and these atrocities were justified with flimsy rationales of alleged white Christian superiority and morality. With profound hubris, these perpetrators claimed moral superiority even as the forced displacement, land theft, death marches and policies of murder and extermination were carried out across North America.

Natives were demonized, slandered and libeled with the intent of presenting them as sub-human and deserving of eradication. This white on red racism was extensive, profound and clearly aimed at portraying all Indians, of every tribe, of both sexes, and of every age as part of a different and inferior species. Demonizing the target population is a fundamental component in all genocides. Today, even the celebrated Mark Twain could be legitimately accused of “hate speech.”

This deliberate extermination of native peoples throughout the Americas was not just genocide, but perhaps the greatest example of it in all of human history. So says historian David Stannard in this excerpt from his book, American Holocaust —

The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world. That is why, as one historian aptly has said, far from the heroic and romantic heraldry that customarily is used to symbolize the European settlement of the Americas, the emblem most congruent with reality would be a pyramid of skulls.

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Sources Cited

Access Geneology, Website: Indian Tribal History, Web. 1 Nov. 2010. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/indiantribehistory7.htm

Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction — American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875–1928, p.274. University Press of Kansas. 1995.

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land — Indians and Empires in the Early American West, pp. 263–4, Harvard University Press, 2006.

Chatterjee, Pratap. Gold, Greed and Genocide. Treaties of Lead — A Project Underground report. 1997. http://www.1849.org/ggg/treaties.html, Web. 28 Oct. 2010.

Coleman, William. Voices of Wounded Knee. pp. 131–2. University of Nebraska Press. 2000. Custer, George. Wild Life on the Plains and Horrors of Indian Warfare. p. 119. Sun Publishing Company, 15th Edition. 1883.

Dobyns, Henry F., Estimating aboriginal American population, an appraisal of techniques with a new hemispheric estimate. Current Anthropology, 7:395–449. 1966.

Ellis, Edward S., The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time. p. 1483. Cincinnati/Ohio: Jones Brothers, 1900 1st ed. 1895.

Ewing, Jim PathFinder (Nvnehi Awatisgi), Native American Spirituality: Freedom Denied or Blood Quantum: Native America’s Dirty Little Secret, Manataka American Indian Council, Web 31 Oct. 2010: http://www.manataka.org/page1965.html

Gibson, Campbell J. and Lennon, Emily, Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850–1990, Population Division Working Paper №29. U.S. Bureau of the Census, February 1999. http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/twps0029.html, Web. 29 Oct. 2010.

Gover, Kevin, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior. Speech at the Ceremony Acknowledging the 175th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. September 8, 2000.

Jackson, Andrew. Second State of the Union Address, 6 Dec. 1830. Wikisource: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Andrew_Jackson%27s_Second_State_of_the_Union_Address, Web. 29 Oct. 2010.

LeGarde Grover, Linda. The Indian At Boarding School, Number Four Native Writers Chapbook Series II, Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School. American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center, 301A Ottenheimer Library University of Arkansas at Little Rock, http://anpa.ualr.edu/digital_library/indatindschool.html, Web 29 Oct. 2010.

Miner, Craig H. The Corporation and the Indian — Tribal Sovereignty and Industrial Civilization in Indian Territory 1865–1907. pg. 20. Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press. 1976.

Mooney, James. The aboriginal population of America north of Mexico, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection. 80:1–26. 1928. Cited by Newcomb.

Molinaro, J., The Scalp Industry, University of Virginia Website, References: Smith, Ralph A. The Scalp Hunter in the Borderlands 1835–1850. pp. 5–22. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/scalpin/oldfolks.html, Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

Newcomb, Jr., William W., North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective. pp.15–16. Texas Memorial Museum. Goodyear Publishing Company, Inc. Pacific Palisades, California; References: Mooney, James, 1928.

Roomney, Lee, Times Staff Writer, Retracing a Grim Past, Indians reenact march of California’s ‘Trail of Tears’, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 19 2004: B1+. SIRS Researcher. Web. 25 Oct 2010.

Smith, Andrea, Conquest: sexual violence and American Indian genocide. pp. 82–85. South End Press, 2005.

Stannard, David, American Holocaust, Prologue, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Twain Mark, The Noble Red Man, First published in The Galaxy 1870. University of Virginia Website, http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/rissetto/redman.html, Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

United Nations. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, UN website, What is genocide? http://www.un.org/preventgenocide/adviser/genocide.shtml, Web. 20 Oct. 2010.

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