It is indisputable that the Native Americans were wronged by the European settlers. Adamant U. S government officials would threaten native tribes to leave their land so they could selfishly use the land for their own purposes. Andrew Jackson was the driving force in clearing away the Native Americans. He strongly despised American Indians as evidenced by his relentless promotion for their removal. Jackson eventually got his wish when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which forced American Indians to relocate, thus allowing settlers to use the remarkably fertile Native American land for their own crops and agriculture.
From the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s, American Indians had to travel from their homes some 800 miles to now day Oklahoma. These long and arduous journeys took nearly six months to complete leaving many Natives either dead or nearly dead. Historians who study the Native Americans describe their relationship with settlers as a cruel and, to an extent, racist because the Europeans clearly viewed the American Indians as an inferior race. Although this was a bitter conflict that ultimately led to the removal of American Indians, it is hardly fair to determine the event as a genocide.
Ben Kiernan, the director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, argues that genocide is the “only appropriate way” to describe how Natives were treated, but there is no indication extermination was the principle objective of the U. S government. Thorough research proves that the American Indians were much less victims of genocide but more so victims of an unlucky yet inevitable disaster. While there is no doubt the American Indians endured a devastating tragedy, there isn’t enough evidence to prove this suffering amounted to a full blown genocide.
In order to get a strong understanding of the argument, it is important to answer what exactly is genocide? There is more to the term genocide than just a massive killing of people. Eradications of entire groups of people have occurred but that doesn’t necessarily constitute the word genocide. In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the United Nations met at the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide or CPPCG. During the convention the nations established the definition as any of the following three main actions committed with the intent to destroy an ethnical, religious, national, or racial group.
The three primary circumstances are: (a) Killing or capturing many members of a group (b) Causing serious physical or mental harm (c) Deliberate negative influence on a group’s conditions of life While it is possible some of the circumstances did occur between the American Indians and European settlers, the settlers certainly didn’t have the intent to destroy the Native American race. Dr. Nehemiah Robinson suggests that it is preposterous for genocide to occur without the intent clause. He states that the big emphasis of the convention was on intentionality so there can be no such thing as “negligent genocide.
Throughout the entire research process, it was impossible to find a reliable expert who didn’t accept the centrality of the intent clause. Alexander K. A. Greenawalt, a professor of law at Princeton, goes even further saying that a perpetrator must have a specific and “special” intent where the desire is exclusively for the result of genocide. The Europeans certainly mistreated the Native Americans but there is zero evidence suggesting the settlers wiped out the American Indians on purpose. In fact, it is known that Jackson wanted Native American land because most of native land was rich in nutrients.
However selfish Jackson and the settlers may have been they didn’t have the intent to destroy so they aren’t responsible for a genocide. Many observers wrongly contend that an inflated amount of Native Americans were killed, while others allege that the size of the Native population has been purposefully minimized in order to make the decline seem less severe. It is well documented that a mere 250,000 Native Americans remain in their U. S territories today, however the number of American Indians alive at the time of their first encounter with the Europeans is still in doubt.
The discrepancy in estimates is enormous. Many historians of the 1900’s propose vastly different variations in population. Ethnologist James Mooney determined a total of 1,152,950 natives while historical author Russell Thornton stated well over five million. Phil Lane Jr, one of the few Native Americans living today, even suggested twelve million which is approximately ten times more than the number Mooney advised. This variance is highly alarming because without a ballpark number there is no data to prove that the American Indian population significantly declined.
Using Mooney’s estimates it is impossible to classify this encounter as genocide because not enough people died. However, this vagueness may not even matter because there is ample evidence proving that the arrival of Europeans indeed sparked a drastic reduction in the Native population. Even if the higher totals are accepted, they alone won’t prove the occurrence of a genocide. The most impactful reason for the gigantic decline in Native Americans was the spread of common diseases to which the American Indians had no immunity.
Common illnesses such as smallpox, influenza, measles, and chicken pox were quite harmless to the white men yet they were extremely lethal to the American Indians who were never exposed to these viruses in America. This experience is known by scholars as virgin-soil epidemic. The native population had no previous contact with the diseases rendering their immune system essentially defenseless against these germs.
