In a previous post, titled I Remember Roger, I mention a speaking engagement held in Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on November 13, 2003. The presentation was based on an article I had published in American Indian Quarterly in the year 2000. The print version of the article is available as a free download here.
Too much of what I said 20 years ago remains relevant and as unacknowledged as it was then. Some of it has gained relevance–so, for example, already in May of 2020, credible sources like Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves were saying that the US government response to the Corona virus was “awfully close to genocide by default”:
These discussions thrust the UN definition of genocide into view in the same way (though on an altogether different scale/scope) my paper and my presentation did two decades prior. Lakota scholar Nick Estes, Yale history professor Jason Stanley, and Frederico Finchelstein, professor of history at the New School for Social Research are among the voices calling attention to the genocidal elements present in Trump’s (and Bolsonaro’s) COVID response.
Most immediately, though, the “prompt” to post this piece now came from a discussion in an internet forum in which someone posted a copy of a senior thesis submitted to an upper level history seminar at my alma mater (UWEC), titled
“Providing a Home Away from Home:
The Winnebago Indian Boarding School“
The paper was innocent enough in its intent. While the student author was careful to eschew the use of the term “Winnebago” to refer to the “Ho Chunk” people of Wisconsin when referring to the Ho Chunk people, employing it only with regard to the officially so-named school, the thesis reads like a paean to the school’s founder Ben Stucki. According to its abstract, the paper sets out to:
This paper discusses how the experiences of students at the Winnebago Indian Boarding School, located in Neillsville, Wisconsin, compared to other Native American children at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. Based out of the Ho-Chunk mission founded in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, the boarding school was supported by the Reformed Church of Wisconsin. Benjamin Stucki, the son of Ho-Chunk missionary Jacob Stucki, took on the responsibility of operating the school in 1919. Stucki?s dedication and devotion to the Ho-Chunk children marked an important difference in how his boarding school operated compared to other BIA schools with many of the dangerous circumstances that surrounded BIA schools not found at the Winnebago Indian Boarding school. Mr. Ben?s lifetime goal became to provide his students with an education and an understanding of the Christian faith.Direct link
And yet, direct statements from living survivors or descendants thereof are entirely absent. The student author does not appear to have so much as sought them out, nor does it seem that advisors encouraged her to do so. With the exception of a few winks and nods to scholars such as Ward Churchill, what the paper does is set Stucki’s school outside the genocidal context of the remaining Indian Boarding Schools, and in fact, positions the “experiences of students” as a happy-go-lucky educational romp through idyllic woods against the backdrop of the rushing waters of the Black River. It is a classic case of American exceptionalism applied at the microlevel to an Indian boarding school that was not by any means a “home away from home” for the people who experienced it.
It’s strange to see your life presented by others as an archeological artifact. For me–as a two-time resident of the Indian Boarding School the paper puts under the microscope–reading it was triggering in multiple ways. I have addressed some of the issues surrounding this personal trauma in the story “Born Blacked Out” and in the related piece, “The Human Remains“.
For me personally, the way the paper describes the majestic native landscape that was host to the Winnebago Indian Boarding School added yet another layer of “triggering” because I currently live in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago–in a filthy, violent, racially segregated part of town where I cannot even take a walk without fear. At present, our community is dealing with roving bands of armed teenagers robbing people–many of them elderly and vulnerable–at gunpoint as they come and go from their homes.
What I wouldn’t do to get my hands on one of those pieces of real estate I called “home” as a parentless child, situated as they are on pristine riverfront property. The accommodations themselves–without the institutional setting–are nothing short of spectacular. Surrounded as I am now by all the smut and grime the city of Chicago has to offer, I yearn deeply for the kind of natural serenity on that small slice of Indian Land. The fact that these “cottages” (as they were called) have since gone on the market and apparently been sold to the highest (presumably non-Indian) bidder is just another twist of the knife. If Stucki and his descendants were as lovingly beholden to the Indian children they served and aimed to “save,” the property could have been repatriated or gifted to the Ho Chunk Nation: imagine the kind of cultural/linguistic/healing programming the Ho Chunk might have been able to offer today in this setting, or the housing opportunities they may have been able to provide tribal members. There were four of these “cottages” on the property, along with the “main building” that housed the administrative offices, in addition to a number of outlying structures across the highway.
By the time I arrived in Neillsville, the “boarding school period” in American Indian history had drawn to a close, and the school was transitioning into a residential treatment center for “troubled youth”–Sunburst Youth Homes. It was still the “go to” place for Native American kids, though, as our communities continued to struggle with the aftermath of generational trauma from decades of genocide, dislocation, disruption, termination and oppression. I would classify my experience at “the home” (as the school was pejoratively called in the small-town vernacular of Neillsville) as an “aftermath” experience rather than a direct experience of the Winnebago Indian School as an Indian boarding school. However, there are to this day living survivors who experienced the Winnebago Home for Indians as an Indian boarding school, and it is crucial to our collective understanding of the boarding school experience that these people’s stories be documented.Any student writing about the Winnebago Indian School should have been encouraged to reach out not only to the Ho Chunk Nation, but also to various other reservations that surround the university, and which the university in fact uses to promote its programs in Native American Studies. These experiences are not “archeological artifacts.” They are foundational moments in people’s lives.
