by Professor Robert K. Hitchcock,
University of New Mexico
The United States, like every other country in the world that contains people who define themselves as indigenous (90 of the world’s 193 nation-states), has denied consistently that it treated its indigenous peoples genocidally. For purposes of this paper, I will use the terms American Indians and Native Americans interchangeably, with the full understanding that many American indigenous groups prefer to be referred to by their own group names. At the same time, their collective names for themselves have changed over time, which in some cases makes it difficult to track historical events involving specific groups. The United States stands out for its treatment of its indigenous peoples, which ranged from benign neglect to outright genocide and extermination efforts. Many American Indians argue that what happened to them over some 500 years of colonization, violence, and repression was definitely genocide.There are also those scholars and writers who categorically deny that what happened to American Indians constituted genocide.
The United States government has refused to acknowledge that its treatment of indigenous people is genocide. Yet the United States labelled China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide since the actions involved confinement of Uighurs to internment camps, torture, forced sterilizations, birth control, denial of rights to speak their mother tongue language, and family separations aimed at destroying Uighur identity. (Wong and Buckley 2021). In the past several decades, the U.S. Department of State has declared that genocides have occurred in Bosnia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Iraq (1995), Darfur (Sudan) (2004), and areas of Syria and Iraq under the control of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Daesh) (2016, 2017).
The U.S. has come up with arguments aimed specifically at not labelling a country’s actions as genocide, in part because doing so legally would require the U.S. to intervene and stop the genocide. Sometimes the argument presented by the U.S. government was that it was unaware of the extent of mass killings or that it simply ‘did not know’ about what was happening. Virtually no American President has made genocide prevention a priority. As Sam Totten (personal communication, 25 November 2021) notes, ‘More often than not realpolitik was at the root of the U.S. avoidance of calling a genocide a genocide.’ When the declaration was made during the Bush Administration that Sudan was guilty of genocide in Darfur, little was done to actually punish Sudan for what happened in Darfur. In all too many cases, the U.S. government has been complicit in crimes against humanity and genocide around the world, including against indigenous peoples.
Genocide scholars such as Ben Kiernan have focused on genocide in North America, including the colonial period and in the United States. Alex Alvarez has addressed the question of genocide and Native Americans. Jeffrey Ostler has examined genocide of Native Americans in the eastern United States from the 1750s to the Civil War. Brendan Lindsay and Benjamin Madley have conducted detailed reviews of the genocide of California Indians. As Kiernan notes, “U.S. policies toward Indians did not mandate genocide, but it was practiced when considered necessary in the opening up of the western frontier of the United States, including the Great Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, and California.” Kiernan also points out, “Genocides resulted from a ruthless policy of conquest in which Indian land was the prize and Indians the obstacle.”
Brothers, (left to right) White Lance, Joseph Horn Cloud, and Dewey Beard, Wounded Knee survivors; Miniconjou, Lakota
American tactics used against Indians were complex. They included direct attacks on Indian communities, forced removals from Indian lands, killing of American Indian leaders capturing Indian women and children, placing Indians on reservations, exacting revenge for perceived Indian atrocities against settlers and murder of American Indian leaders. On the reservations, Indians received poor rations, insufficient clothing and blankets, and little in the way of annual cash payments. The reservation residents were required to live in tents or other kinds of poor housing with little in the way of sanitation, which contributed substantially to deaths from malnutrition and disease. On the other hand, reservations were places where tribal and federal jurisdictions prevailed, and they were seen as locations of cultural and ideological significance by many of the Indians that occupied them.
Often describing Indians as ‘savages, brutes, or uncivilized,’ settlers, militias, and the U.S. military attacked Indians, often without mercy, with the intent, in many cases, of exterminating them. Pure racism and the desire for land were major reasons for the actions of Europeans against Indian peoples. Atrocities were perpetrated on both sides as settlers expanded westward from the original colonial settlements on the east coast of the United States. While some of the Indians that were the subject of genocidal actions by Americans
were hunter-gatherers, others were agriculturalists who cultivated domestic crops and resided in large towns and urban centers. Some of the latter groups were deliberately removed from their homelands and moved westward, as occurred, for example, with the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Creeks in the period after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was signed by President Andrew Jackson. As Ostler notes,
During the removal process in the 1830s, approximately 2,000 Choctaws, 4,500 Creeks, and 5,000 Cherokees perished, mostly from intersecting factors of disease, starvation, exposure, and demoralization. Many hundreds died during the journey west, though the “trail of tears” metaphor obscures the fact that the majority of deaths occurred in internment camps while awaiting transportation west and in the first few years after relocation.
It is estimated that the mortality rate for these three tribes as a result of concentration in small camps prior to relocation, the actual removals, forced marches, mistreatment along the route, and lack of sufficient food was some 60%. As Ostler points out, in order to secure the Indians’ compliance to relocate, the federal government depended on threats. One of these threats was the withdrawal of federal protection which would make Indians subject to state legal regimes that would leave them vulnerable to settler encroachment and eventual dispossession. A second threat was that the U.S. government would employ violence if the tribes refused to emigrate.
