Raphael Lemkin: Genocide Is An Ideal Society
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Raphael Lemkin on the Genesis of the Concept Behind the Word \
Ultimately, this involves taking into account complex histories spanning at least three centuries. But these events are generally treated as precursors to a more extended consideration of genocide in the history of the United States. Writers who indict the United States and its citizens for genocide cite depopulation from disease, sometimes alleging its intentional infliction. The most frequent charge is that the army or fur traders distributed smallpox blankets to Indians on the upper Missouri River in Overall, though, arguments for genocide tend to place more emphasis on massacres and forced removals than disease. Unlike the debate on the Pequot War, in which antagonists have staked out clear positions, there has been no point-by-point response to arguments that the United States systematically committed genocide.
In fact, although few scholars in the fields of American Indian and western U. Some might label specific events and cases, such as the Sand Creek massacre of or widespread settler violence against Indians during the California Gold Rush, as genocidal, but they would not see U. Others would resist arguments for even limited genocide in U. Some scholars would propose ethnic cleansing as an appropriate alternative to genocide. It is true enough that U. To fully comprehend U. How would this be done? Policymakers envisioned an ideal scenario in which Indians would willingly sign treaties ceding their lands in exchange for assistance in becoming civilized. But what if Indians refused to cede their lands? At that point, U. Because a significant number of Indians consistently rebuffed demands that they cede their lands and because Americans were determined to acquire them anyway, the United States constantly pursued war against Indians.
Indeed, America was born fighting Indians. In the early phases of the Revolutionary War most Indian nations allied with Great Britain in large measure because they saw a new settler nation as an unprecedented threat to their lands. In the United States declared war on the Haudenosaunee Iroquois to punish them for raids they had undertaken to roll back colonial settlement. This allowed U. Out of a population of 9,, the death toll from all causes was probably around 15 percent. Had the Haudenosaunee decided to defend their towns, it would almost certainly have been higher. Many U. In some instances, Indians were able to take advantage of their knowledge of terrain and the vulnerability of U.
For the most part, though, Indians were unwilling to risk massive casualties they were especially concerned to protect women and children and so generally evacuated their towns, knowing they would be torched. All told, from the late s through , U. Sometimes, however, U. When they did, they demonstrated little restraint. In an attack on the Indian town of Ouiatenon on the Wabash River in Indiana in , for example, a Kentucky militia fired on Indians in five canoes who were trying to escape. Almost certainly, many were noncombatants. When the majority vote was tallied, the militiamen proceeded to slaughter men, women, and children alike. An exception to the general pattern of the reluctance of Indians to risk high casualties was in Alabama, where in the early s the Red Stick Creeks mobilized against American expansion and Creeks they regarded as collaborating with it.
When U. This event, usually termed a battle, had some characteristics of a massacre. Though most of the Red Sticks killed were combatants, between two and three hundred were shot down while trying to escape by swimming across the Tallapoosa River. Taking stock of the period from to , it is clear that the United States never intended to put to death all Indians in the territory it claimed.
If that is the standard for genocide, then the term does not apply. On the other hand, U. Most military operations did not result in wholesale slaughter, but this was less a measure of restraint than limited U. As a general rule, U. Military operations often did not result in massacre, sometimes because of their own weakness inadequate supplies, poor intelligence, failure to avoid detection , more often because of the ability of Indians to avoid being slaughtered, sometimes by fighting back, sometimes by eluding U.
Over time, what made U. Indians might repulse a single invasion of their country or, if that was impossible, abandon their towns and rebuild, but because the United States had a large and growing population, a high capacity to continuously mobilize young men to fight, and an unwavering commitment to expansion, the nation was able to wage endless war. Faced with the very real possibility that their people would eventually be destroyed utterly, leaders of Indian resistance eventually agreed to U.
