Genocide: the Word and the Deed—Part II

U.S. troops massacre 300 unarmed Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. Twenty soldiers were given medals of honor for their participation.

In the previous post I discussed the origin and definition of the word genocide and gave recent examples (1904-present) of such atrocities. Today I’m writing about the largest such event in human history.

The Hollywood Version…

When I was a child in public school, we celebrated Columbus and were taught to revere the intrepid Italian sailor. Our teachers did not inform us of the words he wrote in his log, when Native Americans ran to greet the European strangers who had just arrived on their shores: “[The natives] do not bear arms… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Instead, we got a Hollywood version of history. On Saturday afternoons, the kids in our neighborhood crowded into the local movie theater. Our parents got a break, and we got two full-length features plus a number of shorts and cartoons. One of the two features was always a western. The cowboys were heroes, the Indians villains (except for the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto—whose name means “moron” or “fool” in Spanish).

I only remember one scene from all those westerns, a dramatization of the Oklahoma land rush. The scramble for land began at noon on April 22, 1889, when at a given signal, 50,000 settlers raced into the designated area to claim 160 acres of “unassigned” land. All those depicted in the movie were white—except for a single Native American on horseback, wearing a stereotypical Apache headdress, galloping furiously along with the others to claim a share. There was otherwise no slightest sign that anyone had already been living on that land.

…And the Reality

I don’t know who came up with the idea of sticking a Native (most likely played by a white man) into the scene, but according to historian Christopher Klein, in actuality that land rush and succeeding ones “hastened the demise of the Indian Territory. Subsequent land rushes in the 1890s eventually removed most of the land from Native American control.”

From 1492, the year of Columbus’ landing, until 1610, an estimated 56 million native inhabitants of the Americas (north, south, and central) were killed.

As an interesting side note, one result of these unimaginably large mass murders of Native people was that enormous swaths of farmland were then left untenanted, and the forests grew back over them. This resulted in a significant decrease in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—so significant as to cool the earth and bring about the Little Ice Age, which resulted in failing harvests worldwide.

The slaughter of Natives didn’t end in 1610. Per McKenna and Pratt, by the end of the 17th Century a minimum of 130 million indigenous Americans are estimated to have died in deadly massacres, mass rapes, forced starvation, wars, chattel slavery, and epidemics—including the deliberate distribution of smallpox-infected blankets.

In the United States, out-and-out massacres of Natives continued into the early 20th Century; the last known was in 1911. Other forms of genocide continued.

A recent Reuters report documents that between 1819 and 1969 our government operated or funded boarding schools where Native children were separated from their families. As reporter Hassan Kanu tells us, “Emotional, physical and sexual abuse were rampant [in these institutions], in addition to malnutrition, overcrowding and lack of healthcare, officials wrote. Children were given new English names and had their hair cut. They were forbidden from speaking their own languages and from engaging in their cultural practices. Kids who died as a result of the abusive experience were often buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.”

Canada had a similar system.

Once the boarding schools were closed, our government found another way to reduce the Native population. Sandra Knispel of the University of Rochester tells us that “In the 1970s, doctors in the United States sterilized an estimated 25 to 42 percent of Native American women of childbearing age, some as young as 15… The sterilizations [were] subsidized by the federal government and often undertaken without consent or under great duress.”

This genocide has continued in South America. In his 2002 book (Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide), Alexander Hinton documented that over eighty indigenous Amazonian tribes were destroyed between 1900 and 1957, and the overall indigenous population declined by more than eighty percent, from over one million to around 200,000. In January 2023, BBC Mundo reported on the current situation in Brazil, where illegal gold miners have cut down the trees and polluted the waters with mercury, thus starving the Natives and poisoning them—as well as introducing diseases. The BBC also has reported instances of outright murder.

The Justification

In elementary school history classes, the textbooks referred to “Manifest Destiny” but skipped past the reality behind the high-sounding phrase. Later I learned that it was used to justify land theft and mass extermination. By definition, Manifest Destiny was “the idea that Americans were destined, by God, to govern the North American continent.”

This noxious doctrine had its origins in colonial times. In 1630, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop sermonized that “the God of Israel is among us,” and that if the English settlers kept their covenant with him, they “shall be as a city upon a hill.”   In 1776, during the War of Independence, a writer known as Salus Populi wrote that “God has formed America to form the last and best plan that can possibly exist.”

The phrase “city on a hill” or “shining city on a hill,” as applied to the United States, was forgotten until the Cold War but then became embedded in the American vocabulary of smug self-regard, used by politicians from JFK to Reagan to Obama to (most recently as far as I know) Mississippi Rep. Bennie Hill in 2022.

A Certain Similarity

I can’t help but notice the similarity between the doctrine expressed as Manifest Destiny and the lyrics of a song from Exodus, a film I saw in 1960:

This land is mine
God gave this land to me

The secular Jews in my circle—including both friends and relatives—wouldn’t say in an intellectual conversation that God drew a boundary line around a bit of terra firma off the western Mediterranean and designated it for us. But all human beings are formed by the legends of our childhood, and I know that most Jews of my generation saw, and many were moved by, the movie Exodus.

I wonder how many other peoples throughout history have held, and still hold, similar notions about their relationship with a patron deity and a particular patch of land.

To be continued…

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