The international community has not legally admonished the United States for genocidal acts against Native Americans, yet it is clear that examples of genocidal acts and crimes against humanity are a well-cited page in U.S. history. Notorious incidents, such as the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, and the massacre of the Yuki of northern California are covered in depth in separate entries in this encyclopedia. More controversial, however, is whether the colonies and the United States participated in genocidal acts as an overall policy toward Native Americans. The Native-American population decrease since the arrival of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus alone signals the toll colonization and U.S. settlement took on the native population. Scholars estimate that approximately 10 million pre-Columbian Native Americans resided in the present-day United States. That number has since fallen to approximately 2.4 million. While this population decrease cannot be attributed solely to the actions of the U.S. government, they certainly played a key role. In addition to population decrease, Native Americans have also experienced significant cultural and proprietary losses as a result of U.S. governmental actions. The total effect has posed a serious threat to the sustainability of the Native-American people and culture.
Two conflicting yet equally harmful ideologies significantly influenced U.S. dealings with Native Americans. The first sprang from the Enlightenment and, more specifically, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke proposed that the individual had an exclusive claim to one’s person. The fruits of one’s labor, as an extension of the individual, then, become the laborer’s property. Thus, individuals acquire property rights by removing things from the state of nature through the investment of their labor. This particular theory of property helped justify the many harmful policies against Native Americans throughout United States history. European settlers falsely saw the Americas as a vast and empty wasteland that the Native Americans had failed to cultivate and, therefore, had no worthy claim to. Euro-Americans saw themselves as the torchbearers of civilization and therefore thought they were uniquely situated to acquire the vast wilderness and develop it (this later developed into the idea of Manifest Destiny). To the Euro-American mind, that the Native Americans must yield to European settlement was inevitable. This line of reasoning went so far as to result in a common nineteenth-century belief that the extinction of Native Americans was also inevitable.
The second ideological motivation behind U.S. treatment of Native Americans was the policy of assimilation. Its origins are manifested in president Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the yeoman farmer. Jefferson envisioned a land populated by industrious and autonomous yeoman farmers. Native Americans stood in the way of this vision by their communal occupation of vast quantities of land. The best solution, then, would be for Native Americans to assimilate to Euro-American ways. Thus, the Native Americans would require less land and the remainder would be available to white settlers. Under this ideological view of Native Americans’ role in the new world, there was no place for Native-American culture as it existed before colonization. It was a useless stump in fertile land that had to be extracted. Assimilation of Native Americans and the intentional destruction of Native-American culture remained overt policies into modern times and were often tied to many religious groups’ interactions with Native Americans.
Colonies and States
One of the lesser known facts in U.S. history is that the Virginia and Carolina colonies were heavily engaged in the slave trade of Native Americans. In the Carolinas, the proprietors of the colonies favored cultivating Native-American ties for the lucrative fur trade. Settlers, some from Barbados where slavery was already established, however, raided Native-American tribes and exploited long-standing native rivalries in order to capture and sell Native Americans on the slave market. Historian Thomas R. Berger notes that a South Carolinian, James Moore, abducted and enslaved 325 Native Americans in the Florida region in 1704 and also launched a lucrative attack against the North Carolinian Tuscarora tribe in 1713, killing 200 and capturing 392. The end result of such campaigns was to displace many of the eastern seaboard tribes. The majority of Native Americans in this region were enslaved domestically, sold abroad, or forced to flee into the interior. Such displacement necessarily also destroyed these tribes’ cultural unity. These acts of intentional enslavement and displacement would qualify as genocidal acts under the United Nations (UN) definition of genocide. While slavery is not specifically mentioned in the UN Genocide Convention’s definition of genocide, it fits the spirit of the convention. These acts deliberately caused bodily and mental harm and imposed conditions on the eastern tribes that made life near the colonized settlements precarious to the point of becoming impossible.
