Category Archives: Genocide

Genocide in the Americas

 

Of course there were specific acts of genocide in North America and South America. Like the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 where the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry committed an atrocity mainly against women and children. Brave army that was. They said it was done in retaliation for the slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn where Siouian warriors under the direction of Chief Crazy Horse defeated General George Custer and most of his soldiers. The Battle of Little Bighorn was seen by many as the final military attempted crushing of Aboriginal Independence in the United States, if not North America. As Anthony Hall mentioned in his wonderful book, The American Empire and the 4th World, “At the time of this massacre the Indian population in the area of the present-day United States had been reduced to 200,000 from an estimated pre-Columbian population of between 10 and 20 million.”

As I have said before many of those deaths resulted from hidden biological warfare launched by germs that the European invaders unknowingly carried with them, but others from specific acts like this battle.

Those battles led, in Canada to an oppressive regime of shackling Indigenous peoples, who were not released from them them until after World War II and even then only to some extent. The main instrument of that dominance in Canada was the Indian Act, an infamous federal statute that has been amended many times but is still with us today, which I will blog about soon. I think people who don’t know about the Indian Act will be shocked. Until that law was changed, the  indigenous people of Canada were not allowed to organize, for fear of repetition of the violence against the control by Europeans and their descendants.

Whether the word “genocide” or not is used, there is no doubt that the process of transforming indigenous societies by European colonization was a harsh disaster for the Indigenous peoples. As Hall described it,

“…the actual process of transforming some of the richest and most extensive Indian societies on the planet proved catastrophic for the Indigenous peoples. Thus began the world’s most ruthless and sustained episode of ethnic cleansing, one that many believe continues yet. From its earliest stages, this drive aimed to extinguish Aboriginal civilization of the Americas and to replace it with an expanded transatlantic domain for the culture of Europe and for Western civilization.”

If you look at the modern definition of “genocide” now embedded in international law, you will that this clearly qualifies as genocide.

At times the Aboriginals looked to the monarchs of the Old World to staunch the bleeding. At best that met with mixed success. For example in New Spain the Spanish monarch was seen as the only force capable of protecting any Aboriginal rights. However, as Hall said,

“While the Spanish sovereign sporadically placed some checks on the murderous excesses of the Spanish colonists, the interventions of the central authority were generally too weak to moderate significantly the acquisitive zeal that attracted fortune-seeking immigrants from Europe to the New World”

England hardly provided more protection than its Spanish rivals. As Hall said,

“While England’s early colonial enterprises in North America were shrouded in the language of Christian evangelization, a more pressing spur to join in Europe’s transatlantic expansion was the fear that, if action was not quickly taken, Roman Catholic powers, including Portugal and France, would soon monopolize and control the apparently vast wealth of the so-called New World.”

Whether we like it or not, or admit it or not, this history is still with us today. Our society in fact is built on that genocide.

 

Resilience

 

For a while in the 18th century it looked as if indigenous people had weathered the storm. Indigenous people are nothing if not resilient. Non-indigenous people often falsely accuse indigenous people of being too married to their traditions. Richard White a Professor of History at Washington University has shown how false this assumption was:

“If the Indian peoples of the eighteenth century had been wedded to tradition, then there would have been no horse nomads on the Great Plains, no Navajo sheepherders or silver workers or weavers. There would indeed be, no Navajos, no Lakotas, nor Muskogees, nor numerous other groups who first began to think of themselves as separate and distinct peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In a world of disaster, Indian peoples forged opportunities. In the midst of a population collapse that turned villages into funeral pyres, they created new peoples and new tribes and confederacies. In a world where old ideas seemed incapable of explaining so much change, so much misery, and such staggering possibilities, they spawned prophets, rebels, and saviors in a seemingly unending profusion. Since Europeans could not be banished, Indians sought to include them in a common world and pursued new ways and forms to control and contain them. And, for a while, it all seemed possible.’

In many cases Indigenous people after contacting Europeans, created new traditions, which they passed on to their youth. They adapted. In fact they had to be great adapters in order to survive an onslaught more horrific than that faced by any other people anywhere at any time.

 

Speed of Diseases

 

The speed of the devastation brought about by European diseases on contact with Indigenous people, for which the native people had no inherited defences as the Europeans did, was astonishing. Even the Europeans did not fully appreciate what had happened. They had never experienced anything like it either.

As historian Jay Miller explained, “Again and again, throughout the Americas, as Europeans advanced, they moved into regions already emptied by disease.” That seems incomprehensible. The European diseases travelled faster than they did!

