Shenandoah Papers Chapter One: Systematic Genocide

On December 9, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly met to discuss the topic of genocide. Although the intention of the convention was to define genocide and apply its definition to the horrors of World War II, the definition that the convention provides is well within the scope of the horrors that have been committed on Native Americans throughout the scope of American history. Here’s what the United Nations defines as genocide:

In the present Convention, 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:

  • Killing members of the group;

  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

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

  •  Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  •  Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

All five of these boxes have been ticked throughout history, however some criteria has been met even as recently as 1980.

Killing Members of the Group

It’s no secret that both Native Americans and the colonists massacred each other to great lengths, which could considered as acts of war, rather than genocide. However, having been exposed to countless massacres by many Europeans, it’s no surprise that many Native Americans were quick to distrust another group of Europeans that came to settle on their land.  Native Americans waged war due to distrust and the reclamation of their land, rather than with the intent of purging the world of those who appeared to be different than them. In fact, in 1623, the Powhatan met with the English to discuss terms of peace, as they had been slaughtering each other over Virginia territory ever since Jamestown was settled. During these “peace talks”, the English poisoned the wine of the Natives, killing 200 of them, and then physically attacked another 50, killing them as well. There’s definitely a fine line between territorial wars and the deceptive slaughter of hundreds. That being said, I can see how some stubborn historians would refuse to define such actions as genocide. A more recent and horrifying example would be the 1850 Scalp Bounties that the state of California imposed on the indigenous population. Offering bullets for militia and monetary rewards for the scalps of Natives (the scalps of children and women, of course, were only worth a fraction of the scalps of adult men), the government hoped to purge the country of Natives.

Causing Serious Bodily or Mental Harm to Members of the Group and Deliberately Inflicting on the Group Conditions of Life Calculated to Bring About its Physical Destruction in Whole or in Part

From this criteria onward, the sinister “systematic” side of the United States’ genocide begins to reveal itself. The most obvious form of genocide is the first criteria, which is the physical murder of members of a group, but its far from the most deadly. With the world moving rapidly towards a more humanized and liberal world, the government had to come up with more creative ways to purge the Native Americans without drawing attention to themselves. What better way is there to commit genocide than under the guise of helping the very group of people you seek to destroy? Hitler also exercised this technique when he established his concentration camps, forging videos of happy inhabitants in order to distract the world from what was really going on behind the scenes. In fact, Hitler even created a fake town in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which was used to showcase the visage of a lovely town, rather than an institution of genocide. When Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and several other United States Presidents relocated Native Americans and offered them reservations, they were operating under the same mentality. Giving the Native Americans their “own land” was an underhanded tactic that was employed to make it seem like Natives have their own sovereignty. However, the government has many ways of controlling the land, the main one being the manipulation of economic factors on reservations. In fact, Chief Justice John Marshall named the United States Government as the trustee of Native affairs through the Federal Trust Doctrine in 1831. The conditions on Native American reservations are comparable to third-world countries. It’s no wonder that the mental state of many Natives is absolutely abysmal. Native American Youth are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than any other demographic. From 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate increased 38 percent among Native men (ages 15-24), and 89 percent among Native women (ages 15-24). The mental strain that came with the false pretense of Native sovereignty in reservations has been magnified by a 70 percent unemployment rate, a higher suicide rate than any other group in the world, and ultimately, marks off the second criteria of genocide: mental harm.


Imposing Measures Intended to Prevent Births Within the Group

In the early 70’s, many reports of forced and unknowing sterilization among Native American women came forward. About 70,000 of the 150,000 Native American women that were of the proper age of childbirth were unknowingly sterilized. As another example of systematic genocide, these transgressions obviously led to a reduction of the Native American birth rate: from 1970 to 1980, the birth rate dropped from 3.79 children to 1.8 children. It doesn’t get more clear cut than this.

Forcibly Transferring Children of the Group to Another Group

In the aftermath of the Indian Wars, the government created Native American boarding schools, which children were forced to attend. Having banned the traditions and ceremonies of Natives, it was clear that the government intended to forcefully assimilate the Native children into American culture. This was painfully obvious through the teachings of these boarding schools; the Native children were forced to learn English, go to church, cast behind their own traditions and religion, and study English subjects. This is only a mild example compared to the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed the government to break up reservations and allot Native lands. Through the Dawes Act, the government treated Native Americans as individuals, rather than members of a group, and even offered land to Natives that would assimilate into the white population. Although the government attempted to disguise this crime as an act of generosity and benevolence, it’s clear that the government only wished to forcibly push children and their parents into assimilation.

Overall, by both a conventional definition of genocide and the United Nations’ definition of genocide, the United States government has committed genocide on the Native American population to great lengths, which has in turn, resulted in a lower population of Natives, a higher suicide rate of Natives, and ultimately a shrouded nefarious past of transgressions and crimes against humanity that should be immediately recognized and used as a vehicle to provide better treatment for the current Natives.



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