This is another point of comparison between the topic of the paper I presented twenty years ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison–the genocide committed against Jews in 20th-century Germany, and the ongoing genocide being committed against American Indians in this country. Tremendous resources have been dedicated to preserving the memories and first-hand accounts of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.
It has really only been in more recent years–accelerated by the discovery of the bodies of 215 indigenous children at the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia–that concerted efforts have been made to document from eyewitnesses the horrors suffered by children, their families and their tribal communities during the Boarding School period in North America. A review of those efforts is a topic for another day.
For now…the unintended consequence that was “triggered” by stumbling upon a paper written with the best intentions and submitted as a senior thesis to a history seminar at my alma mater is that it prompted me to re-visit this lecture, presented at the University of Wisconsin-Madison twenty years ago.
The Madison Presentation of “Dare to Compare”
I’ve been invited by Wunk Sheek (the Native American Students’ Organization), Al-Awda (the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition), Alternative Palestinian Agenda and the Departments of American Indian and of Germanic Studies to speak tonight on the subject of “Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust.” This invitation was initiated by an email exchange between myself and a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy, Mohammed Abed, based on his response to a paper I published a few years ago in The American Indian Quarterly, and in my appreciation, I’d like to dedicate this talk to Kamal Abed—a man I never knew, but who is said to have led a very amazing life of self-sacrifice, generosity and openness in the face of incredible hardship and difficulty, infecting everyone he met with good will and warmth. May he fare well on his journey to the other side.
The subject of this talk is—or should be—of general academic interest; indeed, of general human interest, but “genocide studies” is admittedly a specialized field of inquiry, and this presentation deals specifically with the genocide committed against indigenous populations on this continent, not with other incidents of genocide like the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in WWI, the genocidal campaigns against Roma, Sinti, Jews and other “undesirable” elements of European society under the Nazi regime, or by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s, nor of the ongoing acts of genocide currently underway throughout the Middle East—all of which are legitimate objects of inquiry under the rubric of “genocide studies”.
In the weeks preceding this engagement, the “instructions” given to me in the early 1990s by Saxon St. Germaine, a tribal elder and member of the Midewin Lodge at the LCO Reservation in Hayward, WI have come to mind. She said: “You must talk about your life.” As an academic, this is difficult, for as soon as you begin talking about your life, you run the risk of being labeled “unscholarly”, of “lacking objectivity”. As a scholar, your task is to remove yourself, your personal and political interests from your work—or to make it look like you have done so. But this notion of “scholarly objectivity” is an illusion. In my view, it is also entirely undesirable, for this standard of putative “objectivity” can only generate further indifference —especially in the humanities which are assumed to relate in some way to our collective “human” condition; that is, to matters that are somehow relevant to us as human individuals and as a human collectivity.
Who I am—that is, my “subject position” as a human being, as a scholar and as a published writer—IS relevant to and in fact constitutive of the stances I assume as an academic. I take this position literally as my “point of departure”. Already as a kindergartner—the daughter of a mixed-blood Native American single mother with an eighth-grade education who fed her five children on food stamps and commodity cheese and paid her rent from the meager income she was able to procure from alternating stints as a cocktail waitress, cleaning lady and factory worker, I had witnessed enough injustice to have instilled in me the sense of moral outrage that has accompanied me through my years as a ward of the state of Wisconsin, where I bounced from one foster home to another and spent time in just about every juvenile detention facility from Wauwatosa to Washburn; it stayed with me through my years as an undergraduate at the UWEC, through the ten years I spent living and working in Germany, through my travel to West Africa, through my graduate studies at the University of Chicago in the late 90s; and, to this day, as I prepare to receive a PhD in Germanic Studies from the University of Illinois-Chicago, this sense of moral outrage remains one of the driving forces behind all that I do.
My first encounter with “genocide studies”—more explicitly with “the Holocaust”, that is, with the Nazi Holocaust—came in the early 80s in an undergraduate seminar led by Rabbi Louis Milgrom titled “The War Against the Jews,” which, as many of you know, alludes to a book of the same title by Lucy Dawidowicz. At the same time, I began my study of Nazi culture and of the German language, and it was then that this sense of moral outrage in the face of genocide translated into my first writings on the subject of “the Holocaust.” In 1984, I received a scholarship to study at the University of Kiel, Germany and I left this country—morally outraged by the fact that voters in this country saw fit to place a two-bit actor at the reins for a second term, and being an American citizen certainly felt like an embarrassment living in Germany in 1986 when Ronald Reagan laid a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery to commemorate SS soldiers as “victims of the Nazi regime.” It wasn’t until I went to Germany, where I was immediately classified as a Jew, that I was able to recognize any personal stake in issues relating to “the War against the Jews”. Based on my experiences in Germany, I coined the term “Hitler-Jew” as a way of defining that portion of my ethnicity that is “Jewish.” This term relates to Hermann Göring’s famous statement, quoting Vienna’s notorious fin-de-siecle mayor Karl Lueger: “I will determine who is a Jew!”—wer Jude ist, das bestimme ich. The term Hitler-Jew seeks to identify me as someone who would have been marked for extermination during the Shoah in Europe according to the “racial hygiene” laws of the Nazi regime. It wasn’t until much later that I became aware of the fundamental role genocide played in US society—and I find it interesting that I was able to graduate from a public university in this state knowing more about the Nazi Holocaust than about genocidal campaigns closer to home.