As a result as the Spaniards in the south and later French and English farther north, moved on from ravishing one native community they would arrive at another only to find them already depleted.  As depopulation ensued local indigenous people could not muster enough people to carry on their traditional ceremonies, thus disconnecting the people from their land and hence their source of spiritual sustenance. Political and spiritual leaders were also lost. It left the native communities in disarray and reeling and unable to resist the European invaders.

Jay Miller described the contact between Europeans and Indigenous people like this:

“The end result of the European quest for riches, slaves, and land, was the reshaping of the native social order.  But it was not the direct action of Europeans themselves that produced this vast change. Rather, it was their inadvertent introduction of virulent diseases.  The germs that Europeans carried to the so-called New World visited utter and complete devastation on its indigenous inhabitants. Diseases unknown in the Americas, to which the natives had no immunity, struck whole communities with fierce and heartrending violence.’

What makes this even more surprising and disorienting, was that the indigenous people were so healthy. They were actually healthier  than the European invaders! As Miller said,

“Except for parasites, occasional malnutrition, and minor germs, the native population of the Americas was remarkably healthy. The people lived an open, uncrowded life, knew a great deal about herbal medications, and practiced cleanliness in sweat baths. This was sufficient to deal with most common illnesses. But this way of life proved no match for the germs cradled and nurtured in the filth of European cities and ports.”

Smallpox, measles, and other common European diseases wiped out entire communities before most of their inhabitants had actually seen a European. Whole regions were depopulated.

New diseases have come to plague people in the past, and in fact are doing so now as I write this with the introduction of a new, deadly, and scary disease, namely coronavirus. This has had dreadful effect on people around the world. But  imagine what the effect would be if we were faced with multiple new diseases! This is exactly what indigenous people experienced after contacting European invaders. If an indigenous community survived one deadly epidemic it would soon be met with another. If not small pox, then measles, or whooping cough, or scarlet fever, or influenza. The list of deadly new killers was astonishing.

In the result, some have estimated that 95% of the indigenous people vanished within a century of European contact! Nothing beats that.

The European Invaders brought Invisible and Deadly Weapons of Mass Destruction 

 

Many people think that most Indigenous people died after contact with Europeans because the European invaders were so powerful and the natives were so weak. This is of course grounded in that Original sin. The Europeans assumed they were superior and they have taught this prejudice to those that followed them to the “New World”.  It is commonly believed that the natives of North and South America succumbed because they were primitive, from weak societies, there were so few of them, and they were superstitious. As Ronald Wright said in his book Stolen Continents, “Such explanations explain nothing, even by their own false premises.”

It is true that Europeans came to the “New World” with powerful weapons. Astonishing ships, blades of steel, guns, vicious dogs, and horses.  But those were not their most powerful weapons. Their most powerful weapon was disease. As Wright explained,

“Europe possessed biological weapons that fate had been stacking against America for thousands of years. Among them were smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera, and malaria—all unknown in the Western Hemisphere before 1492. Somehow they had not made the journey to the New World with the remote ancestors of the American Indians during the last Ice Age. Perhaps they were frozen to death on the way; perhaps they had not yet evolved. Whatever the reason, Native Americans, having had no exposure, had little immunity; they caught the new sickness quickly, and infection was extremely virulent. “The Indians die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost,” one eyewitness wrote.  Even today, isolated tribes can be decimated by something as “minor” as the common cold on the first contact with missionaries or prospectors.”

Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, speculated that the original Europeans who travelled across the land bridge between Asia and North America during the last Ice Age came to the “New World” before they themselves had built up immunities. He suggested that the first people of the Western Hemisphere came before they domesticated animals in Europe and most of these diseases evolved from animal diseases to human diseases. At first they were just as deadly to Europeans as they were much later to Indigenous people of the Americas. It took many millennia for the Europeans to build up immunity. By the time they arrived in the “New World” after 1492, the invaders were not affected by the deadly germs they carried. The people in the “New World” were not so lucky; they were ravaged by those diseases.

Ronald Wright described the onslaught this way:

“It is now clear that Old World plagues killed at least half the population of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilization shortly before their overthrow. The sheer loss of people was devastating enough (Europe reeled for a century after the Black Death which was less severe), but disease was also a political assassination squad, removing kings, generals, and seasoned advisors at the very time they were needed most.

The great death raged for more than a century. By 1600 after some twenty waves of pestilence had swept through the Americas, less than a tenth of the original population remained. Perhaps 90 million died, the equivalent, in today’s terms, to the loss of a billion.  It was the greatest mortality in history. To conquered and conqueror alike, it seemed as though god really was on the white man’s side.”

