Recently, after a presentation to teachers about racial bias in high school curricula, I got into a tiny spat with an instructor who objected to my using the word "holocaust" to describe the process by which nearly 99% of indigenous Americans perished from the 1400s to the present day. He also objected to the use of the term to describe the experience of Africans, forcibly kidnapped and enslaved throughout the hemisphere.
The teacher seemed especially concerned that as a fellow Jew I would suggest that our people had not been the greatest victims in world history, let alone sui generis in our suffering; that I would offer as a possibility the idea that others had also faced mass death, even extermination, and that there was no such thing as "The" Holocaust, but rather, several such events in history, including but not limited to the one perpetrated in the name of Hitlerism, which claimed millions of victims: Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists and the disabled.
In defense of his position he averred that the definition of holocaust was "a genocidal program carried out with the intent of completely exterminating the target group." This, he insisted, was not what had happened to blacks or Indian folks. The former had been valued as forced labor, thus there had been no campaign of deliberate murder launched against them, and the latter had died mostly from disease (coincidentally one presumes). As such, the homicidal intentionality that motivated the Nazis could not be ascribed equally to the colonists, or the slavers of the West, and the term "holocaust" simply didn't apply.
There is much that could be said here, and I managed to say most of it at the time, concerned as I was that someone entrusted to fill the minds of young people should find himself in such a confused position as this.
First, before addressing the inaccuracy of the teacher's historical and etymological wisdom, there was the matter of why he had felt it necessary to rank oppressions in the first place, especially when the three cases being discussed had been of such magnitude as to make them among the gravest crimes in history. After all, there comes a point where tallying body counts, or trying to compare suffering of this scale approaches the threshold of mendacity, only to cross it violently on its way to obscenity. I queried as to the wisdom of his particular taxonomy of terrors, only to be met by a look of disdain, as if it should be quite apparent, without having to withstand scrutiny, that Jews had suffered worse than any others in the history of the cosmos: something he noted he made clear to his black students, so as to help them "put things in perspective" whenever they opted to focus on that which had been done to them. How nice.
But in addition to the strange psychology, by which some folks apparently need to be the biggest and most sympathetic victims, the teacher that day simply had it wrong. His definition of holocaust was purely fabricated, comporting with no actual dictionary version upon which he could truthfully claim reliance, and had been offered up without the slightest regard for the term's actual and easily discovered origins. As it turns out, the word holocaust is defined in most dictionaries as "destruction or slaughter on a mass scale," and derives from a Greek term for a sacrifice made upon a burnt altar.
This somewhat theological etymology probably explains why the term preferred by many Jews to describe Hitler's FInal Solution is not Holocaust at all, but rather the Hebrew term, shoah, since to equate the killing of millions of Jews with a sacrifical offering to God carries with it fairly obvious and disturbing connotations and places Hitler's maniacal practices on a par with ancient religious rites.
Shoah, in comparison, means any "catastrophe, calamity or disaster," and, as with holocaust, relies not at all upon deliberate extermination as a necessary component to the term's factual fulfillment.
That clarified, the only issue then should be whether or not the indigenous of the Americas or those enslaved here experienced large-scale death: a point requiring little debate or deliberation, as the historical record on this point is clear. The Middle Passage, without which enslavement in the Americas could not have progressed, claimed millions of lives, and as many as 93 million indigenous persons perished in the Americas following the onset of European conquest. That such facts as these suggest a Holocaust, a genocide of monumental proportions, should be obvious. Sadly, it is not.
And so this Thanksgiving morning, I awoke to discover a nationally-syndicated column in my local paper by Mona Charen, who felt as though the best use of her weekly 700 word-limit would be to deny that which history tells us is apparent: that the native persons whose conquering we are in effect celebrating today did indeed suffer a genocidal extermination. Such a claim as this, to hear Charen tell it is not only factually false, but a left-wing conspiratorial calumny placed upon the nation's head by radicals intent on warping the views of children and turning them into America-haters.
Charen, borrowing from conservative talk-show host Michael Medved's recent bookThe 10 Big Lies About America, argues that the charge of genocide leveled against our nation's founders "cannot withstand scrutiny," because Indian deaths were not principally the result of overt extermination campaigns. As Charen explains it, Indian depopulation was merely the happenstance consequence of diseases against which the natives had, sadly, no immunity (Charen calls this a "tragedy, but not a crime"), and the fact that the Europeans were technologically superior.
That the superior and "more advanced" civilization should prevail in such an instance has nothing to do with the desire by that bunch to destructively press its advantage against others, according to Charen, and nothing to do with greed or the maniacal desire to enrich oneself at all costs, but is simply the "usual course in human affairs." In other words, we should presume that the clash of civilizations in the Americas had been inevitable, as if the Europeans had had no choice but to take to the high seas, in search of riches and land; as if the North American continental shelf had possessed some kind of literal magnet, the pull of which simply could not be physically resisted by the white man, who then, amid tears and anguish, had no recourse but to spread throughout the western hemisphere. Reducing a half-millennium long process of displacement and destruction to the equivalent of a "Shit Happens" bumper sticker, Charen suggests we should happily consume our annual turkey and dressing absent so much as a twinge of remorse.