According to the racial hygiene laws governing this country, based on documented genealogical lineage tracing my ancestry to the Mackinac Bands of Ojibwe in Michigan and on current cultural affiliations with Native American communities, I am classified as “Native American”—more specifically as Ojibwe or “Anishinabe,” which means “original people” in the Ojibwe language, much in the same way “Wunk Sheek” means “Indian” in the language of our hosts—the Ho Chunk. Out of respect for persons more firmly rooted in tribal traditions which, contrary to popular misconception and despite myriad attempts to eliminate them, still do exist and in fact flourish throughout Turtle Island, I prefer, however, to describe myself as being of “Native American descent”.
As a person of German-Jewish-Native-American descent, then, I’ve got genocide written all over my genealogy, so it should come as no surprise that comparative genocide should be a topic of particular interest to me personally and professionally. To further complicate my position in the matrix of identity politics, as you have just seen, I am also an African drummer—which is not to say that I pretend or claim in any way to be “African”, but to say that I play the African drums and hence necessarily maintain strong cultural ties with Africans, with African culture and by extension with African American people and interests. Unlike these other “ethnic affiliations,” this aspect of my “professional profile” is not “genetic,” and, somewhat ironically, is geographically and chronologically tied to my encounter with Germanic culture: My first exposure to the drums of the Malinke people in Guinea, West Africa came just after I finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Kiel in Germany. Around 1986, I began studying this tradition under the direction of one of its most highly acclaimed native practitioners, Famoudou Konate. In 1988, I made my first trek to Guinea, West Africa and before long, what began as a hobby had become my profession. In 1989, I quit my “day job” as a translator and, for the rest of my stay in Germany, made my living teaching and performing the drums of the Malinke. I have since returned to Africa three times and maintain strong personal and professional ties to the people of the Malinke, in particular to Famoudou Konate and his family.
Performance by the Chicago Djembe Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that preceded this presentation on Nov. 13, 2003
In 1999, I went back to school, got my masters degree from the University of Chicago and subsequently accepted a position as research assistant at the University of Illinois-Chicago where I am currently ABD and am the (outgoing) Assistant Editor of a journal called The German Quarterly.
Before we begin, I’d like to demonstrate for you my “subject position”—that is to say, the “point of departure” from which I think, write and live. As a German-Jewish [place right foot on the ground], Native American [place left foot on the ground], female [right hand in the air], African drummer [left hand in the air], this “subject position”—both in the context of academic discourse and in the world—is nearly impossible to sustain for any length of time. One is virtually spread-eagled across the boundaries of culture and of discourse. Speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1993, I concluded that the only sensible way out of this position was to do a cartwheel. Today, after nearly a decade spent on the front lines of the so-called “culture wars,” I will forego the cartwheel and simply add, “I’m still standing” [assume stance with hands clasped above head]. This, then, is my current subject position. Let me draw your attention to one particular element of this stance: note that my hands are clasped in a gesture that may be recognizable to some as a pose of prayer. For me, this gesture signifies a firm belief in the notion that any given five strains of religious/political/cultural thought can coexist peacefully: let us take, for example, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Indigenous belief systems. This gesture symbolizes the basic prerequisite to realizing that prayer for peaceful coexistence: note that my fingers are interlocked—with ten digits joining to form one impenetrable mass. It is in this spirit that I present the ideas that follow and hope you will join me not only in praying for peace, but in doing everything humanly possible to make world peace a reality because quite obviously, if praying for peace were enough, war would not be raging from one end of the planet to the next as it does today.
Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust
The first thing I’d like address are some relevant definitional issues. In recent years, the terms “genocide” and “holocaust” have been bandied about in scholarship and in the public at large, often with little consideration for their respective origins, etymologies and implications. (A google search on the term “genocide” produces 1,850,00 results; holocaust produces over 3,000,000).
Let’s begin with “genocide.” Though the phenomenon of mass murder is hardly unique to the 20th century, the term “genocide” did not come into widespread use until 1944, when the Polish-born Yale University jurist Raphael Lemkin coined it in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It is a hybrid term derived from the Greek “genos” meaning “type” or, with regard to human beings, “race” or “tribe”, and from the Latin “cide” meaning “killing”. Although the trials of Nazi perpetrators in Nuremberg, Frankfurt and Jerusalem provided models for 20th century ways of conceptualizing genocide and crimes against humanity, Lemkin himself never defined genocide strictly in terms of direct killing. Quite the contrary: Lemkin explicitly states that “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…it is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups” (Lemkin 79). He goes on to say that the means by which these aims are met include “the disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion and the economic existence of national groups” (79).
Lemkin and his work were instrumental in establishing the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was approved by the general assembly in 1948 and went into effect in 1951. Ironically, though the US provided the major impetus for establishing it, the US did not join the remaining ninety-seven members of the world community in endorsing the UN Convention on Genocide until 1988, when Ronald Reagan signed legislation making the terms legally binding on the United States.