Relations between the northeastern tribes and colonists were also precarious and often hinged on perceived threat, land conflicts, and trade relations. The Puritans of New England recognized native land title only if the land was being cultivated and had a persistent practice of enslaving Native Americans. What harmony existed was often disturbed by conflicts over new settlements and further encroachment on native land. The Pequot War of 1637 illustrates this tension. The Pequot had faired the influx of Western disease better than other tribes and had the strength to resist settlements rather than acquiesce to them. When settlers moved into the Connecticut Valley, the Pequot did just that. In response, a group of settlers launched an attack against the Pequot stronghold at night, surrounding and setting fire to it. The result was the killing of more than five hundre Pequot and the enslavement of the survivors. The desire to eliminate a threat also motivated a similar policy of extermination in Virginia following the Indian massacres of 1622 and 1644.
The western states did not fair much better with their relations with Native Americans. The Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado (1864) and the massacre of the Yuki of northern California (1856–1860) demonstrate that the competition for land and other resources was not fixed in time, but enduring throughout the United States’ westward expansion. Both the desire to eliminate a threat and competition for resources, usually land, led many colonies and states to actions that would probably be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute.
Much of the federal government’s dealings with Native Americans were fueled by states’ and individuals’ desire for land. After the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the English strongly opposed encroachment on native lands for fear that it would provoke native retaliation and the destruction of beneficial military and trade alliances. King George’s Proclamation of 1763 forbade settlement beyond the eastern mountain ranges and granted the Crown the exclusive right to purchase Native-American land. This law frustrated many colonists and land speculators, including Virginia statesman George Washington, who wished to purchase native lands. Under the Proclamation, native lands could be acquired from the Crown, but at a much higher price. The restriction on settlement of certain portions of land also greatly hindered the expansion that many colonists saw as desirable and inevitable. The Crown’s interference with settlers’ desire for cheap, arable land contributed to many colonists’ support and justification for the Revolutionary War. This property system, whereby Native Americans had occupancy rights but because the Europeans “discovered” the continent the Crown had exclusive purchasing rights, was later absorbed into U.S. federal law in the seminal caseJohnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Despite this paternalistic relationship between the federal government and the native tribes in the post-revolutionary United States, settlers continued to attempt to acquire native lands through direct purchase and coercion. The promise of economic gain at Native Americans’ expense by taking native land was a cornerstone of the voting Euro-American population’s interaction with Native Americans and heavily influenced U.S. Native-American policy.
The War of 1812 marked a turning point from the policy of Native-American assimilation and partial retention of native land to the policy of outright removal of native tribes to the West of the Mississippi. The forced removal or tribes also resulted in a total relinquishment of traditional native land. After many largely unsuccessful attempts to convince the five relatively prosperous and assimilated tribes of the Southeast (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek) to voluntarily move westward, the federal government acquiesced to state pressure and passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It offered a trade of land in the East for land in the West. The particularly coercive aspect of the act was that those who refused the exchange would no longer be protected under federal law and would be subject to hostile state regulation. The removal policies of the federal government resulted in the humanitarian disaster referred to by the Cherokee as the Trail of Tears.
Approximately four thousand Cherokee perished on this forced walk to western lands. Removal, however, was a larger policy than this one famed act. It occurred both before and after 1830 and represented the belief that American Indians were not capable of existing with nor desired to coexist with white settlers. There were conflicting motivations behind the policy. For some, it was a thinly veiled method of evicting Native Americans from land that was desired by white settlers. For others, it was based on the belief that Native Americans were members of an inferior civilization that could not survive in the civilized world and therefore needed to be removed for their own sake. Either way, some scholars reference the federal removal policy as a genocidal act due to the death and proprietary loss incurred to Native Americans as well as the destruction of their traditional way of life.
A second and particularly destructive policy was that of assimilation. Behind assimilation policies lies the desire to remove all that is “Indian” from the Native Americans. A particularly poignant historical example of how this policy was also tied to the continued desire for more land is the General Allotment Act of 1887 (the Dawes Act). This act terminated communal land holdings on the reservations and redistributed land to individual Native Americans by a trust system. After twenty-five years, they would own the land individually and become U.S. citizens. Any “surplus” land would be taken for sale to settlers. It was an attempt to assimilate Native-American traditions of communal land holdings to the Euro-American system of private ownership. Thereby, it was thought, Native Americans would join mainstream society and, at the same time, require less land. This act had disastrous effects on traditional Native-American life and reduced their land holdings by two-thirds.
