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Genocide and Ethnocide

Genocide and Ethnocide






In its darkest, most virulent form, racism can spark acts of genocide and ethnocide. The colonization of the Americas was accompanied by widespread acts of genocide and ethnocide, creating a holocaust on an unprecedented scale. Such acts persist in Latin America, where the extinction of tribes and disappearance of cultures occurred throughout the twentieth century and continue into the present. In North America, it is primarily ethnocide that stalks surviving Native American communities and endangers their remaining cultures.


As used here, the term Native American refers to members of the American Indian tribes, nations, and groups who inhabited North America before Europeans arrived. They are part of the world’s indigenous peoples, who are defined as the non-European populations who resided in lands colonized by Europeans before the colonists arrived. In 1992, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, observed that “in many newly-established nations that were formerly colonies, while freedom for the majority was achieved, the indigenous population was excluded from the body politic. Widespread cultural and racial genocide was the consequence” (Inouye 1992, p. 6). It is important to confront and better understand acts of genocide and ethnocide, so that these forms of racism can be recognized and arrested.

When Columbus arrived in the New World, North America teemed with diverse native civilizations. The anthropologist Russell Thornton estimates that more than 72 million indigenous people inhabited the Western Hemisphere in 1492. This population declined to only about four million within a few centuries, however, making it one of the largest population collapses ever recorded. In North America, more than five million American Indians inhabited the area now occupied by the continental United States in 1492; by 1900, however, only 250,000 remained, indicating a decline in excess of one million persons per century.


Genocide is narrowly defined in the United Nation’s Convention on the Prevention of and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as the deliberate destruction of members of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Genocidal acts include: (1) killing members of the group; (2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to them; (3) inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about a group’s destruction in whole or part; (4) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (5) forcibly transferring children of one group to another. In Century of Genocide (1997), Robert Hitchcock and Tara Twedt explain that genocidal acts do not usually succeed in killing all members of the targeted group. However, the survivors are sometimes “raped, enslaved, deprived of their property, and forcibly moved to new places” (p. 379). Where indigenous peoples are concerned, some researchers would add to the definition of such acts as the “intentional prevention of ethnic groups from practicing their traditional customs; forced resettlement; denial of access to food relief, health assurance, and development funds; and destruction of the habitats utilized by indigenous peoples” (p. 378). Major causes of genocide among indigenous peoples have been the conquest and colonization of their lands and, more recently, the extraction of their natural resources.

Ethnocide (or cultural genocide) is a related concept that refers to acts that contribute to the disappearance of a culture, even though its bearers are not physically destroyed. Acts of ethnocide include denying a group its right to speak its language, practice its religion, teach its traditions and customs, create art, maintain social institutions, or preserve its memories and histories. “Indigenous populations frequently have been denied the right to practice their own religions and customs and to speak their own languages by nation-states, a process described as ‘cultural genocide’ or ‘ethnocide’” (Hitchcock and Twedt 1997, p. 373).

Genocide and ethnocide against indigenous peoples arise for many reasons, including colonization; greed for gold or other natural resources; nation-building efforts in countries containing a diverse populace; and religious, racial, tribal, or ideological differences. In each case, these crimes against humanity are justified and fueled by racism. Indigenous peoples are victimized by such crimes partly because they have been viewed “as ‘primitives,’ ‘subhuman,’ ‘savages,’ ‘vermin,’ or ‘nuisances’ … and other negative stereotypes for generations.” These stereotypes “reinforce the tendencies of governments to establish destructive and oppressive racial policies” (Hitchcock and Twedt 1997, p. 382).

Governmental efforts “to vilify indigenous groups are frequently preconditions for genocidal action” (Hitchcock and Twedt 1997). Indeed, racial slurs do accompany acts of genocide and ethnocide against Native Americans. For example, in U.S. Supreme Court decisions between 1823 and 1903 that curtailed native rights, the Court commonly describes American Indians as “inferior,” “ignorant,” “savages,” “heathens,” and “uncivilized.” In Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903), for example, the Court ruled that Congress could abrogate an Indian treaty partly because Indians are “an ignorant and dependent race.” Likewise, in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) the Court ruled that Indian tribes do not own legal title to their land partly because Indians are “heathens” and “fierce savages.”

