Native American Genocide or Holocaust?
Germany began a process of national self-criticism after World War II, investigating atrocities of its Nazi past and creating large-scale education programs. Confronting history was understood as a necessary part of moving forward.
Many other countries have made efforts to recover from historical traumas caused by official violence. The United States Institute of Peace Truth Commissions Digital Collection contains profiles of bodies of inquiry from nations worldwide—with links to the official legislative texts establishing such commissions and each commission’s final reports and findings.
One notable—but unremarked—omission from the list of countries: The United States. No “truth commission” or “holocaust memorial” has ever been undertaken by the U.S. to acknowledge—let alone compensate for—the historical violence against Native Peoples otherwise known as Native American genocide.
In fact, the U.S. government has done more to acknowledge its role in other countries’ genocides than to acknowledge Native American genocide. For example, when Brazil formed a National Truth Commission to investigate repression by state security forces between 1964 and 1985, the U.S. agreed to a special declassification project on Brazil, identifying, centralizing and reviewing hundreds of still secret CIA, Defense, and State Department records from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when U.S. agencies assisted Brazilian state terror.
The National Security Archive (a non-profit, non-governmental organization of journalists and scholars based in Washington, D.C.) review of Brazil’s 2014 final report showed it provided far more information about Brazil’s system of state repression—including names of those who committed atrocities—than the U.S. provided in a 2014 Senate report on official U.S. torture.
In 2009, President Obama signed a so-called “apology” to American Indians—in a statement buried in the Defense Appropriations Act. Maybe that was appropriate, given that the “defense” budget was tapped for many years to carry out the Native American genocide—to kill Native Peoples and confine them to “reservations” (which the Nazis cited as precedent for their “camps”). Obama’s signing ceremony was closed to the press; the result was more an effort to bury the past, than to confront it. The possibility of compensation was not even discussed.
Meanwhile, since 1980, the U.S. government has supported a United States Holocaust Memorial Museumon the National Mall. Despite its name, the Museum does not focus on the American Holocaust—the Native American genocide—but on Nazi extermination efforts directed at Jews.
The Museum research collections contain materials documenting the Native American genocide —such as Benjamin Madley’s book about the slaughter of Native Peoples in what we call California, but the Museum stages no exhibition about the holocaust directed at Indigenous Peoples by U.S. forces. Indeed, the Museum uses the word “holocaust” as a noun—designating a singular historical event—rather than as a verb—designating an action, a repeatable event, a process that happened in many places and still happens.
Oddly enough, the restriction of the word “holocaust” to a single historical event threatens to undermine the intention of the Museum to “prevent genocide,” because the further back in history that single event recedes, the less significance it will have for future generations. The best thing the Museum could do to educate citizens and leaders worldwide would be to refuse to see “the holocaust” as a unique historical event—and to see it as a continuing phenomenon in a world driven by vicious religious and political conflict, where governments frequently aggravate violence.
The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide states: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
To this day, some people dispute whether the Native American genocide by the U.S. ought to be called “genocide.” Even academic writers have trouble acknowledging the historical record. Gary Anderson, for example, wrote “Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian,” a 2014 book of more than 400 pages, filled with details about the principal actors in the American effort to eliminate Indians—and argued that this was not genocide!
On December 29, 1890, Miniconjou Lakota, camped with Chief Big Foot on Wounded Knee Creek, were attacked by more than 500 soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry, armed with Hotchkiss cannons capable of firing 50 shells per minute. The Army report stated the number of Indian dead at 290—90 warriors and 200 women and children.
The historical records demonstrate that Wounded Knee was not an isolated event. If we add forced sterilization of Indian women and the transfer of Indian children to non-Indian families by state agencies, we must conclude not only that the American holocaust happened, but that parts of it are still going on.
In 2013, the National Congress of American Indians passed a General Assembly Resolution calling for the U.S. Smithsonian Institution to create a space within the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to establish a National American Indian Holocaust Museum.
That hasn’t happened; and given the tenderness of American egos and the fallacious notion of “American exceptionalism,” the NMAI will likely remain a place with barely a shadow of a holocaust. Plans are afoot, however, as reported in January 2016 in the American Herald Tribune, to create in Moscow a Museum of the North American Holocaust, in response to the Idle No More Movement.
Meanwhile, Germany and its one-time colony, Namibia, grapple with the consequences of German efforts between 1904 and 1908 to exterminate the Herero and Nama Peoples in what was then called the colony of “German South-West Africa.” Herero and Nama leaders are demanding a role in the negotiations, as they distrust the Namibian government to represent them.
The negotiations aim to determine how Germany will apologize and compensate for its actions. One thing has already been made clear by Germany’s special envoy: “It will be described as genocide.”
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.