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Defining Genocide And America’s Selective Memory

When It Comes To Atrocities Committed Against American Indians.

On December 9, 1984 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly approved the Genocide Convention and developed an international law that recognizes acts of genocide. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention lists the following acts. (a) Killing members of the group.  (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. (e) Forcibly transferring children of one group to another group. This criteria according to the UN convention constitutes genocide and is comparable to the canalization of the Americas (Simon 2007:52).  In Massachusetts in 1637, Captain John Endicott mounted a column of ninety men to Block Island. Their orders were to kill every male living there and steal as many children and women as possible due to the fact that they would “fetch a tidy sum in the West Indies slave markets” (Churchill 1997:171). This is only one example of the many instances recorded in the historical record and can be comparable to instances that have already been legally defined as genocide.

The massacre at Wounded Knee is another tragic event that is comparable to the second criteria listed above. “They turned their guns, Hotchkiss guns, etc. upon women who were in the lodges standing under a flag of truce, and of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled…. There was a women with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched”(Stannard 1992:127). This event is another historical example that fits within the UN Council’s definitions of genocide and also shows the group suffered serious bodily and mental harm.

Intentional spread of communicable and fatal diseases is another way in which Native Americans were subject to genocide. This is perhaps the most detrimental cause of the large number of fatalities Native Americans endured upon contact with Europeans. While I do not have much information on this topic it is definitely something I want to explore in my research paper due to its astounding affects, not only on the population of native peoples, but also the affects it has on the preservation of indigenous lifestyles and cultures. I will continue to pursue this and expand on it in future journal entries. Further, clear parallels can be made when comparing the behavior of the government toward its native population and the genocide during the Holocaust through intentionally spreading disease and performing experiments on the victims. This occurred throughout the American history and is seen in numerous accounts of Indian children during the boarding school era from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s.

The assimilation of Native people by the federal government outlawed spiritual practices and aimed to eradicate all remaining traditions of native culture. The majority of children were forcibly removed from their home at the earliest age possible and sent to remote boarding schools to be deculturated. They were prohibited from practicing their religion, speaking their language or contact with relatives outside of the schools. They were taught servant or laborer skills to better serve the dominant society (Churchill 1997:246). These methods were used on the Native people to civilize and oppress them throughout America’s conquest. Further, the rape, murder, beating, and punishments suffered by the native children in the boarding schools is rarely discussed in the historic accounts of the boarding school era. Instead most of these atrocious acts are often overlooked or dismissed as things of the past that the victims and descendants of the victims should “get over.”

In Hedges book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he shows how historical memory is hijacked by the people who carry out the war. The victors attempt to destroy or hide the evidence. This destruction is supported by persuading the establishment including the media who carry on the messages of the powerful (Hedges 2002:141).  By excluding the whole criteria of the 1948 definition of cultural genocide they have clouded the understanding of the crime itself. If these instances are not allowed to be referred to and defined as “mass murders” then they will continue. The data shows that more people have died since World War II as a result of mass killings than from natural disasters, international wars, and colonial and civil combined (Churchill 1997:388).

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