Ethnocide is a central feature of Indian–white race relations in the United States, and the government has at times resorted to genocidal acts. The threat and reality of ethnocide continue to cloud the lives of contemporary Native Americans.


Colonialism in the New World was filled with acts of genocide. More than 12 million Indians died during the first forty years, as Spaniards killed, tortured, terrorized, and destroyed each group of native people they encountered. The depopulation of the Americas was witnessed by Bartolome de Las Casas (c. 1474–1566), who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502 and spent more than forty years in American colonies. He chronicled the death of millions of Indians killed by the Spaniards and claimed that more than forty million were killed by 1560. In 1542, Las Casas reported to King Charles of Spain that mass murder was being committed throughout the Americas. The report provides horrifying firsthand details, but cautions that “no tongue would suffice, nor word nor human efforts, to narrate the frightful deeds by the Spaniards” (Las Casas 1974, p. 69). The death toll reported by Las Casas is staggering.

In Hispaniola, almost two million Indians were killed. In Puerto Rico and Jamaica, Las Casas reported that more than 600,000 Indians were killed. Between four and five million people were killed in Guatemala. In Venezuela, the Spanish sold one million Indians into slavery. In Nicaragua, they killed between 500,000 and 600,000 Indians and sold more than 500,000 survivors into slavery. In Honduras and the Yucatan, more than 200,000 were killed. In Peru, the Spaniards “wiped out a great portion of the human family” by 1542, killing “more than ten million souls” (Las Casas 1974, p. 129). At least four million were killed in Mexico, not counting victims who died from mistreatment under servitude.

In other places, almost all of the Indians were killed. For example, Cuba was almost “completely depopulated,” and in the few months Las Casas was there “more than seventy thousand children, whose fathers and mothers had been sent to the mines, died of hunger” (Las Casas 1974, pp. 39, 53). Las Casas warned that “unless the King orders remedial measures to be taken soon, there will be no Indians left” in Columbia. No one was spared in the Bahama Islands. There, more than 500,000 inhabitants died leaving sixty islands “inhabited by not a single living creature” (p. 40). Similarly, by 1542, thirty islands surrounding Puerto Rico were largely “depopulated.”

The extermination of Indians was justified by leading Spanish thinkers. Most notably, the theologian Juan de Sepulveda (1494–1573) argued that killing Indians was “just” because they are inferior. He divided humanity into two groups: (1) civilized men with intelligence, sentiments, emotions, beliefs, and values; and (2) primitive brutes who lacked these essential human and Christian qualities, and who by their inherent nature would find it difficult, if not impossible, to acquire them. Sepulveda reasoned that civilized men were naturally the masters who could conduct “just” wars against non-Christian primitive brutes that were, by their very nature, nothing more than slaves. Las Casas, on the other hand, asked the King to curb the genocide. Unfortunately, the seeds of genocide were too firmly planted in the New World, and the laws that were promulgated in 1542 proved ineffectual.

Spain’s legacy continues in Latin America. In Brazil, more than eighty tribes were destroyed between 1900 and 1957. The Indian population dropped from a million to less than 200,000. Spain was not alone. According to the historian Kirkpatrick Sale, “there is not a single European nation which, when the opportunity came, did not engage in practices as vicious and cruel as those of Spain—and in the case of England, worse—with very much the same sort of demographic consequences” (Sale 1990, p. 161).


Scholars have identified various interrelated factors that led to the depopulation of American Indians in the United States and the destruction of their cultures. “All of the reasons stemmed from European contact and colonization: introduced disease, including alcoholism; warfare and genocide; geographical removal and relocation; and destruction of ways of life” (Thornton 1987, pp. 43–44). These factors fall squarely within definitions of genocide and ethnocide.