The deadliest of these viruses was smallpox. Smallpox was so severe it killed as many adults s starvation and hunger, sometimes it even wiped through entire tribes and villages. Alfred Crosby, an author and professor of American studies at UT Austin concludes that it was not the settlers and their weaponry responsible for the Native American extermination but rather the “invisible killers which those men brought in their blood and breath. ” It is also estimated that 75 to 90 percent of all Indian deaths resulted from unintentional spread of disease. To some, such as historian David Stannard, just disease is enough to warrant the term genocide.
The professor at the University of Hawaii argues that Jews who died of disease are counted among the victims of the Holocaust therefore arguing that Natives who died from disease are victims of genocide as well. However, this argument is unreasonable because the Holocaust cannot be compared with the American Indian tragedy. For starters the Nazis intentionally tried to eliminate the Jews. The disease that befell the Jews was almost deliberate by the Nazis because the Jews were forcefully kept in cramped chambers with bad ventilation and terrible sanitation.
Conversely, the spread of disease in North America was completely inadvertent and unforced. Infecting the Indians with disease was never in the mind of the settlers therefore the deaths as a result of disease can by no means be considered genocide. Even if 90 percent of the American Indians died as a result of disease, it still leaves a hefty death toll caused by violence and injustice, which begs the question how many of these deaths can be considered instances of genocide?
As previously stated, Andrew Jackson and the rest of the Europeans lacked the intent to cleanse American lands from the Natives. Nonetheless, there were small groups of people who truly hated the American Indians. The Puritans in the New England colonies are a prime example of genocidal abuse against the Native Americans. Initially, the Puritans did not view the American Indians as enemies, but rather as potential allies and future converts. However, their Christianizing efforts yielded little success as their experience with the Natives gradually turned hostile.
When the Pequot Tribe, in particular, with its reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness, refused to comply with the demands of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the colonists’ tempers erupted. After months of small skirmishes, which only strengthened the colonists’ beliefs that American Indians were savages, John Mason and his militiamen decided to raid the Pequot village. Settled along the Mystic River, the Pequot tribe was caught by surprise when about 150 American soldiers charged into their camps. As Captain Mason phrased it, the intention of the colonists had been to “plunder the village and then set it ablaze.
By the end of the massacre, several hundreds of Pequot were dead, among these were an estimated 300 women and children. While a few Pequot managed to escape the attack, this battle would eventually lead to the extermination of the Pequot tribe. Since Mason and his troops attacked with the premeditated plan to extinguish the Pequot, this conflict can only be seen as genocide. However, small genocides such as this only occurred sporadically throughout colonial history and as mentioned before, these rare clashes only accounted for a small portion of the American Indian population.
Events likes the massacre at the Mystic River and the Sand Creek massacre, a brutal annihilation of the Cheyenne Indians which left numerous women and children dead, proves that not all of the colonists were innocent of genocide. These outbreaks definitively confirm that the struggle against the American Indians included traces of genocide, but to classify the entire tragedy as a genocide isn’t appropriate considering that the bulk of the deaths were crimeless. The grim fate of the Native Americans represents not a crime but a tragedy.
The violent collision between the colonists and the American Indians was probably unavoidable. During the 17th century, innumerable sums of Europeans emigrated to America sparking a sudden increase in population. As millions of people traveled across to the New World, colonists began to push their colonies further and further west. It is safe to say that the U. S government couldn’t have prevented the westward expansion even if they wanted to. As the two parties collided there was a massive clash in cultures and morals.
Despite the efforts of well-intentioned people, there was no solution to mend the rift between the two contrasting races. The American Indians were reluctant to leave their nomadic lifestyle for the life of a sedentary farmer, while the new settlers, convinced of their racial superiority, only cared about the success of their new country. As a result, a conflict ensued, however it was much more than just hapless victims and merciless aggressors. To cast the charge of genocide at an entire society when only a limited number of people were guilty isn’t fair to the interests of our ancestors, the American Indians, or history.