A Library Matter of Genocide

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg (CMHR) — the first national museum located outside of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa — has been fraught with controversy since its inception, largely over accusations regarding its unequal and imbalanced treatment of genocides. Its official view as a crown corporation is that it only names those genocides recognized by the government of Canada: the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, the Armenian genocide of 1915 (over Turkish objections) and the Holodomor in Ukraine. On the matter of the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada, however, the Museum is more circumspect, only acknowledging in a display on residential schools that  “many people argue” they were a “form” of genocide. As a result, Indigenous groups spoke out against the Museum during its development, and protested it when it opened.

Yesterday’s Winnipeg Free Press reveals that this stance on the part of the Museum may have in fact been vigorously enforced, its curators actively directed to remove references to Canada’s genocide. The article quotes Tricia Logan, a former curator with the CMHR, who writes in a chapter she contributed to the 2014 book Remembering Genocide from Routledge, (edited by Nigel Eltringham and Pam Maclean), that

“As a curator at the CMHR, I was consistently reminded that every mention of state-perpetrated atrocity against indigenous peoples in Canada must be matched with a ‘balanced’ statement that indicates reconciliation, apology or compensation provided by the government. In cases where those issues are not reconciled or where accusations of abuse against the government continue to this day, the stories are reduced in scope or are removed from the museum…I was also instructed to remove the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘settler colonial genocide’ from all indigenous exhibits.

As a result, she concluded, the museum was, in her words, “accepting a model of complacency and promotion of the status quo.”

As it turns out, yesterday I also presented a library instruction session to an Aboriginal History course at the University of Winnipeg in which we also came across some classic examples of “complacency” and “status quo” concerning the genocide of Native Americans, but these are on the part of the Library of Congress. In the process of demonstrating our library catalogue, I discovered and displayed the book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard, which, according to the publisher Oxford University Press, is about “the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world:”

For four hundred years–from the first Spanish assaults against the Arawak people of Hispaniola in the 1490s to the U.S. Army’s massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in the 1890s–the indigenous inhabitants of North and South America endured an unending firestorm of violence. During that time the native population of the Western Hemisphere declined by as many as 100 million people…Stannard reveals that wherever Europeans or white Americans went, the native people were caught between imported plagues and barbarous atrocities, typically resulting in the annihilation of 95 percent of their populations… Advancing a thesis that is sure to create much controversy, Stannard contends that the perpetrators of the American Holocaust drew on the same ideological wellspring as did the later architects of the Nazi Holocaust.

Surely there is no “circumspection” on the part of the author, no effort to downplay the extent of this brutal history by conceding only that “many people argue” that a genocide occurred. And yet – how did the Library of Congress decide to describe these damning contents?

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Columbus, Christopher — Influence.
  • Indians, Treatment of.
  • Indians — First contact with Europeans.
  • America — Discovery and exploration — Spanish.


Standing before a class of Indigenous students – mostly women – I regarded the screen with something akin to horror. I couldn’t let this teachable moment pass. The contrast between this book’s contents and its official description were too stark — indeed, too obscene to ignore. I pointed out the disparities: committing mass atrocities is a way to be “influential”? Torturing, killing, starving and poisoning constitutes a form of “treatment”? Even at the most basic level these subject headings were inaccurate: surely this book went beyond “first contact” to describe the wars and slaughter against Native Americans? And the use of “discovery and exploration” as a way to convey the murder of 100 million people is beyond comment.

These Subject Headings are clearly so incommensurate with the book’s contents, so dishonest a way to offer user access to it, that they go beyond inadequate and into the territory of what could well be characterized as holocaust denial. Indeed, they accord well with the tendencies Ward Churchill identifies in his 1997 book, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present, in which he wrote,

The American holocaust was and remains unparalleled both in terms of its magnitude and degree to which its goals were met, and in terms of the extent to which its ferocity was sustained over time by not one but several participating groups.The ideological matrix of its denial is also among the most well developed of any genocide — or more accurately, series of genocides – for which a significant amount of information is readily available…In other words, denial is manifested in more-or-less equal parts at all points on the ideological compass of the dominant society…the historical reality is simultaneously denied, justified and in most cases celebrated (pp. 4 and 7).  

As an arm of the United States government, the Library of Congress contributes to this “ideological matrix,” by minimizing and sanitizing historical reality through subject headings such as these. Interestingly (and ironically) Churchill’s book is assigned the following Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Indians, Treatment of — North America — History.
  • Indian of North America — Government relations.
  • Genocide — North America — History.
  • United States — Race relations.
  • North America — Politics and government.
  • Indians of North America — Government relations

While the third heading is nominally more honest – Genocide in North America is acknowledged at least, if only passively (who did it? Against whom?) the remaining headings are excruciatingly inappropriate. Genocide is not a form of “government relations” or “race relations.” These terms suggest some sort of power parity, that the book deals with forms of governance, not deliberate campaigns of extermination. To further compound matters, there is no subject access to another of the book’s major arguments, criticizing those who seek to promote the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust and downplay and negate other genocides.

The assignment of such headings is not just dishonest, but by obscuring, omitting, disguising and misrepresenting the contents of these books it erects significant barriers to discovery on the part of the interested researcher, and therefore fails even on a practical level. On a broader level, such headings are part of the status quo-enforcing power — well-recognized in the literature — of the library’s “power to name” (in the words of Hope Olson). As Daniel Martínez-Ávila and José Guimarães wrote in a 2013 article in the journal Scire,

Library schemes both reflect and create opinion at the same time…It is well known that a very effective way to eradicate a certain group or a people from History is by in no way naming it. An effective way to defame a thing and put an end to its aspirations is to change its meaning to the worst possible one or place it in the wrong context…[A]ll these biases were introduced with the unconscious or intentional purpose of reinforcing the power discourses and the status quo.

It accords with the interests of power on both sides of the 49th parallel to avoid facing the reality of the genocide of Native Americans; unfortunately for those interested in researching this history it is necessary to navigate the codified, formalized language of this avoidance.

Additional sources:

Martínez-Ávila, Daniel and Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves. 2013. Library Classifications Criticisms: Universality, Poststructuralism and Ethics. Scire 19 (2): 21-6.


Book Review: Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938 by Philipp Blom

The Winnipeg Free Press last week published my latest book review, of Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938 by Philipp Blom, which (as I describe) looks at the interwar era’s “collision between reason and unreason in the face of mechanized, heedless modernity — the resulting wreckage of which continues to haunt our own illusory ideological fixations.”


YouTube Video: “Academic Libraries and the Shakespeare Authorship Debate”

Part of my interests in decolonization includes the subjugation of certain knowledges in the academy. One of the most widely suppressed discourses in most universities is that of skepticism over the identity of “William Shakespeare” and the theory that Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. My recent public lecture at the Winnipeg Public Library, Academic Libraries and the Shakespeare Authorship Debate, looks at the role of academic libraries in contributing to this subjugation, through biased collections development and pejorative classification and subject headings.