Indigenous Peoples’ Fate Reignites Debate

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Native American Heritage Month: Germs, Genocides, and America's Indigenous Peoples talk by Paul Kelton, Professor and Gardiner Chair in American History

Professor Paul Kelton lectured about “Germs, Genocides and American’s Indigenous Peoples” on November 27.

Was it violence or pathogens that took the greatest toll on Native Americans? Should historians refer to the loss of life as genocide or an accidental consequence of epidemics?

Or perhaps, it was a combination of factors.

Newly arrived Department of History Professor Paul Kelton presented his audience with the academic evidence to draw their own conclusions and spark their own dialogue at the University Libraries lecture “Germs, Genocides and American’s Indigenous Peoples” on November 27.

In 2015, Kelton read about a classroom incident between a Native American student and a professor at California State University at Sacramento in which the student complained that the professor denied that Native Americans were victims of genocide because unintended epidemics created the most damage to them.

Although the standoff ended in something of an administrative stalemate, the point has not lost its relevance, and Kelton has poured untold hours of research into the debate that continues to confound historians by turning it into a lecture and eventual scholarly article.

In an hour’s time, Kelton took the 40 or more lecture attendees through a sampling of what his students have a semester to absorb in a course that surveys relations between the indigenous peoples of what became the United States and their interaction with European and Euro-American colonizers.

On one side of the debate are those who compare the experience of the indigenous peoples to Europe’s Jews, who were rounded up and eradicated by the Nazis. Referencing American Holocaust, by David Stannard, Kelton examined the author’s broader view that 400 hundred years of ongoing violence from European and white Americans aimed at indigenous inhabitants of North and South America wiped out 100 million people. In decimating 95 percent of their populations, Stannard said that constituted the most massive act of genocide in world history.

That point of view is also espoused by author and political activist Ward Churchill, whose book, A Little Matter of Genocide, focuses on genocide of America’s Indigenous Peoples from 1492 to the present.

Native American Heritage Month: Germs, Genocides, and America's Indigenous Peoples talk by Paul Kelton, Professor and Gardiner Chair in American History

Kelton presented a sampling of what his students have a semester to absorb in a course that surveys relations between the indigenous peoples of what became the US and their interaction with European and Euro-American colonizers.

The other side takes the view that the diminished numbers of native peoples was much more the result of diseases to which the native populations had acquired no immunity. Kelton cited the work of American Studies Emeritus Professor Alfred Crosby Jr. at the University of Texas as the leading proponent of the “virgin-soil” thesis, which posits the independent action of accidentally introduced disease as being overwhelmingly responsible for Native American depopulation. 

Kelton also alluded to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs, and Steel argued that weapons were an insignificant factor when compared to smallpox, a disease Europeans brought with them after thousands of years of experience with the virus. Once introduced, smallpox, according to Diamond, raced ahead of colonizers to inflict massive depopulation before most Natives encountered Europeans.

Kelton provided examples that showed how the “virgin soil” model championed by Crosby and Diamond are flawed yet purposely used by some to absolve colonizers of what we today call “crimes against humanity.” These examples showed how violence and epidemics were intertwined.

Kelton cited the UN definition of genocide, rendered in 1948, as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by killing or causing bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life that would bring about its physical destruction, preventing births, or forcibly transferring children from one group to another.

Certainly, by that definition, the actions of Lord Jeffery Amherst, who aimed to turn back Lenapes and Shawnees from Fort Pitt in 1763 during Pontiac’s War (1763-1766), was at least speaking the language of genocide when in 1763 he ordered a subordinate, Henry Bouquet, to “inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

But what has been lost in this focus on the Fort Pitt incident is that Amherst had previously in 1760 ordered a scorched earth campaign against the Cherokees, which prevented Cherokees from protecting themselves from smallpox and measles that were then circulating near them and that resulted in a much more significant epidemic than would have happened had the British not invaded. Amherst did not give orders in this case to deliberately infect Cherokees, as he did with the Lenapes and Shawnees three years later, but he gave orders to annihilate the Cherokees and create the conditions that led to major loss of life. 

Andrew Jackson, another notorious figure in debates over whether to include the term genocide in American history, also created the conditions that led to massive Native losses from disease. His Indian Removal policy of the 1830s resulted in nearly one-quarter of the Choctaw population dying on their Trail of Tears. Cholera, a disease not present in the Americas until the 19th century, tragically took the most Choctaw lives and would not have done so had Jackson’s policies been rejected. Scholars generally agree that the Trail of Tears was not genocide but instead ethnic cleansing: “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.”

Or as Jackson said: “You see by the papers we have made a treaty with the Creeks, and I hope the Chickasaws will be provided for west, when we will get clear of all Indians in Mississippi, and have a white population in their stead.”

View Professor Kelton’s lecture:

Glenn Jochum

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