Last week, the Colorado legislature passed resolutions condemning the genocide of Jewish, Armenian and Sudanese people.
But after a marathon session tossing around numerous terms, the legislators failed to apply ‘genocide’ to America’s treatment of its Native people; they picked ‘atrocity’ instead.
“Every year the Senate and House legislators acknowledge the holocaust and genocide of Jewish people and we also acknowledge the genocide of Armenian people. But it’s important to acknowledge the first genocide on our own land — the genocide of American Indians.”
Williams said the resolution was to “look at history from the Indian point of view.”
She expected a “positive reception” from the current legislature, although she thought the measure might “hit too close to home.” She was right.
According to Indian Country Today, Colorado legislators went through amendment after amendment before settling on ‘atrocity.’ Some objected to ‘genocide’ because Native Americans were not literally annihilated. Williams was forced to point out that neither were the Jews or the Armenians.
According to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a “vast genocide … the most sustained on record.”
Using arguments reminiscent of that surrounding the genocide of Armenians by Turkey a century ago, some legislators objected to the resolution’s focus on the past, its “negative” nature, and the way in which, they charged, it seemed to blame the U.S. government although the government apparently lacked a Hitler-type leader to instigate a policy of widespread massacre. One Senator said there were “many wrongs” against America’s first people, but also “many blessings.”
Williams pointed out that there had been an extermination plan, executed in the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, and Native exile to barren lands. She quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying “the American Indian has justified his own extermination.”
The crime of genocide is defined in international law in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Part of that Convention reads:
Article II: In the present Convention, 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.
When passed April 20, remaining in the resolution’s language was that “settlers on many (but not all) occasions treated the indigenous population of North America with cruelty and inhumanity.” It also cites broken treaties, the demonization of Native Americans and other depredations, and it called on the General Assembly to recognize the millions of Native deaths that resulted from the European invasion.
Picture from Cherokee Museum of the Trail of Tears mural by nick see