Some months ago, I decided to submit an abstract to the Ontario Library Association conference, based on a post of mine from this past May, A Library Matter of Genocide, which dealt with the bizarrely euphemistic, inadequate and utterly biased treatment of the genocide against Native Americans on the part of Library of Congress Subject Headings. The abstract was accepted, and I’m scheduled to present this paper on Friday, January 29th as a part of the OLA’s Aboriginal issues stream.
Recently, I was also asked by a faculty member in the University of Winnipeg’s History department to speak to his philosophy of history class on the theme of libraries and historiography, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop the earlier essay into what will become my conference paper. The timing was also fortunate because several news items in September pointed to the invisibility of the Native American holocaust, and the imperative for libraries to foreground this history in their bibliographic tools.
In early September 2015, a Cal State Sacramento University student named Chiitaanibah Johnson (Navajo/Maidu) was expelled from class for confronting her history professor for his refusal to concede that Native Americans had been subjected to a genocide, a confrontation that made the professor so angry he accused her of “hijacking” his class, at which point he dismissed the class and told her he had “disenrolled” her. Then, on September 23rd, Pope Francis – celebrated around the world by liberals and progressives for his stances on climate change – canonized Father Junípero Serra, calling him a “protector of Native Americans” for establishing California’s mission system; despite Native American activists and other critics pointing out that the mission system was notorious for being slave labour camps, the death rates at which exceeded birth rates. Within days of Serra’s canonization, his statue at the Carmel mission where he is buried was vandalized, and “Saint of Genocide” written on the stones. As the New York Times reported,
Historians agree that [Serra] forced Native Americans to abandon their tribal culture and convert to Christianity, and that he had them whipped and imprisoned and sometimes worked or tortured to death…Thousands of Native Americans died after being exposed to European diseases. Those who survived were forced to give up tribal customs and submit to the demands of their Christian overlords — from observing rites like baptism to enduring physical abuse and working conditions that resembled slavery… Villagers were rounded up, shackled or flogged if they failed to follow the missionaries’ Catholic code.
I framed my presentation with these stories, and how both events have reignited a debate over the long-standing lack of recognition on the part of Americans in general – and the intelligentsia in particular — of the reality of the genocide of Native Americans.
For decades, Indigenous peoples’ experiences of mass killings and atrocities have been excluded from the “borderlines” of genocide studies, owing to both a focus on definitions, typologies and perpetrator motivations, and a dismissal of Indigenous worldviews; Noam Chomsky also observes that a widely-shared imperial culture among America’s intelligentsia has resulted in a consensus view on genocides rooted in American exceptionalism such that both historic and contemporary atrocities wrought by America or her allies are by definition not genocides, or are downplayed or imbued with virtue owing to their role in furthering the American project of freedom and democracy. He notes of the historical record of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s illegal and vastly indiscriminate war against Cambodia,
We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can’t be. So therefore, it didn’t happen. And therefore, it doesn’t even have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history.
The title for my paper is taken from Ward Churchill’s 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide, in which he argues that many orthodox American historians across the ideological spectrum resist applying the term “genocide” to the catastrophic loss of life Native Americans suffered over the past 500 years, either by denying, minimizing or even justifying the nature and scale of the killings that took place. As well – and to further compound the ideological nature of this controversy – the debate over the use of the term genocide has also been bound up in a broader discourse over the legitimacy of comparative genocide studies, and whether or not the uniqueness of the Holocaust prevents historians from seeking any commonalities with other historical atrocities, particularly America’s extermination of its Indigenous peoples. Churchill in particular criticizes Deborah Lipstadt, historian and author of Denying the Holocaust for her conflating historians seeking to compare genocides with outright deniers, such as David Duke. Historian and philosopher Steven Katz, too, is lambasted by Churchill for his assertion that what occurred was not a genocide but a “demographic collapse” caused overwhelmingly by disease, and that deaths owing to the violence of the so-called “Indian Wars” only amounted to some tens of thousands – that is, that the extermination of the Indians transpired “unwittingly rather than by design”.
Churchill classes the orthodox interpretations as ranging from such exclusivist and minimalizing explanations as Katz’, to efforts at “contextualizing” the mass killings as typical of civilizational clashes and conventions of warfare in a more violent past, to actually justifying and rationalizing them in light of the benificent nature of contemporary American civilization. Some of the so-called “exclusivists” carry their argument so far, he observes, that they accuse “comparativists” of antisemitism.
The discourse Churchill identifies has more or less successfully minimized, euphemized, isolated and rendered ideologically toxic the historical reality of the Native American Genocide. I then argued that access to this literature, via the Library of Congress Subject Headings, has contributed in no small way to these processes.
The response from the students was vigorous, interesting and provocative; several of them had also run into problems themselves in researching aspect of the Native American genocides or Indigenous history in general and found the subject terms inadequate at best. Some examples:
- A student working on an oral history project concerning the residential school experience ran into difficulties when the stories they were hearing, the concepts and experiences of the residential school survivors, couldn’t be described using the LCSH;
- a student writing a paper on how museums respond to/treat the subject of genocide found it difficult to find anything;
- one student’s mother had tried 10 years ago to do a dissertation about the residential schools as a form of genocide, but couldn’t find resources that made this connection; this is now changing since Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Murray Sinclair have openly applied the term to Canada in the wake of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
- histories of Custer’s Last Stand from an Indigenous point of view record how his “last stand” was actually only the final such defeat that the 7th Cavalry had suffered – there had been others but are not often mentioned in conventional history. The student argued that this shows how Native voices in the historical record matter.
The class concluded with a broader discussion led by the professor on what difference it makes whether we call something genocide or a massacre. I argued that it changes the conversation: if Chiitaanibah Johnson had been able to open her laptop and go to the Cal Tech library catalogue she could have shown her professor all the dozens of books with the subject heading “Genocide United States History”, thereby undercutting his genocide denial. Sadly, no books can be found using this heading.
Further, enabling the use of the word “genocide” in the case of Native Americans would help to legitimize the ability to compare genocides, the study of which can help us prevent them from happening again. As Chomsky and Churchill argue, if genocide is only seen as the Holocaust against the Jews of Europe, while dismissing many other historical atrocities and campaigns of extermination, this is a form of holocaust denial. It fails to recognize that genocide can happen anywhere, at any time, and that any one of us could potentially become participants in it, given sufficient enculturation. Disabling our ability to name and discuss genocide disables our ability to recognize and prevent it.