Has America neglected the Indian Holocaust?

One commentator seems to think so, and suggests that we might need a museum to remind us of it:

Americans are no strangers to willful denial of the past. American presidents have called for forgetting the past, not investigating wrongs of prior administrations, insisting that America is only and always the “good guy” on the planet. Indeed, this is a core ingredient of assertions that America is “exceptional.”

It is strange that there is a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate what the Nazis did in WWII, but no museum to acknowledge what a long series of United States governments did in the anti-Indian wars that are inextricable from American history. There is no American Indian Holocaust Museum, even though there are documented incidents in which mass killings, not just mass arrests, occurred across the continent over decades.…

If the U.S. wants to take the high ground in the 21st century as a bulwark against state atrocities, it will need the credibility that can only come from admitting one’s own faults, one’s complicity in the evils that one now wishes to prevent. In short, there must be an atonement for wrongdoings to give foundation to a commitment to do the right thing.

There’s much here that merits agreement. Nobody with an iota of humanity should dismiss or justify this country’s terrible record when it comes to its first inhabitants. At the same time, though, I think the author is overstating his case.

I’m not sure which sector of American society has been engaged in “willful denial” of the U.S. government’s slaughter and displacement of Indians.  Certainly not the academy; there are reams of solid studies documenting the terrible treatment of Indians, and any introductory course in American history worth its salt will devote substantial time to the topic.  The subject has also become a staple of popular history books by authors like Dee Brown and John Ehle and of film projects such as Dances with Wolves and the 2005 miniseries Into the West.  Nor can we charge the federal government with totally ignoring its ugly treatment of Native Americans in its selection of important places to conserve and commemorate: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Nez Perce National Historical Park, and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail all interpret chapters in the dreadful story of America’s persecution of Indians.

I don’t say any of this to minimize the horrors of the past; those horrors were very real, very numerous, and very grievous. But in the past few decades, they’ve been studied, written about, and commemorated to a much greater degree than is indicated in the piece quoted above. There’s probably no such thing as an “ideal” state of American historical consciousness when it comes to the Indian past, but we’re certainly at a much healthier point now than we were when my parents were kids, when Native Americans (if they figured in historical memory at all) were either the bad guys or stock characters in Westerns.

A museum devoted to Indian genocide, removal, and suffering is a compelling idea, but I’m not sure it’s the best approach to preserving and teaching Native American history. We need to understand the American Indian experience in its totality. It’s as much a story of adaptation and determined resistance as it is a story of victimization, and thankfully it’s a story that’s being told more often than it used to be.


Filed under History and Memory

6 responses to “Has America neglected the Indian Holocaust?

  1. I agree. The “Indian” narrative that I’ve grown up with is quite different from the one my parents experienced. What continues to be missing from every mention of “genocide” in nearly every discussion is the simple fact that white-European diseases were the clear culprit. When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, it is estimated that 80-85% of the natives had recently disappeared, not due to white nastiness but due to the spread of diseases to which the natives were especially vulnerable. This would have happened even if whites had behaved like saints.

    • Michael Lynch

      Epidemic diseases played a large role, but I want to stress that I’m not trying to absolve any class of historical figures of responsibility for wrongs, or to minimize the extent of those wrongs.


  2. I disagree. I think the true story of genocide of the Native Amricans needs to be brought forth in a museum to tell how dishonest Indian agents and our government agents cheated them out of their mineral rights, land, and provisions. The American Indian was treated worse the colored slaves our forefathers imported.

    • Michael Lynch

      I guess my main concern is that a museum devoted solely to Indian victimization risks leading people to think that victimization constitutes the entirety of Native American history. I think it’s an important part of the story, but it needs to be considered alongside the stories of Indian adaptation, survival, and resistance.


  3. Ron

    I agree completely with your post. Moreover, I would point out that we already have a National Museum of the American Indian, not far from the U.S. Capitol. I have not yet visited, but it appears that such themes are already discussed there (See: http://nmai.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/item/104/). If they aren’t, then that museum is the appropriate venue to raise the story ot the “Indian Holocaust.”

  4. When the discussion is genocide/holocaust, you cannot even begin the discussion w/o looking at the impact of European imported diseases. Conquering, containing, and cheating 500 warriors is surely easier than doing the same to 5000 warriors. When the discussion turns to treaties and government policies, then, Brenda, we can really talk about the nasty-lying white liars. And it is, admittedly, not a happy discussion, not one we feel very good about. But it is a separate discussion. And the discussion at the moment is, so I was led to believe, the Indian “holocaust.” Though there were ugly incidents here and there, the official policy of the US government toward “Indians” in general was one of containment and control, not extermination. The ugly, tragic incidents of Sand Creek in 1864 and even Wounded Knee in 1890 were NOT matters of official policy thought we have often we led to believe that they were. Custer’s raid at the Watasha (1866) may be more debatable, but, that incident was, so they said at the time, a means to an end, with the end not being extermination but again, containment and control.

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