A Strange Case of Genocide Denied

Peter d'Errico

A new book by Gary Anderson, Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian, is bound to attract attention as a "pro-Indian" book. The subtitle, "The Crime That Should Haunt America," will provoke people who minimize the violence against Native Peoples throughout American history. The chapter titles point to "penetration," "invasion," "stealing," "removal," and "land grab."

Unfortunately, there's a dark aspect to Anderson's work: he provokes not by detailing ethnic cleansing, but by arguing that genocide did not occur. This grossly undermines the value of his otherwise excellent history of anti-Indianism in America.

Anderson foreshadows his conclusion with the bizarre statement that, "Indians' survival had much to do with the implementation of [a] dominating policy of ethnic cleansing."

Read it again. Anderson suggests a benign aspect of ethnic cleansing: it prevents genocide!

Again and again, Anderson concludes a review of U.S. Army and militia violence against Indians with the statement that these were "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity," not "genocide."

Anderson says, "Genocide will never become a widely accepted characterization for what happened in North America, because large numbers of Indians survived and because policies of mass murder on a scale similar to events in central Europe, Cambodia, or Rwanda were never implemented."

This begs so many questions! First, does it matter to an historian whether the proper term to describe history "will never become widely accepted"? Does "acceptability" govern the work of a professional historian?

Anderson quotes a number of historians who use "genocide" to describe American history. But he dismisses them with the comment that they " devalue what actually happened to people who experienced organized, policy-driven genocide in central Europe, Cambodia, Rwanda, and even perhaps Darfur." He asks whether the facts described by those historians are "really genocide."

He adds, "Some scholars consider it an affront even to use the term 'holocaust' …to describe anything other than what happened to Jews in central Europe." This privileging of some victims of mass violence is a perverse form of "political correctness." One should think carefully about using such charged words as genocide and holocaust, but in the end, one does a disservice to humanity and to scholarship to pretend that holocaust only happened once, in one place, against one people.

To borrow rhetoric applied to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former president of Iran, Anderson is a "genocide denier." I mean this literally, based on his stated thesis. I mean it figuratively, too, based on the similarity of his arguments to the arguments of those who are regarded as "holocaust deniers."

Anderson admits that a long list of American leaders—including George Washington and Generals Sherman and Sheridan—called for "extermination" of Native Peoples. He argues, however, that official government policy statements generally avoided the use of that awful word, and that some massacres were the work of fighters "completely out of control" of their superiors. He concludes, therefore, that mass killing of Indians was not "organized [and] policy-driven."

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum states: "Some Holocaust deniers argue that, since there is neither a single document that outlines the Holocaust nor a signed document from Hitler ordering the Holocaust, the Holocaust itself is a hoax." Anderson reflects this line of thought in his argument about official government statements.

The Holocaust Museum also states, "Holocaust deniers cite uncertainty about the exact number of deaths…as proof that the whole history of the Holocaust has been fabricated."

Anderson explicitly raises the numbers question. He asks, "As the number of dead declines, does genocide still occur?" He asks, "Wounded Knee might constitute a crime, but was it 'genocide'?" Again, his argument echoes the argument of the holocaust denier.

Anderson's own evidence shows that Native Peoples were subjected to what the Holocaust Museum describes as "systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder." His reluctance to use that definition to define American history stands in the way of the usefulness of his book.

 Anderson writes that the word "holocaust" derives from a Hebrew and Yiddish root, meaning "catastrophe" or "destruction." Perhaps he considers this an argument for restricting its use to the Jewish experience. But, according to the Holocaust Museum, "'Holocaust' is a word of Greek origin meaning 'sacrifice by fire.'"

The burning of the Pequot village—that Anderson minimizes as "perhaps a war crime" —would seem to be a literal "holocaust" by the Greek meaning.

 The Nazis believed that Germans were "racially superior" and that the "inferior" Jews were a threat to German advancement. Hitler aimed to "remove" Jews, whom he often referred to as "vermin." This Nazi rhetoric precisely mirrors the colonial rhetoric that so often targeted Indians as a "lower race" who should be "removed" so that the "superior race" of Americans could grow and prosper. Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of colonial forces prior to the American Revolution, referred to Indians as "vermine" and called for their "total extirpation."

Lia Mandelbaum, in her "Jewish Journal" blog, examines some of this history and discusses how the Nazis studied American history and borrowed American technologies. She points to "The Native American Holocaust" as "Hitler's Inspiration and Guide." In contrast, while Anderson acknowledges parallels between Nazi ant-Semitism and American anti-Indianism, he repeatedly argues the two are fundamentally different.

Ian Kershaw points out, in "Improvised Genocide? The Emergence of the 'Final Solution' in the 'Warthegau,'" that the Nazis had a "territorial solution" to the "Jewish problem," which envisaged removal of Jews to a "reservation" beyond the Ural Mountains. But the worsening war situation precluded that and prompted the program for "elimination."

Kershaw writes that the Nazi "territorial solution" would have amounted to "a different form of genocide." In contrast, Anderson argues that "Indian removal," the American "territorial solution," was not genocide at all, because it did "not result in the utter destruction of the Indians." Anderson even applauds the "moral restraint" of Indian removal, which "to some degree prevent[ed] genocide."

Anderson rests a large portion of his denial of genocide on a technical claim: "It is presumptive…to use modern terms to describe past…realities." By "modern terms," he means the definition of "genocide" introduced into international law by the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide. But he has no problem applying even more "modern" terms to arrive at his conclusions about "ethnic cleansing," using definitions from the 1998 and 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

For reasons that remain personal and impenetrable, Anderson has written a book of more than 400 pages filled with details about the principal actors in the American effort to eliminate Indians, only to make the case that this was not genocide. In order to do this, he employs two parallel rhetorical strategies: one is to interpret the Genocide Convention more narrowly than the text itself states; the other is to insist on a "moral" and "unintentional" interpretation of American anti-Indianism.

The UN Convention states, "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 intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Given that Anderson's own evidence demonstrates these elements, why did he sidestep the obvious conclusion? Indeed, if we include forced sterilization of Indian women and the transfer of Indian children to non-Indian families by state agencies, we have to conclude that genocide is still going on.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Never mind Gary Anderson, I met you several times in Chinle and "Window Stone" back in 1969, and I remember your questions were narrow and a book was predicted from your brief stay. Your only friend in Navajo after today is Zah who is much like a new Native American federal judge, without clue in the subtlety of the English language that is full of creepy codes as your book. I suppose the "VANISHING NATIVE AMERICANS" would be a more appropriate title. Poof! All gone! They are not genocide victims in U.S. government and military "in your view" because the English language tells you so. Much like the fairy tales of Kings and Queens that is still practiced by some countries. They believe in fairy tales because the English language tells them, much like your book that denies the rapes, starvation, fratricides, matricides, patricides, homicides, biological agents introduction, etc and all the other "cides" except genocides.