A “Ribbon of Ignorance:” LCSH and the Language of Genocide

Following several days of often profound learning at the Ontario Library Association Superconference, my own presentation got off to a fairly light-hearted beginning as Feather Maracle Luke acting as convener introduced me with the answers I’d previously sent her by email to some “ice-breaking” questions, one of which was, “what is your favourite word?” I’d answered, juxtapose — because doing it usually leads to interesting ideas and insights. Having blogged for more than a decade on both urban planning and library-related issues I’d often found it fruitful to base my discussions on the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events, news items or experiences.

Only now as I write this, however, does it occur to me that this verb lay at the heart of my project: this very act of juxtaposing the two worlds — the lived Indigenous history of genocide and the rationalized taxonomy about it — reveals the truth about both: that this world is not this world.

I’d read this phrase years ago in the work of psychologist Robert J. Lifton, who built his career exploring the darkest shared places of the human mind: the inner lives, motivations and traumatic memories of both the perpetrators and victims of major mass atrocities and genocides of the 20th Century. In Death in Life (1967) he interviewed survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; in Home from the War (1973), he learned how American veterans of the war in Vietnam experienced what Lifton called an “atrocity-producing situation” – in his words “one so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities“; and in The Nazi Doctors (1986) he chronicled the progression of Germany`s doctors from ordinary medical professionals to willing participants in genocide.

The latter book begins with an interview Lifton had conducted with a Holocaust survivor who, pausing for a moment in his horrific recollections, looks out the window and sighs, “this world is not this world.” Lifton said he understood the comment to mean that “the ordinary rhythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence” (p. 3).

Since becoming a librarian, however, I have also come to realize that this incommensurability can sometimes be deliberately structured: that the language used to frame our understandings of the world can also be “far from the truth of human existence.” Nowhere did this seem more apparent than the history of genocide in the Americas.

Having spent the previous two days taking in sessions from the Aboriginal stream, focusing in particular on worldviews and languages, I knew that language was where I needed to begin – in Ojibwe, and with a Territorial acknowledgement:

Mino gigizheb! Anamikaage!

Michael Dudley ndizhinikaaz, Winnipeg ndojeba.

Good morning, welcome, my name is Michael Dudley, and I am the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg, in Treaty One Territory, in the heart of the Metis Nation. I Acknowledge our place here on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca and the of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa land once governed by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe as well as allied nations. I’ve been impressed with the respect shown by so many speakers in making their own territorial acknowledgements, and in their use of Indigenous languages; but given that I am speaking this morning of the genocides and atrocities that were carried out within the colonial states in which I have lived all my life and from which I have benefitted – and further about the written histories about these events, which as we shall see have been rendered virtually invisible by the very structures and practices of my own profession from which I have gained further privileges – I felt it particularly incumbent on myself in that I honour these nations, these Treaties, these forms of governance, these languages – for example, anishinaabemowin — that were so purposefully assaulted in the name of “civilization.”      

Following an overview of Library of Congress standards for books on other genocides and atrocities, I then set out the ways in which research on the topic of Native American genocides is made so problematic by the biases and omissions in the treatment given it by the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Classifications: there is no subject heading that explicitly recognizes Native American genocide, and the basic headings which would apply (Genocide – Canada; Genocide – United States) are rarely used, and it is quite literally impossible to find books in WorldCat using these subject headings.



All that a subject search on “genocide united states” reveals is a single article, while “genocide canada” only results — mysteriously — in a thesis:



Instead, Library of Congress headings are for the most part euphemistic, including

Indians of North America

  • Treatment of
  • Violence against
  • Crimes against
  • Assimilation
  • Government relations
  • Relocation
  • Education
  • Wars

For the American context in particular, we see these headings:

  • United States – Ethnic Relations
  • United States – Race relations
  • Columbus, Christopher — Influence
  • Forced migration
  • Massacres – [Geography]
  • California — Gold Discoveries — social aspects
  • Meanwhile, the brutal onslaught, slavery and recreational massacres the Spanish wrought on the Aztecs is labelled “Mexico history conquest.”