The UN Convention on Genocide outlines five categories of action that constitute the crime of genocide when carried out with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” These categories are:
- killing members of the group
- causing serious bodily or mental harm
- 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
- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
According to the UN convention, genocide, even when committed by a government within its own territorial boundaries, is not an “internal” or “domestic” affair, but rather an international concern. And we may speculate about whether this aspect of the convention’s terms has any bearing on the fact that it took the US fifty years to ratify it.
Genocide then is a recent term whose etymology can be traced to a specific author to denote a certain category of crime whose parameters have been outlined by the United Nations.
Before we proceed to a discussion of the term ‘holocaust’, let’s look at some evidence demonstrating that the extermination of Native American populations conforms to the definition of genocide as outlined by the UN Convention. According to this definition, we must first establish an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Let us restrict ourselves to a few of the more egregious examples and begin with statements made by three of the four presidents whose images are now permanently etched on the face of the Black Hills of South Dakota, a site which members of the Lakota Sioux claim as their most sacred place of worship—comparable to a cathedral, a synagogue, a mosque or a Buddhist shrine. And here I think it important to point out that it was not until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that American Indians were afforded the legal right to practice their religion in this country.
In 1779, George Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack the Iroquois people, and to “lay waste all the settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” On another occasion, he stated that he would not “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.” This represents clear and unequivocal intent expressed by the first president of the United States not to affect partial destruction of a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” but rather to achieve its “total ruin”.
In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote “if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe [. . .] we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated.” He continued, “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” In 1813, he vowed to “pursue [the Indians] to extermination.” Again, this is evidence not of the intent to achieve partial destruction, but rather total extermination.
Looking back at these “accomplishments” in 1901, that is, at the dawn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt wrote:
“Of course our whole national history has been one of expansion…That the barbarians recede or are conquered, with the attendant fact that peace follows their retrogression or conquest is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace to the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of this world hold sway.”
In a 1763 letter to one of his subordinates, Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town of Amherst, MA is named, stated that “You will do well to [infect] the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this [execrable] race.”
Now let us consider the ways in which the five categories of action defined as genocidal by the UN convention apply to the policies and practices of the US government:
- killing members of the group
There can of course be no denying that significant numbers of indigenous peoples were killed in the process of “depopulating” the “virgin wasteland” that settlers encountered upon their arrival in the “New World.” What is at issue is the scope of this slaughter. For a long time, it was assumed that a mere one million inhabitants were present at the time of first contact with Europeans. However, recent estimates assume pre-contact population to have been between 9 and 18 million. This standard puts the rate of attrition of indigenous populations at between 98 and 99 percent – that is, near total extermination, and indeed, many nations and peoples were eliminated in their entirety. By the latter half of the 19th century, the indigenous population had been reduced from 9 to 18 million to around 250,000. At present, it is estimated to be between 2 and 3 million.
Some of the more infamous examples of outright slaughter include the 1864 massacre of 250 Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, Colorado, and the 1890 massacre of over 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. At Wounded Knee, the Lakota were practicing a religious ritual called the Ghost Dance. The US government, unfamiliar with and frightened by these religious practices, sent in the troops—in the end, over 300 Lakota were ruthlessly shot down, many of them women and children; their bodies were stripped naked and thrown into a pit. The photograph on the poster announcing this presentation commemorates this event in a ceremony that took place annually from 1986 to 1990 (the 100th anniversary of the slaughter). In this photograph, contemporary Lakota, many of them direct descendants of those killed in the 1890 slaughter, are seen on horseback making the same 250-mile trek taken by victims of the massacre as they attempted to flee their assassins.
- causing serious bodily or mental harm
Here, let us restrict our discussion to the one form of bodily and mental harm that has perhaps had the most devastating consequences for Native American populations: the introduction of alcohol — something that has led to the situation in which “Alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, accidental death and homicide rates are still well above the national average” for Native Americans (LaDuke). Most of the studies that existed on the subject of alcoholism in Native American communities even well into the eighties usually do not mention the fact that these problems are a direct result of the policies of the U.S. government toward Native peoples (Duran 95). The fact is, alcohol “figured prominently in the European invasion of North America” and constituted “a particularly versatile weapon in the invader’s arsenal” (Unrau 12). According to a 1987 Indian Health Services report, as late as 1984, alcohol-related deaths among Native populations in the US were still 4.8 times those among all races. Furthermore, “in addition to deaths due directly to diseases related to alcoholism, alcohol is considered a large contributing factor in suicides, homicides and other intentional and unintentional injuries and mental health problems [among indigenous peoples of North America]” (Duran/Duran 94 –95).
- deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
If there is one chapter in the long and involved history of affairs that best exemplifies this point, it may be the period of “Indian Removal”. The “Indian Removal Act” was signed into law by Andrew Jackson in 1830 after gold was discovered in Georgia, home to the Cherokee nation. This ultimately resulted in a death march now commonly known as the “Trail of Tears” in which the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole) were forcibly “removed” from their homelands and herded westward to what became known as “Indian territory.” Thousands of people were first herded into concentration camps, then, often bound in chains, were marched at bayonet-point to their new “homelands” west of the Mississippi. Of the 17,000 Cherokee subjected to removal, only 8,000 survived the horrific conditions of disease, exposure and malnutrition along the “Trail of Tears.” The Choctaw lost 6,000 of 40,000 and the mortality rate for Creeks and Seminoles was about 50%. Similar actions took place throughout the country as native populations were herded onto “reservations” during the period of removal. The primary proponent of these policies was Andrew Jackson, who promised the indigenous people that they would be removed to territories where their “white brothers” would not trouble them and would “have no claim to the land.” He promised they could live there in peace and plenty “as long as the grass grows and the waters run”– that it would be theirs forever. Little more than fifty years later, the General Allotment Act was passed in a move to destroy what remained of the collectively held indigenous land base: again, as documents from my own family record attest, individual tribal members were promised that the parcels of collectively owned land “allotted” them would be given to them, their “heirs and assigns forever.”
These policies of removal and land seizure can be said to have “inflicted . . . conditions . . . calculated to bring about physical destruction in whole or in part” because the people’s socio-economic cohesion was dependent on the land base and on collective landholding. To this day, many Native nations struggle to regain control and ownership of lands seized by the US government and its people under these policies. The seizure of lands may perhaps be considered a primary determining factor ultimately leading to a situation in which, according to recent statistics, the average income of the settler population is 54% greater than that of indigenous populations and about 70% of single-parent homes headed by Native American females live below the poverty line.
- imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
The US government’s involvement with health care issues among indigenous populations began in the early 1800s when, under the auspices of the War Department, army physicians grew concerned about the growing incidence of small pox and other contagious diseases among natives living “in the vicinity of military posts.” What eventually evolved from this is a government agency known as the Indian Health Services or IHS. In an article published in the same issue of AIQ that “Dare to Compare” appeared, Jane Lawrence examines the widespread practice of involuntary sterilization of American Indian women in the twentieth century and reports that, from 1970 to 1976 between 25 and 50 percent of American Indian women had been sterilized, often without informed consent and often with manipulated “consent” extracted based on threats that they would lose welfare benefits if they did not have the operation.
- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
The late 1800s and early 1900s witnessed a new type of “Indian Removal” which was part of a massive campaign to “assimilate” or “civilize” the remnant population of Native Americans. During this period, Indian boarding schools were established which enforced strict military-like discipline and prohibited American Indian children from speaking their Native languages, practicing their religion, even from visiting their families. Indian agents traveled from home to home on the reservations, gathered up children as young as five and “removed” them from their homes to place them in boarding schools. Modified forms of this practice continued into the 50s, 60s and 70s, when many Indian children were removed from their homes and placed in white foster homes—ostensibly to improve their economic conditions. From 1958 to 1967, public and private agencies in this country actively promoted the practice of adopting Indian children into non-Indian families. In response to these practices, tribal leaders approached the US government, and after ten years of public hearings, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 designed to prevent the involuntary termination of parental rights and to mandate placement in Indian families, preferably of the same tribe and language as the birth family.
As you can see from these examples, many of the US government policies and practices that fall under the category of genocide according to the UN convention have continued well into the 20th century, and many more are still ongoing today, so it is perhaps not so surprising after all that the US did not endorse the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide until 1988.
Tracing the origins of the term “holocaust” is a less straightforward affair and has been the subject of intense scholarly debate. The OED cites its use by Milton in the 17th century (in Paradise Regained) , and the term is generally assumed to have entered the English language through Greek translations of the Hebrew bible in the form of holokauston as a rendering for the Hebrew term ‘olah’ which means, literally “burnt offering or sacrifice to God.” In the 1960s, the term’s most common association was with regard to a potential “nuclear holocaust.” The term’s first use in the US with regard to Nazi extermination policies is generally attributed to Elie Wiesel, who first used it to describe the “Nazi holocaust” in 1963—but there is evidence of its prior use in this context, and in fact, University of Chicago historian Peter Novick, in his seminal work on the subject, The Holocaust in American Life, suggests that “the word Holocaust first became firmly attached to the murder of European Jewry as a result” of the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the term came to be synonymous with the Nazi holocaust—more specifically, with the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe to the exclusion of all other groups that were targets of Nazi genocide.
Ideological critiques of the term’s usage—based on its religious connotations and the way it assigns religious significance to this horrific historical event—have led to the more recent adoption of the Hebrew term “Shoah” as a descriptor for the acts of genocide specifically targeted at Jewish populations of Europe. But the term “Shoah”, generally translated to mean “catastrophe,” is also used in the Hebrew bible with reference to punishments visited by God on the Jews, so, as Novick rightly points out, it does little to redress the issues of religious sacrifice that render the term “Holocaust” objectionable as a descriptor for the suffering of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany. So even the term “Shoah” is problematic as a descriptor for “what happened” (Celan). The German-speaking Jewish author Lea Fleischmann objects to the “foreignness” of the term “holocaust” and suggests that it would be more appropriate to speak in terms of “Judenmord,” that is of Jew-murder or “judeocide”—and Judeocide has also been used by Steven Katz, a prominent Holocaust historian.