The threat of genocide in this very strong sense of the term played a crucial role in allowing the United States to achieve its primary goal of taking Indian lands. After , the United States intensified its efforts to expand. To do so, it adopted a policy, formally institutionalized through the Indian Removal Act of , of moving all Indians living east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory the modern states of Kansas and Oklahoma. As measured by lives lost, Indian removal was far more destructive than the earlier period of war.
Consider the three largest Indian nations east of the Mississippi, the Choctaws, Creeks, and Cherokees, each with approximately 20, people. During the removal process in the s, approximately 2, Choctaws, 4, Creeks, and 5, Cherokees perished, mostly from intersecting factors of disease, starvation, exposure, and demoralization. The death toll for all three nations—close to 20 percent—is equivalent to 60 million for the current U. Smaller nations north of the Ohio also suffered significant losses through removal. A reported forty-three Potawatomis in a group of eight hundred died as they traveled from Indiana to Kansas, while sixty Wyandots, mostly young children, in a group of seven hundred died from disease shortly after their arrival in the West.
One was the withdrawal of federal protection, thus making Indians subject to state legal regimes that would leave them vulnerable to settler encroachment and eventual dispossession. The Americans fired indiscriminately, killing well over two hundred Indians, including noncombatants. In Florida, where the terrain and climate were unfavorable for military operations, the army had a much more difficult time finding, let alone surprising, Seminole settlements and so resorted to tactics such as seizing Seminoles during peace negotiations and sending them to prisons. Although no major massacre occurred during the Second Seminole War, military officers frequently called for the extermination of Seminoles, and so the absence of massacre was not due to a lack of disposition but to the absence of opportunity.
Like other Indians in similar circumstances, Seminoles were often able to evade U. Scholars have begun referring to Indian removal as ethnic cleansing, a term whose aptness seems incontestable. One response would be that since the United States did not intend to kill Indians and presented removal as a humane alternative to extinction and since the deaths that resulted from removal, insufficient to constitute genocide anyway, were the unintended consequence of unforeseen circumstances bad weather, unanticipated epidemics , genocide does not apply. Another response would be that although removal was not intended to kill, the fact that it had that effect constitutes a limited genocide, especially since government officials had ample cause to know that forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes was likely to result in substantial loss of life, knowledge made more concrete over time as the actual process of removal regularly had this effect.
The threat of massive violence was realized more readily in Gold Rush California. Even in this case, though, it was not presented as a first option. The difference in California was that settlers and officials were much quicker to sanction massive violence, in part because impulses for extermination were stronger, in part because settlers pressured California Indians to take actions that fueled these impulses. During the s, settlers enslaved California Indians especially children , overran their lands, and formed militias to hunt them down.
In militiamen calling themselves the Eel River Rangers went on a killing spree, targeting as many Indians as they could regardless of sex or age, several hundred in all. As well, the state legislature and U. Congress appropriated money to support this and other militia campaigns, in some instances with knowledge of militia actions. The American takeover of California caused an indigenous population decline that was sharper than in any other time or place in U. In the California Indian population was probably about , By , it was only 30, Direct killing was a significant factor and may have explained the majority of deaths for some nations, such as the Yukis and Yanas, but overall more people died from disease and malnutrition as they were subjected to coerced labor, land loss, destruction of game, and reservation confinement.
Because the Indian population of California fell so precipitously and because extreme violence was integral to the process, many scholars not inclined to see genocide as pervasive in U. One argument is that genocide does not apply since disease was the primary factor in the depopulation of California Indians; another is that mass violence was undertaken primarily by settlers and that the state and federal governments did not establish a policy of physically killing all Indians.
Under a strict definition requiring a federal or state government intention to kill all California Indians and an outcome in which the majority of deaths were from direct killing, genocide does not seem applicable. Under a less strict, though still fairly conservative, definition requiring only settler intention to destroy a substantial portion of California Indians using a variety of means ranging from dispossession to systematic killing, genocide seems apt, especially since the demographic outcome in California was so catastrophic.
