[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]

Native American
Genocide Still Haunts
United States

By Leah Trabich
Cold Spring Harbor High School
New York, USA

In the past, the main thrust of the Holocaust/Genocide Project's magazine, An End To Intolerance, has been the genocides that occurred in history and outside of the United States. Still, what we mustn't forget is that mass killing of Native Americans occurred in our own country. As a result, bigotry and racial discrimination still exist.

"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" . . . and made the first contact with the "Indians." For Native Americans, the world after 1492 would never be the same. This date marked the beginning of the long road of persecution and genocide of Native Americans, our indigenous people. Genocide was an important cause of the decline for many tribes.

"By conservative estimates, the population of the United states prior to European contact was greater than 12 million. Four centuries later, the count was reduced by 95% to 237 thousand.

[ Bald Eagle Drawing by Student ]

In 1493, when Columbus returned to the Hispaniola, he quickly implemented policies of slavery and mass extermination of the Taino population of the Caribbean. Within three years, five million were dead. Las Casas, the primary historian of the Columbian era, writes of many accounts of the horrors that the Spanish colonists inflicted upon the indigenous population: hanging them en mass, hacking their children into pieces to be used as dog feed, and other horrid cruelties. The works of Las Casas are often omitted from popular American history books and courses because Columbus is considered a hero by many, even today.

Mass killing did not cease, however, after Columbus departed. Expansion of the European colonies led to similar genocides. "Indian Removal" policy was put into action to clear the land for white settlers. Methods for the removal included slaughter of villages by the military and also biological warfare. High death rates resulted from forced marches to relocate the Indians.

The Removal Act of 1830 set into motion a series of events which led to the "Trail of Tears" in 1838, a forced march of the Cherokees, resulting in the destruction of most of the Cherokee population." The concentration of American Indians in small geographic areas, and the scattering of them from their homelands, caused increased death, primarily because of associated military actions, disease, starvation, extremely harsh conditions during the moves, and the resulting destruction of ways of life.

During American expansion into the western frontier, one primary effort to destroy the Indian way of life was the attempts of the U.S. government to make farmers and cattle ranchers of the Indians. In addition, one of the most substantial methods was the premeditated destructions of flora and fauna which the American Indians used for food and a variety of other purposes. We now also know that the Indians were intentionally exposed to smallpox by Europeans. The discovery of gold in California, early in 1848, prompted American migration and expansion into the west. The greed of Americans for money and land was rejuvenated with the Homestead Act of 1862. In California and Texas there was blatant genocide of Indians by non-Indians during certain historic periods. In California, the decrease from about a quarter of a million to less than 20,000 is primarily due to the cruelties and wholesale massacres perpetrated by the miners and early settlers. Indian education began with forts erected by Jesuits, in which indigenous youths were incarcerated, indoctrinated with non-indigenous Christian values, and forced into manual labor. These children were forcibly removed from their parents by soldiers and many times never saw their families until later in their adulthood. This was after their value systems and knowledge had been supplanted with colonial thinking. One of the foundations of the U.S. imperialist strategy was to replace traditional leadership of the various indigenous nations with indoctrinated "graduates" of white "schools," in order to expedite compliance with U.S. goals and expansion.

Probably one of the most ruinous acts to the Indians was the disappearance of the buffalo. For the Indians who lived on the Plains, life depended on the buffalo. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were an estimated forty million buffalo, but between 1830 and 1888 there was a rapid, systematic extermination culminating in the sudden slaughter of the only two remaining Plain herds. By around 1895, the formerly vast buffalo populations were practically extinct. The slaughter occurred because of the economic value of buffalo hides to Americans and because the animals were in the way of the rapidly westward expanding population. The end result was widescale starvation and the social and cultural disintegration of many Plains tribes.

Genocide entered international law for the first time in 1948; the international community took notice when Europeans (Jews, Poles, and other victims of Nazi Germany) faced cultural extinction. The "Holocaust" of World War II came to be the model of genocide. We, as the human race, must realize, however, that other genocides have occurred. Genocide against many particular groups is still widely happening today. The discrimination of the Native American population is only one example of this ruthless destruction.

Credits: Sharon Johnston, The Genocide of Native Americans: A Sociological View, 1996.

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