Interestingly enough in this context, the US government employs the term “National Sacrifice Areas” to designate huge swathes of land on reservations in the Four Corners and Black Hills regions of the US that have been devastated by strip-mining and/or nuclear waste disposal. Russell Means and other leaders of the American Indian Movement have suggested that this can only imply that the people living in these areas are “National Sacrifice Peoples”—in that sense, the application of any term with “sacrificial” implications might be considered appropriate in the case of Native Americans.
Personally I am opposed to any term that places mass murder in a religious or spiritual context. What is at issue here are crimes—crimes that have been defined by the UN as genocide. Using “genocide” and “holocaust” interchangeably conflates legal and religious doctrines and generates confusion about whether we are dealing with actions that are defined as “crimes” in international juridical terms or as actions that may or may not be deemed “sinful” from any given religious perspective. The terms of international law are fuzzy enough without having to bring “god” into the picture and frankly, any “god” who requires this level of sacrifice is not a god I can have faith in or follow.
What is more, at this point, the term ‘holocaust’ has also been subjected to such a degree of misuse as to render it virtually meaningless in any truly genocidal context (see, for example, its appropriation by conservative factions in this country with reference to abortion as a holocaust of unborn children; responding to the scandals surrounding his evangelical ministry in the late 80s, Jim Bakker said “if Jim and Tammy can survive their holocaust of the last two years, then you can make it”; Woody Allen has similarly drawn analogies between his domestic scandals and holocaust survival—remember that, according to Lemkin and the UN Convention, “genocide” applies to individuals as members of groups, not as individuals per se).
In my paper, “Dare to Compare” I use the term “American Holocaust” to describe the series of genocidal campaigns directed at indigenous populations of the Americas over a five-hundred year period as distinct from the genocidal campaign carried out against the Jews (among others) during the twelve-year reign of Nazi terror, which I describe as the “Nazi Holocaust.” My use of the term “American Holocaust” draws on the work of the noted University of Hawaii historian, David Stannard, who wrote an exhaustive study of this subject which was published in 1992 by Oxford University Press under the title American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. In my attempt to emphasize the startling similarities between the American and the Nazi Holocausts, I have chosen to capitalize the term ‘holocaust’ in each instance, but other authors have begun placing the term ‘holocaust’ in lower case and applying it in more general terms with regard to catastrophical events that may not be considered “human tragedies” from some perspectives. Two recent examples include Winona LaDuke—the Harvard educated White Earth Anishinabeg author-activist who became the first Native American on a presidential ticket when she ran as Ralph Nader’s VP in 2000 and the philosopher J. Angelo Corlett who recently published with Cornell University Press a highly relevant work titled Race, Racism and Reparations—Corlett, for example, objects to the term’s contemporary usage as follows: “I find negligent philosophers who use the term ‘the Holocaust’ to refer exclusively to the oppression of Jews by the Nazi regime. To do so is to ignore the ‘American Holocaust’ of Native Americans, which was far worse in terms of duration of evil and amount of property taken violently and fraudulently by the US government” (3). LaDuke, in keeping with indigenous belief systems that do not privilege human life over that of other species, opens her discussion of “Native Struggles for Land and Life” by stating that “The last 150 years have seen a great holocaust. There have been more species lost in the past 150 years than since the Ice Age. During the same time, Indigenous peoples have been disappearing from the face of the earth. Over 2,000 nations of Indigenous peoples have gone extinct in the western hemisphere and one nation disappears from the Amazon rainforest every year” (1).
Dare to Compare: Why has Comparing become so Daring?
Unfortunately, Genocide Studies has often been reduced to what I have called “the battle of the most martyred minority,” or what others have described as a “culture of competing catastrophes” (Young), as “moral bookkeeping” (Horowitz), “comparative victimology” (LaCapra), or “victimization olympics” (Novick). The participants in this spectacle of moral mudslinging and muckraking can be placed into three more or less distinct camps: revisionists, exclusivists and comparatists. Each of these groups responds more or less to a fourth precursory group: the holocaust deniers.
Soon after the gruesome facts about the atrocities of Nazi death and concentration camps were revealed to the international public, —that is, already in the late 1940s—certain racist reactionaries began questioning whether the event ever occurred and the phenomenon of “holocaust denial” emerged. With their clearly anti-semitic agenda, most of these “holocaust deniers” could hardly be taken seriously. And yet, understandably so, Jewish scholars, public intellectuals, religious leaders and Holocaust survivors responded vehemently in their attempts at rebuttal.
The issue of Holocaust denial took on new significance in the late 80s when a group of German historians introduced a number of texts that presented a “revisionist” version of German history—these historians differed somewhat from the fanatical “holocaust deniers” in that they did not resort to outright denial of the Nazi Holocaust but rather sought to “relativize” it. A significant element of their revisionist narrative included drawing comparisons between other incidents of genocide—like the Armenian and Cambodian genocides. The debates were so widely publicized—internationally—that they ultimately became a chapter in history now referred to as the Historian’s Debate.