The fact that the state government promoted aggressive settlement, undermined Indian land rights, and supported Indian-hunting militias strengthens the case. The role of the federal government is more complicated. On the one hand, federal officials, including army personnel, sometimes took action to protect Indian lands and prevent extreme settler violence. On the other hand, the army did engage in punitive massacre in when it slaughtered sixty or more Pomos in the Bloody Island Massacre.
Congress failed to ratify treaties that might have provided Indians with a buffer against destructive settler actions; Congress also funded militia activity. Any discussion of genocide must, of course, eventually consider the so-called Indian Wars, the term commonly used for U. Army campaigns to subjugate Indian nations of the American West beginning in the s. In an older historiography, key events in this history were narrated as battles. It is now more common for scholars to refer to these events as massacres. As they had done in earlier periods in U. Policymakers presented assimilation as a benevolent alternative to physical extinction, in this way providing a way for later historians to acquit them of genocidal intentions.
But what if Indians rejected the gift of Western civilization? Or what if they attacked or raided settlers who trespassed on their land and damaged its resources? In that case, both civilian and military officials agreed, Indians would be legitimately subject to aggressive warfare. Since they usually targeted communities rather than armies, these operations inherently carried the potential for massacre. In many instances, U. Indian fighting forces were highly skilled and, in some cases, most famously at the Little Big Horn , were able to inflict massive damage on invaders.
Indians relied on intelligence-gathering systems to prevent surprise attacks and on established procedures for the evacuation and protection of noncombatants. In this way, they avoided many potential massacres. In some cases, however, troops were able to achieve surprise or break through Indian defenses, and, when they did, they showed little restraint, killing women, children, and older men. In some instances, troops or militiamen attacked Indians who had not actually engaged in resistance or raiding, as in the Sand Creek and the Marias massacres, thus revealing a disposition to regard all Indians as deserving of extermination.
Violence, of course, was not the only destructive force operating against Indian communities in the West. The U. For many western Indian nations, population losses were severe. The Comanches, for example, had a population of perhaps 40, in the mids. In the s, smallpox struck them for the first time and reduced their population to 20, to 30,, where it stabilized into the s.
Over the next few decades Comanches were repeatedly hit by epidemics, but because of generally favorable economic conditions, they were able to recover. Sometime around the mids, however, as bison populations declined, leading to the collapse of the Comanche economy, so did the Comanche population. By the Comanches numbered between 4, and 5, A portion of this decline can be explained by war with Texas militias and the U. Army, though Comanches also suffered losses in war with other Indian nations as they competed for increasingly scarce resources.
But the main causes of depopulation were starvation and disease aggravated by malnutrition. Between and , the Comanche population fell even farther—to a mere 1, During these years, the army conducted military operations against Comanches to force them onto a reservation in western Oklahoma, killing a few hundred. By far the largest number of deaths during this period continued to be related to material deprivation and social stress. An arithmetic approach to the question of genocide in the Comanche case might encourage a conclusion that the United States did not commit genocide against the Comanches since the bulk of the long-term decline from 40, to 1, occurred before American settler or governmental actions had much direct impact on the Comanches.
By this logic, however, it would be impossible for genocide to occur after a certain level of depopulation was reached, no matter what happened after that point even if it involved successfully rounding up every single member of the group and executing them all —an absurd proposition. More plausibly, an arithmetic approach applied to the last phase of Comanche depopulation — might argue against genocide since the majority of deaths were not from direct killing. At this point, we face the familiar problem of deciding whether cases involving multiple, intersecting forces of destruction related to colonial action qualify as genocide or not. Beyond this is the larger question of the extent to which U. As in many other times and places in the Americas, this is a challenging question, one that depends on a careful evaluation of the histories of multiple Indian nations.