The U.S. made good on the latter threat in two cases: first, against the Sauks and the Meskwakis in the Black Hawk War (1832), and second, against the Seminoles in Florida in the Second Seminole War (1836–1842). In the first case, the American military killed some 200 Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos under Chief Black Hawk including women and children as they attempted to cross the Mississippi River from southern Wisconsin, which was then Indian Territory, into Illinois at the battle of Bad Axe on August 1st and 2nd 1832. As was so often the case, the U.S. military sought to exterminate Black Hawk and his people even though they were in the process of moving into areas where the Sauks thought they would be left alone and would not be attacked.
One lesson from the Black Hawk War for the U.S. military was that they needed to use horses since the many of the Indians with whom they were contending were mounted. Another lesson was that by attacking women, children, and the elderly, the U.S. military could reduce the willingness of Indian fighters to engage in actions against them. This was a strategy used by General George Armstrong Custer when he and the 7th Cavalry attacked the camp of the Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle on the Washita River in western Oklahoma on 27 November 1868. It should also be noted that Chief Black Kettle and his people assumed that they were safe since they had declared that they were going to pursue peace.
The 19th century in particular can be characterized as ‘an age of genocidal massacres,’ or, as the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne on the Great Plains described it, ‘The Long Death.’ Some scholars argue that what happened in American history, including in the Great Plains in the 19th century, was an ethnic cleansing rather than genocide. Ethnic cleansing is the purposeful removal of an ethnic group from an area with the intention of rendering that area ethnically homogenous. This concept was discussed initially during the early phases of the Second World War, but it came into more regular use during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Ethnic cleansing is part of a continuum of violence in which the most extreme form is genocide One problem with the term ethnic cleansing is that it has no legal definition, unlike the term genocide.
Trail of Tears
Federal Indian Policy in the United States
Various scholars have divided U.S. federal Indian policy into different phases. These phases included (1) initial contact to coexistence, (2) forced removals (1830s), (3) direct warfare and confinement of Indians, particularly on the Great Plains, to reservations (which for our purposes here lasted from 1832 to 1890), and (4) the period of assimilation, when efforts were made to destroy Indian cultural identity and languages through the establishment of boarding schools and taking Indian children away from their families (1860 – 1970s). Other government policies aimed at undercutting Indian institutions and self-determination included reorganization and termination, in the latter case doing away with federal recognition for Indian tribes and taking away Indian land, actions which the government claimed were done legally. Sovereignty and self-determination were key rallying cries for Native Americans in the United States. Indians actively resisted many of these policies and were severely punished for that resistance, often through military actions against them. More subtle pressures were brought to bear on Indian communities, such as denying them food, pressuring Indian women into sexual servitude, or failing to provide Indians with legal documents of various kinds. All of these actions that could be construed as genocidal, using the modern definition, and were categorically denied by U.S. government officials and Indian agents.
Part of the problem lies in the U.S. educational system. U.S. history textbooks in general do not call what happened to American Indians genocide. Instead, American textbooks tend to overstate the impact of disease on indigenous peoples and understate other factors that resulted in their drastic decline in numbers, including, as Kirsten Dyck puts it, ‘Mass killing, maiming, rape, kidnapping, enslavement, intentional food source destruction, forced relocation, land theft, toxic contamination, forced sterilization, treaty breaking, and continued governmental neglect that occurred (and, too often), still occur, within our borders.’ It is estimated that the American Indian population declined by some 90-95% from the time of initial contact to 1900. Much of this decline was attributed by American historians, anthropologists, and other social and biological scientists to disease. At the end of the 19th century, the American Indian population numbered some 237,000, down from an estimated 5-12 million at the time of contact. As will be discussed below, disease and deliberate efforts to exterminate American Indians combined to affect the well-being and reduce the overall numbers of indigenous people in the United States for centuries.
Perspectives on Genocide
The concept of genocide is a highly contentious one, and its use often generates fierce debates. In the 21st century, the term has taken on substantial symbolic significance. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Article II) defines genocide as follows:
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:
(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 indeed to prevent birth within the group.
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
These five acts consist of a combination of biological, physical, and cultural harms. There are a number of problems with this definition, not least among them that it leaves out certain groups, including political and social collectivities, and it focuses heavily on the concept of intent. Genocide is a massive human rights violation that occurs both in times of peace and war.
Helen Fein defines genocide as "sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim." This definition is a useful one in that it excludes single massacres aimed at physically destroying group members who are selected on the basis of their being part of a collectivity. At the same time, it does not specify whether the actions of the perpetrator were authorized specifically by the state.
Christopher Powell sees genocide as being qualitatively different from abuse and persecution whereby the perpetrators desire their target group to disappear completely, defining them as being inferior and in a denigrated position. Genocide, as noted by Kirsten Dyck, ‘stems from relationships within and among human groups’ in which power relation differences in groups exist. In the case of the U.S. government the U.S. military and American Indians, there were certainly significant power differentials between them.
There were numerous instances where federal and state officials in the United States denied that the actions that they were taking against indigenous peoples was genocide. The major arguments about the treatment of the so-called ‘Indian Problem” were that the government was doing what was necessary in order to protect U.S. citizens and settlers and that their actions were lawful when it came to the treatment of Native Americans. The American government was aware of the efforts of non-government organizations such as the Aborigines Protection Society (APS) which was calling into question the actions of nation-states such as Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa and wanted to avoid the questioning of U.S. government actions.