Responding to this “revisionist” debate and to the whole history of Holocaust denial, Deborah Lipstadt published a well-researched treatise on the subject, titled Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993). Lipstadt sets the record straight on a number of issues; however, her work also represents a classic example of that brand of moral obstinacy now commonly referred to as “exclusivism.” It is a strain of thought promoted by a handful of scholars, often referred to as “uniqueness proponents” who would vehemently, at times polemically—at any rate, vociferously and prolifically—insist on the singularity of the Nazi Holocaust and contend that no single event in the history of humanity compares in its scope and implications. Among the most prominent representatives of this stance are Deborah Lipstadt , Yehuda Bauer, Steven Katz, Michael Marrus and Lucy Dawidowicz. The basic “exclusivist” position is that anyone who dares to compare any incident of genocide with the Nazi Holocaust is drawing “immoral equivalencies” (Lipstadt)—whoever would dare to compare is charged with participating in “the most vile sort of anti-Semitism” (Liptstadt) and lumped together with the “pseudoscholars” who first introduced the concept of “holocaust denial” to the discourse immediately following WWII. Lucy Dawidowicz goes so far as to charge those who dare to compare with “a vicious anti-Americanism.” At times, these scholars have been zealous enough to attempt falsifications of the historical record, as was found to be the case with Cornell University professor Steven Katz in his contribution to the volume Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide, where the editors discovered, days before the volume went to press, that his data on the Armenian genocide did not correspond to the published and confirmed historical archive recorded by government sources, major historians and the New York Times.
As David Stannard points out these exclusivists represent, if anything, “something of a cult within the [Jewish] scholarly community—though a cult quite skilled at calling attention to itself and one with powerful friends in high places” (192). In fact, as the prevalent citation of “comparatist” Jewish scholars in the published version of my essay attests, there are many, many more Jewish scholars who advocate a comparative perspective on genocide and “the Holocaust”: among them any number of Nazi Holocaust survivors who share my view that seeking to privilege one incident of genocide over another is motivated not as much by “moral outrage” as it is by the desire to accumulate “moral capital” in the interest of influencing contemporary politics—both domestic and international. The exclusivists charge other victim groups with “Holocaust envy” and with attempting to “steal the Holocaust”—as if mass murder were somehow the most coveted possession in the store of Jewish cultural and religious treasures. Israel W. Charny, executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, rebukes what he calls the “leaders and ‘high priests’ who insist on the uniqueness, exclusivity, primacy, superiority, or greater significance of the specific genocide of their people” (cited in Stannard, Politics 193). Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, describes the exclusivist position as a “distasteful secular version of chosenness” and Jacob Neusner says that it’s “grotesque for us to be arguing with other ethnic groups that our Holocaust was worse than their Holocaust.” He asks, “Is our blood redder than theirs?” (cited in Novick 198).
The notion that “the Holocaust” has become the primary signifier of identity and a form of ‘civil religion’, particularly for American Jews, and that the “moral currency” accumulated in this fashion has been enlisted as a justification for Israel’s territorial expansionism and suppression of the Palestinian people is gaining acceptability as many Jewish intellectuals begin examining the so-called “Shoah business” or “Holocaust Industry” from a more self-critical perspective. Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein have been leading figures in these developments, whereby the more moderate Novick is generally taken seriously and the more radical (and vocally pro-Palestinian) Finkelstein is generally dismissed as a “quack” or a “self-hating” Jew. I find these reactions to Finkelstein particularly interesting in light of the fact that Raphael Seligmann, one of the primary interlocutors of Jewish culture in Germany, expressed precisely the same views as Novick and Finkelstein already in his 1991 German-language publication on the subject of Jews, Germans and Israelis (Mit beschränkter Hoffnung; Juden, Deutsche, Israelis)—and I might add, in far more polemical and belittling terms than anyone who has yet to publish on the subject in the English language. To date, no one has dared to charge Seligmann with anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred, and only a few scholars have pointed out that it was this Israeli born German-Jewish writer who stated (ironically) that the “Jews are the Indians of Germany.” Other prominent German-Jewish figures have responded in a similarly critical fashion to the phenomenon of “Holocaust worship” on the part of Jews and non-Jews, both here and in Europe. Henryk Broder, for example, comments on the US-American fixation with the Holocaust, stating that “A naive observer might conclude that the Nazi Holocaust took place in the USA and that Americans feel obligated to come to grips with this dark chapter of their history.”
But charges of anti-semitism and “holocaust denial” are uniformly directed at anyone who “dares to compare” regardless of the manner in which he/she presents the comparative analysis and most of us have come to expect them. For me, though, as a person of Native American descent, being charged with “anti-Americanism” is a much more serious affair and something I can view as nothing less than a seditious reversal of identity politics. As I am by far not the first person to have pointed out: the fact is, Jews were slaughtered in Europe; in this country, entire nations of American peoples have been exterminated—in many cases, not in part, but in whole. Denying this fact or attempting to minimize its significance represents to me an egregious example of anti-Americanism and, what is more, a classic case of Anti-Indianism (Cook-Lynn).
This brings us to significant aspects in which the American and the Nazi Holocausts do not compare—that is, where they differ. If we are to insist on emphasizing the ways in which these two genocidal episodes are distinct, we must also take into consideration the fact that Hitler lost his “war against the Jews” and the State of Israel was formed as partial reparation for the losses sustained by the Jewish population as a result. However, the United States government, even as it sought to help absorb the losses sustained by the Jewish population in Europe not only through its support of Israel, but by offering refuge to Jewish immigrants in territories seized from the indigenous populations, won its war against the Indians. The crucial difference here is between a regime whose demise was rooted in genocide and one for whom genocide was its foundational principle and the prerequisite to its existence.