Yet another assimilation policy was the forced removal of Native-American children from their parental homes to boarding schools for “civilized” education. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established an involuntary boarding-school system where children were typically forbidden to speak their native language and were stripped of all outward native characteristics. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was one of these schools and incorporated an “outing system” whereby children were placed with white families in order to learn American customs and values. While having the good intention to provide education to Native-American children, this system of indoctrination was also aimed at “killing the Indian and saving the man” (Glauner, 2002, p. 10) as Richard Pratt of the Carlisle School said. In the twenty-first century, this policy would be considered both a potential violation of the UN Genocide Convention’s prohibition on transferring children from one group to another, and a blatant intention to cleanse the Indian population of their native language and cultural values through the re-education of their children.
A clearer example of a federal genocidal act against Native Americans was the involuntary sterilization of approximately seventy thousand Native-American women. The federally funded Indian Health Services carried out these sterilizations between 1930 and the mid-1970s. They were often done without informed consent, covertly, or under a fraudulent diagnosis of medical necessity. This directly contravenes the UN Genocide Convention. Destroying a group’s ability to reproduce is an obvious and crude method of ensuring the inability of the group’s survival.
Whether government actions such as the Trail of Tears and assimilation policies qualify as genocidal acts or as crimes against humanity continues to be a subject of much disagreement and debate. The UN Genocide Convention requires that a state actor have “intent to destroy” a group to satisfy the definition of genocide. As previously outlined, many of the actions taken by the federal, state, and colonial governments fell short of actual intent to destroy the Native Americans. Scholars Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn maintain that the closest cases are the massacres at Sand Creek and of the Yuki of Round Valley (a modern example would be the sterilization programs). In both instances, government officials played key roles in facilitating the purposeful killing of Native Americans. The circumstances under which the United States committed genocide against Native Americans tended to be when other methods failed to clear a path to settlement, or other notions of progress. “Ethnocide was the principal United States policy toward American Indians in the nineteenth century . . . the federal government stood ready to engage in genocide as a means of coercing tribes when they resisted ethnocide or resorted to armed resistance” (Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, p. 203).
The U.S. government was more often guilty of acts of “advertent omission” (that is, without intent to commit genocide, failing to act to prevent private acts that have genocidal effects or failing to perform obligations that prevent genocidal effects). There is a debate as to whether such acts should be incorporated into the definition of genocide, although they currently are not a part of the UN definition. Continually turning a blind eye to aggressive settlers’ illegal consumption of native land and to other private acts of intimidation are examples. On the plains, the U.S. government did not prevent the destruction of tribes’ primary food source and government officials often spoke in approval of it. From 1883 to 1910, the buffalo, upon which tribes in that area were dependent, were killed in such great quantities that the number fell from 60 million to 10 buffalo. Without their traditional food source and with the pressure exerted by settlers mounting, the plains Indians experienced famine or were forced to relocate to reservations. Further, the United States often failed to uphold treaty obligations to provide protection, food, and blankets to Native Americans. The failure of the U.S. government to protect Native Americans and, in some cases, to follow through on its own obligations, left Native Americans with few options and contributed to their destruction.
The third possibility is to categorize U.S. actions as crimes against humanity under Section 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Murder, extermination, and deportation or forcible transfer of population fall under this statute when done “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. . . .” Because many of the acts of removal were coercive, they could qualify as crimes against humanity.
The aforementioned allegations of genocidal acts against American Indians occurred before the United States ratified the UN Genocide Convention in 1948 (as of 2004, the United States has not ratified the Rome Statutes). Most treaties in international law are not retroactive. Legal reprisal under the UN Genocide Convention, then, is not likely. An argument may be made, however, that the involuntary sterilization of Native-American women occurred after the United States signed the UN Genocide Convention (although before ratification) and that the United States violated its obligation not to act against the object and purpose of the treaty.
Perhaps more important than formal legal sanctions, however, is the recognition of the colonies’, the United States’, and individuals’ role in the devastation of Native-American population and culture. As the description of state policies and actions attest, the destruction of Native-American communities and culture was neither by chance nor mandated by fate. It was directly connected to government policies and actions.
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