American Indian authors argue that what happened to indigenous people in the United States meets every criterion of genocide. Some of the genocides involving American Indians were small-scale atrocities. These kinds of atrocities have been described as ‘fractal massacres,’ defined by Mann as ‘long-running strings of small-scale atrocities over large geographical areas that often function as the micro-level events in the macro-level process of genocide.’
In the 19th century in particular, various hostile actions were taken against American Indians by the U.S. government or by militias, small groups of settlers, vigilantes, and even by Indian agents themselves. Many of these actions were planned and carried out with careful thought and deliberation; they thus fit the Genocide Convention definition of being done ‘with intent.’ Others may have been inadvertent or unintentional, such as the destruction of the landscape and range due to the establishment of farms and cattle ranches. The erection of fences tended to cut off wildlife movements, particularly bison but also pronghorn antelope which were important to Indian subsistence.
Significant questions and debates revolve around the issue of diseases as they affected American Indians. Indians succumbed to a variety of diseases, some of the most devastating being smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and influenza. Many of these diseases reached Indian populations long before settlers did, meaning, in essence, that they were ‘virgin soil epidemics.’ One of the debates that characterizes U.S. genocide scholarship relates to the degree to which the introduction of diseases was intentional. Scholars such as Ward Churchill argue that the U.S. military gave smallpox-infected blankets to Mandan Indians at Fort Clark in North Dakota, in June 1837, which, he maintains, led to an epidemic that killed thousands of Mandans and other Indians. In fact, there is no proof whatsoever that the U.S. military did this. The U.S. military was not at Fort Clark, which was a fur trader’s post. When the epidemic began to rage, the U.S. military and government medical personnel provided vaccinations in hopes of slowing the spread of the disease. In this sense, the U.S. military did attempt to address the spread of the disease by introducing quarantines and provide vaccinations.
Another area of debate relates to the degree to which the U.S. government and the U.S. military were responsible for the destruction of the crucial food source of Indians on the Great Plains, the American bison or buffalo (Bison bison). It should be noted that many of the Indians on the Great Plains depended to a significant degree on bison for food, clothing, blankets, and housing construction, especially after the introduction of the horse on the Plains. Some groups, such as the Lakota and the Comanches, engaged in long-distance bison hunts in which sizable numbers of bison were killed and then processed for food and storage in the form of jerky (dried meat). This was true for such groups as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Comanches, among others. With the expansion of Americans into the Plains, commercial meat and hide hunters began exploiting bison intensively. As Philip Deloria notes, ‘The Americans’ destruction of game intensified competition among the tribes for the remaining bison and other animals.’
In addition to a massive depopulation of bison on the plains, which at one time numbered tens of millions, the decline in buffalo caused severe privation among Plains tribes and in some cases led to battles with bison hunters and the U.S. military. Known as the ‘Buffalo Wars” there were conflicts and competition among both Indian tribes and Americans. For the Indians, these actions were aimed at enlarging their ‘hunting domains.’. For the Americans, the conflicts were a way of reducing the competition for valuable resources that could then be marketed, such as bison skins. Eventually, this process led to what some
Plains Indians and Americans saw as ‘the ultimate battle’, the fateful encounter of General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th U.S. Cavalry with as many as 1,500-2,500 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho at the Little Bighorn in southern Montana on June 25th, 1876. This battle was the worst defeat of the U.S. military in the Plains Indian Wars (1850s – 1870s) and led to outrage among Americans which set in motion a series of reprisals against American Indians not only on the Great Plains but in other parts of the country as well.
General George Armstrong Custer. He and his men met a violent end at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876
One strategy of the military, it was argued, was to eradicate the remaining bison left on the Plains. Other historians dispute this position, saying that there was not an official policy to exterminate the buffalo and thus deprive Indians of food. There were disputes between various sections of the U.S. government over how to address the tensions in the western U.S., particularly the Department of the Interior, which was in charge of the reservations and Indian affairs, and the War Department, which was supposed to maintain peace and security. The War Department took a much more aggressive stance, carrying out attacks on American Indians throughout the western United States (see Table 1). These attacks, which all too often were made against Indians who were either peaceful or seeking peace, killed thousands of Indians who were living in areas stretching from the Mississippi River to California.
Could the United States be considered ‘a genocidal society’ or did the U.S. employ genocide as a tactic among a whole set of other policies, many of them aimed at disempowering their opponents and attempting to assimilate them into the larger American society? There was a widespread belief among Americans that indigenous people were fated to disappear. This extinction discourse was prevalent among intellectuals, government officials, and average citizens, who in some cases were competing for resources with Native American and others. Their fate was in part due to what were seen as ‘savage customs.’ Aboriginal peoples needed to be ‘civilized,’ it was thought, by settling them in single locations, changing their customs (e.g., stopping polygyny), transforming them into farmers, and doing away with ‘traditional customs’ such as the potlatch, the giving away of goods at elaborate ceremonies. As Brantlinger noted, ‘Removal, it was claimed, meant that the date of final extinction could be postponed, and this in turn meant that its advocates could see removal as ‘philanthropy’ rather than tyranny, forced diaspora, or genocide.’
