The Native American Genocide And Its Legacy Of Oppression Today

Published November 21, 2016
Updated September 18, 2019

Was the systematic destruction of indigenous people in North America history's worst genocide?

Native American Genocide

Library of CongressU.S. soldiers bury Native American corpses in a mass grave following the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1891.

The recent controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline has once again turned the eyes of the world toward issues that continue to plague Native Americans.

In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted approval for a $3.7 billion pipeline that will send oil from North Dakota deposits down to Illinois, where it can then be sent to markets in the Midwest, East Coast, and Gulf Coast.

Many Native Americans believe that the project will trample their lands and spell environmental disaster, hence their demonstrations. Of course, the protracted unrest is about more than the pipeline itself.

It’s about systems of oppression that for centuries worked to wipe out Native American populations and acquire their territorial holdings by force.

Thus to fully comprehend the current struggle between Native Americans and the U.S. government, it is first important to learn the history and scope of the Native American genocide that the U.S. government carried out for centuries.

Was It Genocide?

In the succinct words of historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “genocide was the inherent overall policy of the United States from its founding.”

And if we consider the United Nations’ definition of genocide authoritative, Dunbar-Ortiz’ assertion bears out. The U.N. defines genocide as:

“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Given the fact that, among other things, the colonists and the U.S. government perpetrated warfare, mass killings, destruction of cultural practices and separation of children from parents to prohibit Native American tribes from carrying on, it becomes clear that many of the actions taken against the Native Americans were genocidal.

The Scope of the Native American Genocide

Landing of Columbus By John Vanderlyn

Wikimedia CommonsLanding of Columbus by John Vanderlyn (1847).

The size of the Native American population before the arrival of Christopher Columbus has long spurred debate, both because reliable data is extraordinarily hard to come by and because of underlying political motivations — that is, those who seek to diminish U.S. guilt for the Native American genocide often keep the pre-Columbus native population estimate as low as possible.

Thus, estimates of the pre-Columbus populations vary wildly, with numbers ranging from approximately 1 million to approximately 18 million in North America alone — and as many as 112 million living in the Western Hemisphere in total.

However large the original population was, by 1900 that number fell to its nadir of just 237,196 in the United States.

Wars between tribes and settlers as well as the taking of native lands and other forms or oppression led to these large death tolls, with death rates for Native American populations as high as 95 percent in the wake of European colonialism.

Nevertheless, the majority of Native American deaths stemmed from disease and malnutrition attendant on the spread of the European settlers, not warfare or direct assaults.

Smallpox Native American Genocide

Wikimedia Commons16th century illustration of Nahua Native Americans suffering from smallpox.

Disease, the biggest culprit, wiped out an estimated 90 percent of the population.

Native Americans were simply not immune to the Old World pathogens spread by the settlers and their domesticated cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses. As a result, millions of natives died from measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, and scarlet fever.

However, the spread of disease was not always unintentional on the part of the colonists. Several proven instances confirm that European settlers sometimes purposefully exterminated natives with pathogens.

In 1763, for example, a particularly serious native uprising threatened British garrisons in Pennsylvania.

Worried about limited resources and angered at atrocities that some Native Americans had committed, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

Settlers distributed the contaminated blankets to Native Americans, and soon enough smallpox began to spread.

Aside from bioterrorism, Native Americans also suffered violence both directly at the hands of the state and indirectly when the state encouraged or ignored citizen violence against them.

According to the 1775 Phips Proclamation in Massachusetts, King George II of Britain called for “subjects to embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” British colonists received payment for each Penobscot Native they killed – 50 pounds for adult male scalps, 25 for adult female scalps, and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under the age of 12.

As the European settlers expanded westward from Massachusetts, violent conflicts over territory only multiplied. In 1784, one British traveler to the U.S. noted that “White Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians; and nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children.”

Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou

Wikimedia CommonsLouisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou by Alfred Boisseau (1847). Choctaw Native Americans, like those depicted here, were among those forced from their lands starting in the 1830s.

And as the 18th century turned into the 19th, the government programs of conquest and extermination only grew more organized and more official. Perhaps chief among these initiatives was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which called for the removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole from their territories in the Southeast.

Between 1830 and 1850, the government forced nearly 100,000 Native Americans off of their homelands. The dangerous journey to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma is referred to as the “Trail of Tears,” on which thousands died of cold, hunger, and disease.

Time and again, when white Americans wanted native land, they simply took it. The 1848 California gold rush, for example, brought 300,000 people to Northern California from the East Coast, South America, Europe, China, and elsewhere.

Historians believe that California was once the most diversely populated area for Native Americans in U.S. territory; however, the gold rush had massive negative implications for Native American livelihoods — and lives. Toxic chemicals and gravel ruined traditional native hunting and agricultural practices, resulting in starvation for many.

Miners likewise often saw Native Americans merely as obstacles that called only for removal. Ed Allen, interpretive lead for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, reported that there were times when miners would kill up to 50 or more Natives in one day.

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, passed on April 22, 1850 by the California Legislature, even allowed settlers to kidnap natives and use them as slaves, prohibited native peoples’ testimony against settlers, and facilitated the adoption or purchasing of native children, often to use as labor.

California Governor Peter H. Burnett remarked at the time, “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

And in one form or another, that Native American genocide carries on to this day.

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