The alternative, simply using keywords “genocide Canada” yields thousands of hits, many of them irrelevant to the topic of Native Americans, the term “Canada” simply showing up somewhere in the catalogue record, including place of publication. There’s also no way to browse the shelves, as LC Classification places books on this topic in a variety of locations:

  • E 59 – Pre-Columbian American, special topics.
  • E 76.6 – Indians of North America, study and teaching
  • E 77 – … comprehensive works
  • E 78 – …by state, province or region
  • E 91 – …Government relations
  • E 92 – …Government relations, Canada
  • E 93 – …Government relations, United States
  • E 96 – …Education, Canada, general works
  • E 96.5 – “Indian schools”
  • E 97 – …education, United States, general works
  • E 98 – “Other topics”
  • E112 – “Discovery of America” – Christopher Columbus
  • E 179.5 – United States History “General special”
  • F 868 – California history
  • HC 117 – Economic history, Canada
  • HD 1696 – Agricultural economics
  • KE 7709 – Native peoples, Treaties

In short, this history is treated quite differently from any other historical or contemporary genocide, making it extremely difficult to gather comprehensive results. To generate my sample of 50 titles it was necessary to do numerous advanced searches using combinations of subject headings and keywords, looking deliberately for books featuring variations of genocide, holocaust, extermination and ethnic cleansing in their titles. Even with such words in their titles, sometimes benign-sounding euphemisms are overwhelmingly applied to these books, with the effect, I argue, of denying authorial intent by imposing triumphal colonial narratives on histories of genocide; employing double standards such that even when the histories of the Americas are explicitly compared to other recognized genocides the author’s will is subverted; or erasing outright any genocide-related content from the description.

I recounted the efforts to address these structural deficiencies over the years: in 1998 Sanford Berman published an article entitled “Whose Holocaust Is It, Anyway? The “H” Word in Library Catalogs”  that included the 18 alternative headings he’d proposed for use at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, including

  • Native American Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • American Indian Genocide (1492-1900)
  • American Indian Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • Amerindian Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • First Nations Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • Genocide, American Indian (1492-1900)
  • Genocide, Indian (1492-1900)

As well-intentioned as these are, however, one could certainly critique Berman’s decision to put an end date of 1900 on genocides in the Americas – especially as regards the existence of the Canadian residential school system into the 1990s!

Finally, I situated these biases, omissions, narratives and erasures in light of the imperatives of two mandates from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation and the United Nations’ Joinet-Orentlicher Principles. In Call to Action 69, the TRC calls on Libraries and Archives Canada to

  1. Fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Joinet-Orentlicher Principles, as related to Aboriginal peoples’ inalienable right to know the truth about what happened and why, with regard to human rights violations committed against them in the residential schools [through history books].
  2. Ensure that its record holdings related to residential schools are accessible to the public.

The Joinet-Orentlicher Principles referred to by the TRC is a non-binding normative framework that any country having experienced crimes against humanity or genocide can use to move from conflict to reconciliation. In the upper left corner of this diagram we see the elements of “the right to Know” which includes access to history books.



The fact that there are 50 books available on library shelves and indexed in a global library catalogue was not the same thing as making them “accessible” as intended by these recommendations; as Sanford Berman would put it (in his 2001 article “Inside Censorship”), many of these titles are the victims of bibliocide, their contents “murdered” by biased cataloguing and classification. What is evident in the treatment of Native American genocide is deliberate and studied obfuscation that both reflects and reinforces the exclusion of this history from what Katherine Bischoping and Natalie Fingerhut called the “border lines” of genocide studies.

My presentation over, the discussion period saw what was for me one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the entire conference: A lawyer who had immigrated from Asia and become a Canadian citizen, and having never known anything about Canada’s genocidal treatment of Aboriginal people, described how, in the course of preparing a legal case, he had been going through records in a warehouse and had been horrified to discover files and photographs about the residential school system. The realization of the truth had brought him to tears, and ever since when he returns to his country of origin he tries to tell his friends and colleagues about Canada’s true history, to much disbelief. That people in other countries might know nothing about Canada’s genocidal history is hardly surprising, however, given what TRC Commissioner Dr. Marie Wilson called the “ribbon of ignorance” about residential schools among Canadians themselves.

I believe that what my research suggests is that this “ribbon of ignorance” about Native American genocides not only runs through our libraries, but has been perpetuated by libraries, and the language used to obfuscate authorial intent in the relevant literature.