It should be stressed that there were humanitarian organizations such as the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), established in 1837, and the Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1833, which sought fair treatment for people of color from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas who had been enslaved, exploited, and dispossessed. These organizations pressured governments to treat indigenous peoples and people of color with greater care. There was a public discourse on ‘the vanishing Indian’ which was used as a justification for removal in the 1815-1830 period. This discourse made declining Native American populations appear to be an inevitable consequence of natural processes leading to extinction. Another discourse that arose out of ‘the vanishing Indian’ was that of promoting ‘civilization’ for American Indians, that is, teaching them ‘new ways’ and incorporating them into an expanding American society. As will be shown below, American Indians were resilient, and they defined all of the predictions about their disappearance.
Historian Benjamin Madley pointed out that what he calls ‘the myth of inevitable extinction’ which he went on to state ‘conveniently displaces agency from human beings to amorphous forces such as Providence, fate, and nature’. Madley goes on to say that this belief ‘falsely but convincingly absolved both individuals and white society of moral responsibility for the destruction of American Indians in general and California Indians in particular’ In this way, he argues, American society was divorcing American Indian demographic cataclysms from human agency and from individual or government responsibility. This myth ‘thus hid the agency of conquerors and colonizers in the destruction of Indian peoples while suggesting that if they did kill Indians, there were only a small part of a much larger, inevitable process’ Thus, extermination and genocide were used not only as threats but as strategies for dealing with Indians throughout American history, and there were various justifications presented by Americans for what transpired.
Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee, December 1890. U.S. Soldiers putting Indians in common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions. South Dakota
In California in 1851, Governor Peter Burnett predicted “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Burnett’s words resulted in the expansion of state- and militia-sponsored killing of California Indians. Efforts to exterminate California Indians lasted from 1846 to 1873, with an estimated population reduction from some 150,000 to 30,000. It is important to note that the U.S. Army, while it did carry out atrocities against California Indians, also made efforts to protect them from militias and vigilantes. During the entire time that the killings, starvation, rape, and taking of Indian lands and children occurred in the 19th century California state legislators, administrators, Indian agents, and townspeople denied that a genocide was happening.
In California as well as elsewhere in the United States, sterilization of Indian women was carried out in Indian Health Service (IHS) hospitals and prisons. American Indians in prison contend that they were mistreated more often than members of other groups. Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) have long maintained that Indians receive stiffer sentences for minor crimes than members of other groups. It is ironic, they said, that Indians who served disproportionately in the U.S. military in places such as Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, and Afghanistan would come home to the United States, only to be discriminated against and mistreated on the streets of America.
Many Indians in the United States feel that one of the worst Native American policies of the government was that of cultural assimilation carried out through the boarding school system. which they equate with genocide. The boarding school experience of many American Indian children (and First Nations children in Canada) was all too often characterized by abuse, neglect, and efforts to prevent their speaking their native mother tongue languages. Children were not allowed to wear their hair the way that they wished, nor could they wear traditional clothing or practice their indigenous religions. Unsanitary conditions in boarding schools, overcrowding, and poorly framed health policies resulted in American Indian children having tuberculosis at four times the rate of non-Indian children in the country, so much so that tuberculosis was considered ‘the greatest threat to the American Indian in the United States.’
As Gover notes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed acts against children, which served to ‘brutalize them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually.’ Ultimately the boarding school system was established and run by both churches and the state with the full intention of destroying Indian identity and culture. It should be stressed that these assimilation and ‘civilizing’ efforts were far from successful. As Adams, points out,
Indian students were anything but passive recipients of the curriculum of civilization. It should be stressed, however, that Indian students often voted with their feet and left the boarding schools to return to their families. Indian students and their parents have sought to reassert their Indian identities and to revitalize their cultures from the time the boarding schools began to the present day.
American Indians, like Canadian indigenous peoples, have complained bitterly about the boarding school system, saying that it exposed Indian and First Nations children to harsh punishments and in some cases to sexual abuse and denial of the right to speak their own languages or practice their traditions, something they want not only apologies for but also reparations.
Genocide denial is the attempt by a state or group of individuals to outright deny, negate, or minimize the scale and severity of an occurrence of genocide.There is a wide range of variation in genocide denials. These include (1) denial of responsibility, (2) denial of injury, (3) denial of victim (arguing that the victim deserved what happened to them), (4) condemning the condemners (that is, since everyone is corrupt, who is in a position to judge others?), and (5) appeal to higher loyalties (that is, actions were taken on behalf of one’s group to whom one owes loyalty). In addition to these types of denials, there is the additional statement of dehumanization or the denial of the humanity of the victims. In the course of perpetrating a genocide, a dominant group uses law, custom, violence, and political power to deny the rights of other groups Genocide denial has high costs, and it often persists in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The various types of denial fuel impunity which, in turn, contributes to further genocides.
In some countries, though not the United States, genocide denial has been made illegal, a process that is not easy since it is argued that this action limits freedom of speech.