Of course, as with the previously mentioned teacher, Charen's position (and that of Medved, whose shtick she was pushing in this latest column) lacks even a rudimentary flirtation with intellectual honesty.
To begin, Medved and Charen suggest that to qualify as genocide, an action must, according to the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, be carried out with the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial or religious group." As with the teacher who insisted that Indians died of disease and thus were hardly the victims of a holocaust, so too these professional atrocity-deniers, who claim the deaths of millions of indigenous persons was virtually an accident. Yet the specific acts carried out against native peoples here are all mentioned explicitly in Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, and as such fall under its aegis. According to the UN, such acts include:
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; and/or,
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Any of those things alone would qualify as an act of genocide, and yet each one of them has been part of the treatment received by indigenous persons at the hands of the U.S. government, or the pre-nationhood colonists. Indians were indeed killed, with the intent of destroying entire bands of natives, in whole or in part. Serious bodily and mental harm was surely inflicted, quite deliberately. Indians were removed from their homes and relocated in large numbers on reservations, which meets both clause b and c of the definition. Indian women were forcibly sterilized--as many as 100,000 during the twentieth century, and even as many as 3000 a year into the early 1970s--thereby satisfying clause d; and as many as 80% of all Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and sent to boarding schools, while others were forcibly adopted-out to white families, and in both cases, stripped of native language, culture and religion during the 1900s, thereby meeting the final clause of the very definition Charen and Medved use to suggest that no genocide occurred.
Both Charen and Medved insist that since most Indians died of disease, rather than direct violence, they cannot be the victims of genocide, but seeing as how the definition of genocide fails to require mass death at all, this argument holds disturbingly little weight. Not to mention, had it not been for conquest, those diseases to which Indians had no resistance--and which colonists praised as the "work of God," clearing the land for them--wouldn't have ravaged the native populations as they did. To imply that such deaths were merely accidental or incidental would be like saying the Nazis bore no responsibility for the 1.6 million or so Jews who died of disease and starvation in the camps, rather than having been gassed or shot. But try saying that at your local neighborhood synagogue and see how far you get, with good reason.
Of course, there is more than enough evidence of the intentionality of Indian-killing to suggest that genocide occurred, even if we were to accept the inaccurate interpretation of the term's definition put forward by Charen and Medved.
And so we have George Washington in 1779, sending a letter to Major General John Sullivan, that he should "lay waste" to all Iroquois settlements, so that their lands may not be "merely overrun but destroyed."
And we have Thomas Jefferson telling his Secretary of War that any tribe that resisted the taking of their land by the United States must be met with force, and that once the hatchet of war had been raised, "we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi...in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them."
And we have Andrew Jackson overseeing the scalping of as many as 800 slaughtered Creek Indians at Tohopeka (Horseshoe Bend), and bragging of preserving the "sculps" of those he killed in battle. And then, during the Second Seminole War, we have Jackson admonishing the troops to "capture or destroy" all the nation's women and children.
Open and deliberate calls for mass murder and destruction of entire Indian peoples were common. So, for instance, during the laying of the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Montana territory, the area's chief of Indian affairs noted that if the Sioux (Lakota and Dakota) peoples continued to "molest" the laying of the track and the progress symbolized by it, a military force should be sent to punish them "even to annihilation."
In other words, that widespread death of indigenous peoples was the desired (thus intended) outcome of conquest is hard to deny. To suggest that no such intent existed, simply because so many millions succumbed to disease ignores not only that such diseases were welcomed and celebrated (and occasionally spread deliberately), but also implies that had Indian folk not died from disease, they would have been allowed to live and remain on their lands. Yet we know this is not true, any more than the Nazis would have allowed those Jews who died in the camps from typhus to live, had the disease never taken its toll. That disease made the land-clearing and conquest easier--and relieved the white man of the burden of having to actually fight for their spoils in many cases--hardly relieves the beneficiaries of the moral weight of such an end.
What is especially sad is that by excusing genocide, Charen and Medved (and others) perpetuate our identification with those who did the killing and thieving, rather than either the victims, or even the members of the dominant culture who stood against such depravities. Modern-day whites, for instance, could choose to identify with those persons of European descent who stood up against the taking of indigenous land and lives: people like Bartolome de las Casas, Jeremiah Evarts, or Helen Hunt Jackson, just to name a few. But we can hardly feel a kinship with such folks if we know nothing of them--and we know nothing of them, or little, because our schools have been so busy telling us of the heroism and greatness of the architects of genocide, rather than encouraging a connection with those who stood up and said no. That such whites have existed however, in all times and places during the spread of white supremacy, suggests there has always been a different path that we of European background could have chosen.
If we are to be thankful at this time of year, we should be thankful for their example. We should be thankful that within us resides the spark of decency that animated their resistance to the plans of the colonial elite, and later the Washingtons, Jeffersons and Jacksons of their day. We are capable of so much better than they, and we deserve far better role models than we have been offered up to now, by our teachers, or by syndicated columnists and talk-show hosts more interested in covering up evil than celebrating true bravery.