I often wonder why I did not learn this brutal history in school. Was someone trying to hide something?  It seems like a surprising oversight.

The Greatest Holocaust Ever

 

We in the west don’t like to think about it, but the facts are stark.  As Tzvetan Todorov said about the founding of New Spain and Portuguese Brazil “the sixteenth century perpetuated the greatest genocide in human history.” (emphasis added) We are the products of that genocide.  We are the beneficiaries of that genocide! We must never forget that awful, uncomfortable fact, no matter what we might like to do.   Marks Crocker was even more extreme in his description of this fact when he said,

“…when viewed as a single process, the European consumption of tribal society could be said to represent the, greatest, most persistent act of human destruction ever recorded.”

Admittedly, it is not a simple task to count the number of dead caused by European expansionism. Estimates of deaths of Indigenous peoples vary widely.  Yet one thing is clear.  Vast numbers of Indigenous peoples did not survive European arrivals.  Russell Thornton is a serious scholar who has given a lot of attention to this issue He concluded that the Aboriginal population in the Americas had declined by 1900 to about 6% of its size of about 72 million when Europeans first made contact with the peoples of the western hemisphere. He blamed diseases as the primary cause, but warfare and genocide added to the terrible toll.

Holocaust” is really an appropriate word.  It’s an ugly word but it’s the right word. This becomes even clearer, when one learns that this was accompanied by destruction of more than 75% of the Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in the Americas when Europeans arrived. As we know now, destruction of language means the destruction of a culture, and with that destruction a people is often rendered limp—ready to roll over and die. It must be remembered that this trend has not stopped. In 2000 the pace of language destructions has continued unabated. In fact it has accelerated worldwide. We will all suffer this loss.  As Canadian scholar, Anthony Hall said, “The disappearance of so many linguistic windows of human understanding is robbing posterity of vital media of thought and articulation to convey, perpetuate, and augment our inherited cultural richness.”

We in the west are now quick to condemn genocides in Germany, Rwanda, Serbia, Kosovo, Cambodia, and other places. We should not forget what happened in our homeland. These were war crimes, ethnic cleansings, and crimes against humanity that have rarely been acknowledged, and have never been punished or brought to justice.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission danced around the issue of genocide. It called the results of the Residential schools “Cultural genocide”.  I find this concept disconcerting. What is cultural genocide as opposed to genocide?

At first, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg did the same thing. It used the similar expression “cultural genocide” as well.  I always felt that it used this expression rather than the harsher expression “genocide” because it did not want to offend its reluctant sponsor, the Conservative federal government of Canada led at the time by Stephen Harper.  Later, after that government was replaced by the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau, it referred to it as “genocide.”  I believe that this is now its official position.

Anthony Hall does not shrink from describing the actions of European conquerors as genocide. He described it this way,

“In North America in particular the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples has been so systematic, longstanding, and pervasive that it has been rendered all but invisible, except to the victims or their survivors and to those with the honesty and fortitude to face the stark evidence of the historical record.  One marker of the extent and terrible effectiveness of this genocidal assault is Thornton’s estimate that, between 1492 and 1900, the number of Indians and Inuit in the region covered by Canada and the United States dropped from around 7 million to fewer than 400,000.”

We, who now live in North America, are the beneficiaries of that genocide.  How comfortable are we about that? Most of us never admit it. Most of us never even think about it. Colonization was made possible by genocide. That colonization continues to this day. Our society is based on that.

Genocide of Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere by European Powers

 

The European countries and later the United States were guilty of enormous sins when they waged wars on indigenous peoples around the world. Will they ever be brought to justice for those crimes?  It is highly unlikely. At least so long as they continue to be powerful. Nothing cleanses sins more effectively than power. The genocide against indigenous peoples has been the largest and most profound in the history of the world. Yet it is rarely acknowledged as genocide. It is unlikely to be acknowledged as such so long as those countries and their successors wield power.

Western powers like Britain, France, Holland, Spain, and the United States don’t want their abysmal records of the mistreatment of indigenous peoples around the world to come back to haunt them.

Andrew Woolford, an acknowledged expert on genocide, and the author of Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America makes a powerful argument that the treatment of indigenous peoples in North America by European invaders was genocide.  Adam Muller makes the same assertion in his  book on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Really it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.

If I am right that this was genocide, what is the significance of that? What is the significance of it going unacknowledged by the successors to the perpetration of the genocide? What kind of a civilization can be built on such a foundation? I think these are interesting questions.