 Prosecuting individuals for denying genocide is often a long and costly process, though there have been some marked successes, as seen, for example, in the case of Deborah Lipstadt versus David Irving in the United Kingdom.
Some of the main reasons for denying genocide are to avoid responsibility and potential prosecution and to save reputations. As Kielsgard states, ‘Genocide is always organized, usually by the state, often using militias to deny responsibility of the state.’ States and their militaries often blame the victims, describing the opposing groups as having ‘killed innocent civilians’ or as being ‘less than human.’ General Philip Sheridan was said to have made the statement ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’ in 1869, but he later denied ever having said it. Sheridan did say, however, the following:
We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, and introduced disease and decay among them, and it was of this and against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less?
Gregory Stanton considers denial to be the ultimate, final stage of genocide, as it lasts throughout and always follows genocide. He goes on to say, “It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres.” Cameron and Phan see American Indians as having gone through the ten stages of genocide identified by Stanton. Failure to acknowledge genocide has harmful social and psychological impacts on the victims of genocide, and it leaves the perpetrators in positions of power vis a vis others in their societies. As Bieńczyk-Missala points out, denial or negation relating to mass crimes consists of denying scientifically proven historical facts by deliberately concealing them and spreading false and misleading information. She goes on to say that the consequences of negationism are of ethical, legal, social and political character.
Negationism and denial contribute to the avoidance of responsibility for the crime that is committed which has ethical consequences for both the perpetrators and the victims. As Bieńczyk-Missala points out, ‘It has a demoralising influence on the former, whereas in the group of victims and their families it intensifies the feeling of harm.” Denial and falsification of evidence eventually lead to a distrust of the state, government officials, and state and non-state agencies, and denial and falsification can also lead to an increase in human rights crimes.
Ways to counteract denial include holding perpetrators accountable. This can be done in a number of ways: one way is to arrest, jail, and try people suspected of engaging in genocide and massive human rights violations. One can take them before international tribunals or the International Criminal Court (ICC). Nation-states such as Rwanda have held local level court cases, known as gacaca, where people suspected of crimes are tried, and, if they are convicted, they are sentenced to jail. Post-conflict tribunals can be held in which people affected by genocides and massive human rights violations can tell their stories and, in some cases, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), be given amnesty or can be forgiven for their actions. There is also the option of trying people in the courts for genocide and human rights crimes and, if they are found guilty, jailing them for extended periods. What is crucial in all of these instances is holding people accountable and ensuring that the truth is told. In some cases, reparations are paid to people against whom human rights crimes were committed. The study of genocide denial has its own set of methods that can be used to assess the arguments of those who have been accused of perpetrating genocide. A number of states, such as Iraq, Japan, Turkey, and the United States, have engaged in nationalistic efforts to deny genocides. For a variety of reasons, not all of these denial efforts have been successful.
Unlike Australia and Canada, the United States has not issued a formal public apology for its treatment of its indigenous peoples. President Barack Obama did make an apology to Native Americans on 19 December 2009, but the statement was never made public. The actual apology was tucked away in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2009 (HR3326). There was no mention of the term genocide per se, but instead the statement refers to ‘many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect’ inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.’ While the United States expressed regret, it also stipulated that Indian tribes are not allowed to sue the U.S. government for past wrongs. The United States did apologize to Native Hawaiians for the U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in November 1993, passing United States Public Law 103-150, which is known informally as the Apology Resolution.
The United States Congress made a formal Congressional Apology to American Indians on 19 May 2004.  While this apology went into far more depth than did the 2009 apology, it, too, failed to use the word genocide. The apology ‘acknowledges years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the United States Government regarding Indian tribes.’ It expresses sorrow for what was done to American Indians.
At the agency level, an apology to American Indians was issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the Department of the Interior on 8 September 2000 on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the BIA. Kevin Gover, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, described in his address what had happened to American Indians over nearly two centuries. As Gover put it,
We must first reconcile ourselves to the fact that the works of this agency have at various times profoundly harmed the communities it was meant to serve. From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path.
Gover went on to say that the BIA was responsible for many of the tragic circumstances in which American Indians found themselves, from having participated in the stopping of speaking of their mother-tongue languages, preventing the practice of traditional ceremonies and religious activities, outlawing American Indian governmental structures, requiring them to move to reservations, and, to its everlasting shame, making Indian people ashamed of who they were. He ended his statement by ‘expressing our profound sorrow for what this agency has done in the past’ and said that ‘What we do ask is that, together, we allow the healing to begin.’ As Gover concluded, ‘Together, we must wipe the tears of seven generations. Together, we must allow our broken hearts to mend.’
An apology for committing genocide against its Indian peoples was made by Governor Gavin Newson of California on 17 June 2019. Unlike what has occurred in most other apologies, the word ‘genocide’ was used deliberately. Various California Indian tribal members were present at the meeting where the apology was made, and most of them said that they appreciated the efforts of the governor to apologize. Some Indian observers said, however, that the apology was ‘too little and it came too late.” One of the concerns noted by some of the people at the meeting was that they would like to see not only apologies but also restitution and reparations for what they had suffered. Genocide, they said, is not a thing of the past; it is ongoing in California and more broadly in the United States today.