Warfare. Between 150,000 and 500,000 Native Americans died in forty wars with Americans and Europeans between 1775 and 1894; in intertribal wars prompted by European or American involvement in tribal relations; in warfare between 1492 and 1775; and in conflicts between Indians and settlers (Thornton 1987, pp. 48– 49). Colonial governments encouraged colonists to kill Indians by paying bounties. In 1735, for example, the governor of Massachusetts called upon citizens to kill or capture all Penobscot Indians. He proclaimed a bounty of fifty pounds for every male above age twelve (or forty pounds for their scalps) and twenty-five pounds for every female or youth under age twelve (or twenty pounds for their scalps). Blatant acts of genocide occurred in Texas, where Indians were almost completely exterminated by

whites, and in California, where miners and early settlers killed 230,000. Thousands more died in places such as Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Washita River, and Fort Robinson.

Disease . The germ, however, was the primary agent of destruction. Virtually every tribe was decimated by Old World diseases to which Indians had no immunity. Europeans and Africans introduced these diseases, sometimes intentionally through smallpox-infected blankets and other means. The diseases include smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria and whooping cough. From 1520 to 1900, as many as ninety-three epidemics and pandemics spread among the Indians. Thornton states that the destruction of American Indians was initially “a medical conquest, one that paved the way for the more well-known and glorified military conquests and colonizations” (Thornton 1987, p. 47).

Dispossession, Resettlement and Destruction of Indigenous Habitat . From time immemorial, Native Americans developed land-based religions, cultures, economies, and ways of life based upon close relationships with diverse indigenous habitats. Forced removal under President Andrew Jackson began in 1828, when numerous eastern tribes were marched to reservations located west of the Mississippi River. Many died on forced marches or from starvation, disease, and harsh conditions on new reservations. Indians were forced to leave behind holy places, burial grounds, and indigenous habitats where they had developed their ways of life and special relationships with particular plants and animals.

In the 1880s, laws were enacted to break up reservation land owned by tribes, allot it to individual Indians, and allow white settlement on land promised to the tribes. Millions of acres were lost during this process, and some tribes became landless. These laws were justified in the name of assimilation by proponents who “maintained that if Indians adopted the habits of civilized life they would need less land” (Cohen 1982, p. 128).

The appropriation of land was a primary purpose of colonialism in the New World. As early as 1493, Pope Alexander VI conferred upon explorers the inherent power to claim land discovered by them on behalf of their countries of origin. He issued a Papal Bull declaring, “whereas Columbus had come upon lands and peoples undiscovered by others … all the lands discovered or to be discovered in the name of the Spanish Crown in the region legally belonged to Ferdinand and Isabella.” This doctrine became the legal basis for acquiring all of the land that is now the United States. In Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), the Supreme Court legalized the appropriation of America under the doctrine of discovery and justified it as follows:

However extravagant the pretension of converting discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear, if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of a great mass of the community originates under it, it becomes the law of the land and cannot be questioned.

The destruction of American Indians was also furthered through the deliberate destruction of their indigenous habitats, as graphically seen in the near extermination of the immense herds of buffalo upon which the Plains Indian Tribes depended. It also occurred through widespread destruction of native plant life and its replacement with foreign vegetation imported from other places. The ethnobotanist Melvin Gilmore has documented an amazing number of plant uses among Plains Indians and decried their replacement by alien plant life more familiar to American settlers. In addition, the destruction of indigenous habitats occurred during the twentieth century through deforestation in the Pacific Northwest and the destruction of salmon runs upon which the tribes of that region depend for their ways of life.

Prohibition of Religion and Language, Assimilation, and the Taking of Children. In the 1880s, the government turned in earnest to the task of assimilating Indians. Assimilation was a deliberate program to strip Indians of their religions, cultures, languages, ways of life, and identities as native people and turn them into white farmers with Christian values.