Another significant difference between the two historical events is that “holocaust denial” is seen by most of the world as an affront to the victims of the Nazi regime—indeed, denying “the Holocaust” is classified as a criminal offense in many countries. In America, the situation is the reverse: victims seeking recovery through recognition and reparation are seen as assaulting American ideals. In A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, University of Colorado professor and longtime member of the American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill, has produced an exhaustive comparative study of the American and Nazi Holocausts and, perhaps more importantly, on the dynamics of Holocaust denial as they apply in each respective case, and I would suggest that this title is recommended reading for anyone seriously interested in pursuing these matters.
As even Steven Katz has since conceded, the Nazi Holocaust does not by any means compare to the American Holocaust in terms of scope and duration. The death toll and aftermath of the American Holocaust far exceeded that of the Nazi Holocaust, so while the Nazi Holocaust may indeed be unique in scope and in kind to the 20th century, the American Holocaust was, as Stannard has stated: “far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.” Now that the “exclusivists” can no longer rely on sheer numbers to secure for them the “moral capital” needed to establish their superiority as “victors” in the “battle of the most martyred minority,” they have resorted to another argument: the Nazi Holocaust was “phenomenologically” unique based on the “merciless, exceptionless, biocentric intentionality of Hitler’s ‘war against the Jews.’
We have already established that the slaughter of Native Americans in this country was intentional, not incidental, but another parallel that is often drawn between these two acts of genocide suggests that the same notion of creating space for the “master race” is as germane to the ideological framework of Hitler’s Lebensraumpolitik as it is to the doctrine of “manifest destiny”: In each instance, the extermination of “inferior races” is justified in the interest of making way for a “superior race” of peoples. The difference is that Hitler’s policy of Lebensraumpolitik has been vilified and condemned for the toll it took in terms of human lives while heroes are made of men in America whose words were inspired by the same kind of thinking and attendant behavior. Hannah Arendt has identified metaphysical Jew-hatred as one element in the “subterranean stream of Western history” that translated into the political anti-Semitic consciousness in Europe which constituted the defining principle of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Similarly, Richard Drinnon argues that the “national metaphysics of Indian-hating was central to the formation of national identity and political policy in the United States,” and a recent work by Crow Creek scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn traces a similar transformation of this metaphysical Indian-hating into a political consciousness of “Anti-Indianism.” The crucial issue at stake here is that the national metaphysics of Indian-hating or anti-Indianism rests on the “collective refusal to conceive of Native Americans as persons.”
Giorgio Agamben argues against the use of the term “Holocaust” as a descriptor for the Nazi extermination of the Jews because “Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, ‘as lice.’ The notorious Indian killer H.L. Hall justified the murder of Native infants based on the argument that “a nit would make a louse.” John Chivington, commanding Colonel in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, reformulated the sentiment to justify similar actions with the statement, “Nits make lice.” Perplexing in this context is that Hitler’s perception of the Jews as “life unworthy of living,” that is, as “lice,” is received with moral outrage in the scholarly community and in public consciousness in the US and elsewhere. But when Indians are placed on the same level of the “evolutionary scale” and assigned the same status in the biopolitical order, it becomes a justifiable sacrifice made in the name of “progress.”
The people of Germany had to be convinced that the Jewish population was not human; for centuries prior, they had lived and worked side by side these people who were systematically exterminated “like lice.” Before the Final Solution could be implemented, the Jewish population of Europe had to be reduced to the level of “bare life.” But, for the American settlers, the notion that the life form to be clear-cut from the vast, “unpopulated” wilderness in order to make way for their American way of life was somehow not human ranked among those truths held to be self-evident; the “execrable race” of red men and women was viewed from the onset as “non-human”.
What it seems to boil down to in the “battle of the most martyred minority” is that when the matter of genocide, however great or small, involves “civilized”—that is, white—people, the matter elicits moral outrage; when it involves non-western, non-industrialized, non-white populations it elicits indifference—or worse, indignation. And I am not the first to have made this observation. Stannard says the same in his discussion of the politics of genocide scholarship, and many others have made the same point. Peter Novick cites Jason Epstein and Phillip Lopate as having made the same argument in an attempt to explain why “piles of other victims are not as significant as Jewish corpses.” Lopate asks, “Is it simply because they are Third World people—black, brown, yellow-skinned? … [as opposed to] “gentle, scholarly, middle-class, civilized people”.
What I find most alarming about this situation is the way it reveals the degree to which we as human beings still cannot come to view ourselves as members of one species—of one HUMAN race. Going back to the gesture of prayer I demonstrated in my introduction, inflicting harm on any one of these five “digits” involves inflicting harm on the whole. It is in this sense that I have described any act of genocide as an act of collective SUICIDE. Once we come to understand that we are ALL RELATED, that is, that we are all members of one collective human race, we must recognize that, in seeking to exterminate any other members of that race, we are killing OURSELVES. The basic prerequisite to coming to such an understanding is of course recognizing the essential humanity of ALL human life forms.
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