American Indians Today
American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians numbered some 2.9 million in the 2010 census, making up approximately two percent of the United States population. The 2020 census was on-going at the time of writing, so there is not even preliminary data for 2020. There are some 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States today, and many more who are seeking federal recognition. Approximately 23% of Some American Indians and Native Alaskans live on what can be defined as native lands. Based on the criterion of ‘self-identification’ employed by United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and individuals who work with them, there were some 6.9 million American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians who claim indigenous identity in the United States in 2020. Interviews and reports about their statuses and qualities of life in 2020-2021 indicated major concerns about U.S. federal government policy toward indigenous Americans, especially relating to the actions of the Trump administration in 2017-2021.
A variety of charges about human rights violations against the Trump administration were made, including separating indigenous and other children from their parents at the U.S. Mexico border when they attempted to enter the United States, shooting and killing people trying to cross the border, putting children in cages, denying food and medical assistance to people who had been detained after crossing the border, and sending people back to their original countries without holding hearings. There were concerns expressed about the opening up of native lands to extractive industries, as occurred, for example in the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Confrontations occurred in the United States over Trump administration decisions to allow oil pipelines to be built across native lands, as occurred with the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota, Line 3 in Minnesota, and the Keystone XL Pipeline which extends from the tar sands region of northern Alberta in Canada to the south, crosses the Canada-US border, then passes through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. There have been numerous demonstrations by Indian tribes against these pipelines. Various Indian tribes have called for greater awareness of environmental justice and the need to ensure that the practice of dumping toxic waste on Indian lands is stopped.
There were also claims that the Trump administration deliberately withheld information about the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic from American Indian as well as other communities in the United States, and they were slow in providing personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and other crucial medical supplies to Indian communities in various parts of the country, including the Navajo (Diné), Hopi, and Apache in the Southwest, the Lakota on Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. Indian tribes were left out of the first wave of coronavirus relief in 2020 in the United States. Various Indian communities have expressed deep concern not only about being left out of coronavirus pandemic information systems but also that their elders are being particularly hard-hit. It is estimated by researchers from Princeton University that the mortality rate for Native Americans in the U.S. was much higher than that of other racial groups in late 2021.
There were particular concerns expressed about President Trump, who many Indians said used racist terminology about them, denigrated them in public meetings, provided false and misleading information, and stirred up anti-Indian passions among certain segments of American society. Indian sources in New Mexico said that they worried about the heated rhetoric, spreading of false information, and authoritarianism of the President and other members of his administration. There was anger about the pardons given by President Trump in December 2020 to four Blackwater Security Consulting militia personnel who killed and wounded Iraqis in a massacre in Nisour Square in Baghdad on September 16, 2007, saying that this action underscored the impunity which members of militias have in the United States.
American Indians from New Mexico and the Great Plains said that they were looking forward
to seeing people in power in the U.S. who were equitable in their treatment of others and who were interested in human rights and social justice for all. There is enthusiasm for the confirmation of the appointment of Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo as Secretary of the Department of the Interior which occurred on 15 March 2021. It is important to note, as Coral Davenport does, that Haaland’s new position ‘is particularly meaningful because the department she now leads has spent much of its history abusing or neglecting America’s Indigenous people. At last, one Laguna Pueblo woman remarked, ‘An Indian with real power.’ She went on to say that although Secretary Haaland may not be able to undo all the wrongs that were perpetrated against American Indians over the centuries, she could certainly have some very important impacts on Indian Country and could help resolve some of the trauma that American Indians were feeling.
The United States has consistently denied that its treatment of its indigenous peoples was genocidal, maintaining instead that it was either attempting to promote ‘civilization’among Indian peoples or that the government was seeking to ensure access to Indian land for American settlers and colonists using legal means. The American government removed Indians for their land and ceded them over to non-Indians, paying only a small amount of compensation, if there was any compensation at all. Forced removals and resettlement had enormously negative impacts on American Indian peoples, was evident in the 19th century in particular. There was an enormous imbalance of power between Indians and the U.S. government and U.S. military. The promotion of ‘democracy’ in the United States came at the expense of its indigenous people. The history of indigenous Americans in the United States reveals their differential treatment, overt discrimination, and in many ways their vulnerabilities.
The voices of American Indians testify to their reactions to US imperialism and to their desire for just and fair treatment. The destruction of Indians was not simply an act of nature; rather, it was an intentional and systematic set of actions that were designed to exterminate Indian peoples on the one hand or transform them into ‘civilized’ beings on the other. American Indians, for their part, generally resisted U.S. government policies and settler colonialist practices, and their survival demonstrates their strengths, their deep commitment to their cultures, languages, and traditions, and their resilience.