These histories varied considerably. Some western nations, such as the Poncas, decided not to resist U. Analyzing these multiple histories requires taking into account real differences but without losing sight of a common context of settler colonialism. By the late nineteenth century, Indian nations were no longer pursuing policies involving militant resistance and instead were attempting to adjust to the challenges of living under U. To assert authority over Indians on reservations, civilian officials developed Native police forces and relied on the presence of troops at western posts.
Usually, arrests and the threat of violence were sufficient to allow officials to achieve minimal control. In the late s, however, Indians on dozens of reservations participated in a religion-based political movement known as the Ghost Dance. Ghost Dancers hoped to achieve the reversal of colonialism not through violent resistance but through an apocalyptic event that would destroy or remove all or most European Americans from what had recently been Indian country. Data are unavailable for all reservations, but existing information indicates that the majority of Indian nations lost population in the late nineteenth century.
The Crows, for example, had allied with the United States in the s as a strategy for self-protection, and although they did not endure direct violence, they were nonetheless affected by other forces of destruction. By the s, the Crows had been forced to cede much of their land and had lost access to game and other resources that had once provided economic independence. Their population, at least 3, in , fell to 2, in and 1, in , a decline of over a third in two decades. Since then, the population of American Indians has steadily increased. This trend is undoubtedly related to transitions in the needs of settler colonialism, but it is also due to the efforts of Native individuals, families, and nations to rebuild their communities.
Boarding schools have also been characterized as institutions of outright genocide on the grounds that the mortality rate from disease within boarding schools was very high and that boarding schools took children from Native groups and in this way prevented births within them. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.
The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Lemkin applied the term to a wide range of cases including many involving European colonial projects in Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the Americas. After coining the term, Lemkin worked tirelessly to persuade the United Nations UN to criminalize genocide. In the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:.
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;. In many ways, the UN convention definition is quite broad, identifying multiple forces of destruction and requiring only partial destruction of a group. As the field of genocide studies developed in the s and s, scholars proposed multiple definitions for genocide. As applied to indigenous people of North America, the term genocide was not used much, if at all, until the mids.
During the classic period of modern Indian militancy from the occupation of Alcatraz in to Wounded Knee in , activists sought to educate the American public about an ongoing history of U. More fully developed arguments for the pervasiveness of genocide emerged at the time of the Columbus quincentenary. Two works, David E. In the two decades since the quincentenary, the concept of genocide has had only a modest impact on the writing of American Indian history.
To some extent, the relative absence of genocide in much of the scholarship in American Indian history can be explained by the priority of other agendas, especially the often articulated importance of recovering the agency of Native people against an earlier historiography that supposedly portrayed them simply as victims. Indeed, some Native scholars have cautioned that writing indigenous histories as genocide risks reinforcing pernicious ideologies of Indians as vanishing and degraded. One sign is a growing number of studies that use the term genocide , most often in passing as descriptions of particular impulses, actions, or effects, 49 though sometimes as categories of analysis.
Such an approach would take the question seriously but without the necessity of providing a predetermined answer either to the general question or to the multitude of specific cases encompassed by it. Such an approach would also consider Native agency, including resistance and other survival strategies, as a crucial variable. Deloria and Neal Salisbury , eds. David S. See, e. Sale, Conquest of Paradise , pp. Gray H. Whaley , Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee : U.
John S. Marr and John T. Alfred A. Steven T. This debate is summarized in Cave, Pequot War , pp. In the remainder of this essay I have provided citations for quotations and specific points, though I am otherwise drawing on my book in progress, The Destruction and Survival of American Indian Nations, s — Churchill, Little Matter of Genocide , pp. Lipscomb , ed. Moser , ed. Halbert and T. Owsley Jr. Las aproximaciones oficiales son las siguientes:. Incluso, el conocimiento de las gasificaciones y del exterminio en los campos fue relativamente limitado. Ello no quiere decir necesariamente que el Holocausto tuviera un plan definido desde el principio: precisamente este es uno de los puntos que divide a los estudiosos, entre intencionalistas y funcionalistas :.
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