The outright government prohibition of tribal religions began in the 1890s. “Federal troops slaughtered Indian practitioners of the Ghost Dance religion at Wounded Knee, and systematically suppressed this tribal religion on other Indian reservations” and in 1892 and 1904, “federal regulations outlawed the practice of tribal religions entirely” (Inouye 1992, pp. 13–14). The government furthered its program by conveying Indian land to Christian groups to establish religious schools and by placing missionaries as federal Indian agents in charge of reservations.

Indian children were taken, sometimes forcibly, and placed into government boarding schools. Separated from their parents, families, and communities, they received haircuts and uniforms and were, in effect, incarcerated for years at a time in authoritarian institutions that systematically stripped their identities. Teachers strictly prohibited native students from speaking their language and taught them to be ashamed of their parents and cultures. For almost one hundred years the government sought to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Several generations of institutionalized youth lost their language, culture, and religion, and hundreds of native languages were lost.

Congress continued its assimilation policy long after Indian citizenship was granted in 1924. Termination laws in the 1950s ended federal relationships with many Indian tribes, sold remaining land on many reservations, and subjected Indians to state jurisdiction.

The Legacy of Genocide and Ethnocide Professor Charles Wilkinson has observed that American Indians hit rock bottom during the 1950s. They lived in abject poverty in a segregated, racist society intent upon terminating their rights as native people and stamping out their cultural identity. The human spirit, however, cannot easily be stamped out. Wilkinson chronicles the rise from that nadir by modern Indian Nations, as Native Americans waged a historic movement over the next fifty years to reclaim their sovereignty, lands, and cultural heritage.

By 2005, the Native American population had recovered to more than two million people. A growing appreciation of their contributions to American heritage and their inherent worth has emerged, as seen in the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2004. Genocide is a sleeping evil, rarely mentioned in schoolbooks. Ethnocide, however, continues to haunt Native Americans. This is seen in the English-only laws of twenty-one states; the ongoing destruction of tribal holy places unprotected by American law; and the derogatory racial stereotypes used in Hollywood and the mass media, or in the sporting world by teams with names such as “Redskins.” Native Americans fear the federal court system, which has grown increasingly hostile to protecting their legal rights. In 1992, Senator Inouye warned that as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions denying Native Americans religious freedom, “it appears that we are regressing to a dark period where once again our government is allowing religious discrimination against our indigenous people to go unchecked” (Inouye 1992, p. 14–15). History counsels that society must remain vigilant to safeguard Native Americans against racism, particularly the destructive and harmful acts of genocide and ethnocide.

SEE ALSO American Indian Movement (AIM); Forced Sterilization of Native Americans; Holocaust.


De Las Casas, Bartolome. 1974 (1542). The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. Translated by Herma Briffault. New York: Seabury Press.

———. 1974 (1552). In Defense of the Indians. Translated by Stafford Poole. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Denevan, William, ed. 1976. The Native Population of the Americas in 1492. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Echo-Hawk, Walter R. 2005. “Law, Legislation, and Native Religion.” In American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia, Vol. II, edited by Suzanne J. Crawford and Dennis F. Kelly, 455–473. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Gilmore, Melvin R. 1991 (1919). Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hitchcock, Robert K., and Tara M. Twedt. 1997. “Physical and Cultural Genocide of Various Indigenous Peoples.” In Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views, edited by Samuel Totten, Israel W. Charny, and William S. Parsons, 372–407. New York: Garland.

———. 1999. “Indigenous Peoples, Genocide Of.” In Encyclopedia of Genocide, Volume II, edited by Israel W. Charny, 349–354. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Inouye, Senator Daniel K. 1992. “Discrimination and Native American Religious Rights.” University of West Los Angeles Law Review 23: 3–19; and Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Legal Review, 18 (1993): 1–8.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1990. The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. NewYork:AlfredA.Knopf.

Strickland, Rennard, ed. 1982. Felix S. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Charlottesville, VA: Michie Bobbs-Merrill.

Thorton, Russell. 1987. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wilkinson, Charles. 2005. Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. New York: Norton.

Walter R. Echo-Hawk

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