Support of some of the research upon which this paper is based was provided by the Department of Anthropology of the University of New Mexico and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). I wish to thank the editor of this volume, Bedross der Matossian for his support and excellent editing skills. I would also like to thank James Anaya, Wayne Babchuk, Renee Boen, Richard Burrill, Molly and Ken Cannon, Jean Cahan, Israel Charny, Christopher Chavez, Wayne Edwards, Charles Flowerday, David Forsythe, Vidal Gonzalez, Elizabeth Grobsmith, Raymond Hames, Klara Kelley, Marcel Kornfeld, Les Field, Melinda Kelly, Mary Lou Larson, Susan Miller, Ronald Niezen. Michelle Nightpipe, Paul Olson, Alan Osborn, Holly Reckord, Brendan Rensink, James Riding-In, Beth Ritter, Maria Sapignoli, Raymond Scupin, John Smelcer, David Stephenson, Nancy Medaris Stone, Dick Taylor, Regina Thunderhawk, Sam Totten, Diana Vinding, David Wishart, John Wunder, and Pemina Yellow-Bird for their ideas, suggestions, and criticisms. I am also deeply indebted to the various American Indians and tribal and U.S. government officials to whom I spoke for being so willing to share their insights and perspectives.
Table 1. Sites Where Genocidal Events Involving Indigenous Peoples Occurred in the United States
Site and Country
Bear River, Idaho
29 January 1863, attack on NW Shoshone village by a military unit composed of California Volunteers
Hart (1982) Madsen (1980:13, 33-36, 41, 98, 104-105, 237-230); Madsen (1985); Barnes (2008); Fleisher (2012); Reid (2017)
Bosque Redondo, New Mexico
Diné (Navajo) Long Walk, 1864-1868
Denetdale (2007, 2008); Bailey (2010)
Sand Creek, Colorado
site of attack on Cheyenne and Arapaho village by Colorado military forces, November 29, 1864; Hoig (1961); Green and Scott (2004); Rensink (2009); Kelman (2013)
Washita River, Oklahoma
Attack on Cheyenne Village by George Armstrong Custer and 7th Cavalry, 27 November 1868; Hoig (1979); Greene (2004); Elliott (2007:103-108, 115-125)
Attacks and massacres of various northern California Indian peoples (1846-1873); Norton (1979, 2020); Lindsay (2012); Przeklasa (2015); Madley (2016); Hitchcock and Flowerday (2020)
Marias River, Montana
Amskapi Pikuni Band, Piegan Blackfeet, January 23, 1870;
Ege (1970); Tovias (2013); Wylie (2016); Henderson (2018)
Camp Grant, Arizona Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches, April 30, 1871
Langellier (1979); Colwell-Chanthaphonh (2007); Jacoby (2008)
Wounded Knee, South Dakota; Lakota and 7th Cavalry, December 27, 1890
Brown (1970); Coleman (2000); Gonzalez and Cook-Lynn (1998); Richardson (2011)
western, central and eastern United States; Indian children removed from families and placed in boarding schools or with white families, 1860-1978, Adams (1995); Haskins and Jacobs (2002); DeJong (2007); Jackson (2011); Woolford (2018)
U.S. – Mexico border area; 2017-2021, Kowalski (2017); Rensink (2018); Miller (2019); Allen (2020)
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Ralph K. Andrist, The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indians. New York: Collier Books (1964). Gary Clayton Anderson, Ethnic Cleaning and the Indian, op. cit. Gary Clayton Anderson, ‘The Native Peoples of the American West: Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing? Western Historical Quarterly (2015) 47(4):407–434. Cathie Carmichael, Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans: Nationalism and the destruction of tradition. New York and London: Routledge (2002).  David A. Nichols, ‘US Indian Policy, 1783–1830. In Oxford Research History: American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.(2018) https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.42, accessed 13 December 2020. Vine Deloria Jr. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Op cit.  Imre Sutton, Irredeemable America: The Indians’ Estate and Land Claims. Albuquerque., University of New Mexico Press (1985). David R. (1986) Indian Treaties and the Democratic Idea. Wisconsin Magazine of History (1986) 70(2):83–106.  Wayne Edwards, Sovereignty and Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)  See, for example, Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past. 14th edition. New York: McGaw-Hill (2011). Robert A. Divine, T. H. Breen, R. Hal Williams, Ariela J. Gross, and H. W. Brands, America: Past and Present. 10th edition. Fort Worth: Pearson (2014).  Kirsten Dyck, 'Confronting Genocide in US History Textbooks.” In History can Bite: History Education in Divided and Postwar Societies, Denise Bentrovato, Karina V. Korostelina, and Martina Schulze, eds. Pp. 191-205. Göttingen: V&R Unipress GmbH. (2016). p. 196.  Donald Joralemon, ‘New World Depopulation and the Case of Disease.’. Journal of Anthropological Research (1982) 38:108-117. . Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press (1987), pp. 15, 29-32, 43. David Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press (1992). David J. Hacker, J. and Michael R. Haines, ‘American Indian Mortality in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Impact of Federal Assimilation Policies on a Vulnerable Population.) Annales de démographie historique (2005) 110(2):17-29. United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. General Assembly Resolution 260A(iii) of December 9, 1948, entered into force on January 12, 1951. New York: United Nations. (1951)  William A. Schabas, ‘Genocide.’ In Encyclopedia of Human Rights, Volume 2, David P. Forsythe, ed. Pp. 294-304. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press (2009). p. 294.  Helen Fein, ‘Genocide: A Sociological Perspective.’ Current Sociology (1990) 38(1):1‑126. See especially p. 24.  Christopher Powell, ‘What do Genocides Kill? A Relational Conception of Genocide. Journal of Genocide Research (2007) 9(4):527-547, especially p. 543; See also Christopher Powell, Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press (2011).  Kirsten Dyck, 'Confronting Genocide in US History Textbooks,’ op. cit. p. 194.  Jared McDonald, ‘The Aborigines' Protection Society: humanitarian imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836–1909. Settler Colonial Studies (2013) 3(2):248-253.  See, for example, Jack Norton, When Our Worlds Cried, op. cit. Jack Norton, “To destroy in Whole or in Part”: Remembering our Past to Secure our Future.’ Humboldt Journal of Social Relations (2020) 42(1):10-36; Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, op. cit. Edward D. Castillo, Short Overview of California Indian History. op. cit. p.12  Barbara Alice Mann, ‘Fractal massacres in the Old Northwest: The example of the Miamis.’ Journal of Genocide Research (2013) 15(2):167-182, see especially pp. 167-169.
See Gary Clayton Anderson, Anderson, Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime that Should Haunt America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (2015); Ostler, Surviving Genocide, op. cit.  David J. Wishart, ‘Reservations.’ In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, David Wishart, ed. Pp. 597-598. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (2004), pp. 597-598.  Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven: Yale University Press (1990), pp. 175-303. David Maybury-Lewis, ‘Genocide against Indigenous Peoples.’ In Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide, Alexander Labhan Hinton, ed. pp. 43-53. Berkeley and London: University of California Press (2002). Elazar Barkan, ‘Genocides of Indigenous Peoples: Rhetoric of Human Rights.’ In The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan, eds. Pp. 117-139. New York: Cambridge University Press (2003). Pp. 120-126. Laurelyn Whitt and Alan W. Clarke . North American Genocides: Indigenous Nations, Settler Colonialism, and International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2019).  Jeffrey Ostler, ‘Genocide and American Indian History’, op. cit. p. 14.  Jeffrey Ostler, ‘Genocide and American Indian History’, op. cit. p. 15.  Jeffrey Ostler, ‘Genocide and American Indian History’, op. cit. p. 16.  Cecil Eby, "That Disgraceful Affair", The Black Hawk War. New York: Norton. (1973); Patrick Jung. The Black Hawk War of 1832. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press (2007).  Stan Hoig, The Battle of the Washita: the Sheridan-Custer Indian Campaign of 1867–69. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (1979). Jerome Greene, Washita: The US Army and the Southern Cheyenne, 1867–1869. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (2004). Michael Elliott, Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2007). Pp. 103-108, 115-125.
 See Duane Mamo, ed. The Indigenous World 2021. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (2021).  There are currently 574 American Indian tribes in the United States today, and others are seeking federal recognition.  Vine Deloria, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: The Macmillan Company (1969). We Talk You Listen. New York: The Macmillan Company, (1970). On the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. New York: Delacorte Press (1974). Ward Churchill. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. San Francisco, CA: City Light Books (1997); Jack Norton, When Our Worlds Cried: Genocide in Northern California. San Francisco, California: The Indian Historian Press (1979). Ned Blackhawk, Violence Over the Land; Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2006). George Castillo, Short Overview of California Indian History. Sacramento: State of California Native American Heritage Commission (2010).Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Bacon Press (2014), pp. 8-10; David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. New York: Riverhead Books, (2019), pp. 409, 412.  see for example Christopher Hitchens, Minority Report, The Nation, October 19, 1992. Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1994). Alexander Bielakowski, Post to H-Genocide, 26 September 2001. www.networks.h-net.org/h-genocide, accessed 12 November 2020. For further discussion of American Indian genocide denial see Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge (2006), pp. 81-83, 92, 351-357.  See, for example, some of the discussions in Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge: Polity (2001) and .John Cox, Amal Khoury, and Sarah Minslow, eds. Denial: The Final Stage of Genocide. New York: Routledge (2022). U.S. genocide denial was also mentioned in some of the United Nations discussions that led to a resolution that condemns the denial of the Holocaust. Rick Gladstone, U.N. Adoptions a Resolution That Condemns Denial of the Holocaust. New York Times, 21 January, 2022.  Edward Wong and Chris Buckley, U.S. Says China’s Repression of Uighurs is ‘Genocide.’ New York Times, 19 January 2021. Todd F. Buchwald and Adam Keith, By Any Other Name: How and Why the US Government Has Made Genocide Determinations. Washington D.C: Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2019). pp. 5-6.  Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. New Haven: Yale University Press (2007). See especially pp. 203-214 and 310-363. Alex Alvarez, Native America and the Question of Genocide. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield (2014).  Jeffrey Ostler, ‘Genocide and American Indian History.’ In Oxford Research History: American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.3, accessed 21 November 2021 and Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas. New Haven: Yale University Press (2019).  Brendan Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (2012). Benjamin Madley, California's Yuki Indians: Defining Genocide in Native American History. The Western Historical Quarterly (2008) 39(3):303-332. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2016)  Kiernan, Blood and Soil, op. cit, p. 310.  Kiernan, Blood and Soil, op. cit, p. 310.