Sociocide of American Indians

Presented for Russell Means by Ward Churchill to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

October 7, 2012

Hau metakuyeayopi.  The greeting I have just given you translates as “hello, my relatives” in the Lakota language of my elder brother Russell Means, who greatly regrets that he is unable to be present and deliver these remarks to you personally.  He is at present gravely ill and hospitalized.  Your prayers in his behalf are appreciated.

What will be said is extended in the spirit of Russ’ observation during the 1982 siege of Beirut that “the Palestinians of North America stand in solidarity with the American Indians of the Middle East.”

The topic of the following remarks is framed as the “sociocide of American Indians.”  In this we would caution that while the concept of sociocide may be analytically useful in understanding a particular facet or dimension of genocidal processes, it should never be taken as something separate or distinct from genocide itself.  Like ethnocide, it is simply a subpart of the whole.

The time available is brief; therefore, far more will be omitted than can be included in what follows.  It is important to note, however, that the contemporary circumstances of the indigenous peoples of North America arises from a lengthy history of genocide in its most narrowly defined terms of physical destruction.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the population of American Indians in North America had been reduced by roughly 95 per cent from the onset of the European invasion some 300 years earlier.  This had been accomplished through modes of direct killing as, for example, with the proclamation of scalp bounties paid for proof of death of any American Indian, male or female, adult or infant, in the form of scalps removed from their often still-living heads.  It took the form of deliberate infection with lethal diseases, causing epidemics and sometimes pandemics that killed millions.  The effects of such outbreaks were consistently facilitated by the imposition of what Rafaël Lemkin described as “slow death measures.” These included the dislocation, dispersal, and subsequently the concentration of Indian peoples, as well as the destruction of their traditional economies, all of which combined to render them extremely vulnerable to illness.  These slow death measures in particular may be seen to persist into the present moment.

The contemporary situation of American Indians overall amply reflects this reality.   As of 2010, reservation-based Indians have a life expectancy approximately one-third less than that of the settler population.   While the causes vary somewhat from region to region, the common denominator is quite simply a condition of destitution.  On Russell’s own reservation, Pine Ridge, per capita income is barely $3,000 per year, while unemployment has run close to 90 percent for decades.  The consequences of this include rates of death by malnutrition and exposure many times that suffered by the settle population.  Collateral effects include catastrophic rates of endemic diseases such as tuberculosis and diabetes often associated with nutritional inadequacies and the absence of adequate sanitation, water purification facilities, and substandard housing.  Roughly two-thirds of all American Indian residences would be deemed uninhabitable if situated off-reservation.

It is important to emphasize that such circumstances have persisted, generation after generation, for well over a century.  Under such conditions various pathologies associated with despair are also endemic, manifesting themselves in high rates of alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse.  This, in turn, results in extraordinarily high rates of accidental death, as well as violence within families and communities.  Another effect is that suicide rates among American Indian adolescents and adult men are several times those found in the settler population.

Strikingly, the acute impoverishment of American Indians persists despite the fact that the reservations are endowed with mineral and other assets sufficient to provide a high degree of material comfort and security to every American Indian alive today.  The glaring gap separating potential wealth from practical poverty may be explained by a single word:  colonialism.

The status of American Indian peoples as sovereign nations has been recognized 400 times over through the ratification of treaties by the Senate of the United States.  Nonetheless, the U.S. has unilaterally asserted jurisdiction over all remaining Indian territories within its claimed boundaries, beginning with the passage of the so-called Major Crimes Act in 1885.  This was followed in 1903 by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lone Wolf opinion, in which it was asserted that the United States was entitled to exercise plenary—absolute and unchallengeable—power over American Indian lands and lives.  Concomitantly, it was asserted that all remaining American Indian lands and other assets were to be administered “in trust” by the federal government of the United States.

The upshot of this blatant usurpation of the self-determining rights of American Indian peoples is readily apparent in the recent Cobell case, in which it was conceded by federal authorities that compensation deriving from the use of American Indian lands and extraction of minerals therefrom and owed to Indians had been “lost” by their self-appointed trustees.  Forensic accountants have determined that the amount at issue, plus simple interest accruing over the past century, may have reached as high as $175 billion dollars.  All $175 billion has gone into sustaining the affluence embraced as an entitlement by the settler population of North America.

The fact that the federal government has lately agreed to settle the Indians’ claim for a $3.4 billion pittance does nothing to change the situation.  To paraphrase Eduardo Galeano’s famous observation on the relationship between poverty in Latin America and affluence in the neocolonial North, your wealth is our poverty.

Under such conditions the unraveling of the social fabric of indigenous societies would be virtually inevitable.  There is, however, more at issue.

In a clear prefiguration of its trust authority the United States, under the General Allotment Act of 1887, imposed a system of individuated land tenure on American Indian reservations.  A provision of the Act held that once each individual Indian had received his or her personal allotment of anywhere from 40 to 160 acres of land, the balance of all acreage within reservation boundaries would be declared “surplus” and opened to acquisition by non-Indians.   Not only did this result, by 1934, in the loss of two-thirds of all remaining lands reserved for Indian use and occupancy, it also had the monumentally negative effect of undermining the previously collaborative use of lands collectively held by American Indian peoples.

The cohesion of indigenous societies was further undermined by the method employed by the United States to determine who was an Indian eligible for allotment.  Referred to as “blood quantum,” this mechanism supplanted traditional methods of determining group membership/citizenship through kinship, cultural and political allegiance, adoption, and/or naturalization, with a purely racial definition of Indianness.  This has fostered divisiveness within indigenous societies that not only has persisted but is in some respects intensifying even today.

Finally, the allotment process “locked in” the aggregate reservation land base at a size at least theoretically sufficient to accommodate the overall indigenous population as of 1900.  In keeping with the U.S. view that Indians would soon die out, no provision was made for the possibility of population rebound.  Consequently, as the Indian population steadily grew from one-quarter million in 1900 to roughly one million in 1970, reservation land was unavailable to accommodate an ever greater proportion of Indians.  The result was that by 1970 approximately one-half of all American Indians had been forced to leave the reservations and take their place in an urbanized diaspora throughout North America.

It’s worth mentioning that the exodus from the reservations was facilitated during the 1950s and 60s by an official U.S. “Indian relocation” program.

Even among those who were able to remain on the reservations, land became of increasingly less rather than more utility because of the so-called “heirship problem” in which scores of descendants of original allottees found themselves attempting to divide or jointly use a 160 acre parcel.   In such cases local federal agents were empowered to simply lease their land, often for as little as $1 per acre per year, to non-Indian farmers and ranchers.  Thus, many reservations had become “checkerboarded” by the 1970s, with all the best acreage directly controlled by non-Indians and used exclusively for their benefit.

One final point.  It was mentioned that the U.S. envisioned the complete disappearance of American Indians, culturally recognizable as such, by some point in the mid-twentieth century.  To this end, a program of compulsory assimilation was undertaken.  A key component of this program was the removal of American Indian children as young as three years of age from their families and societies for the purpose of indoctrination in boarding schools, in locations usually remote from their homelands.  The object of these institutions, as stated by their creator Army Colonel (later General) Richard Henry Pratt, was to “kill the Indian, save the man” in each and every pupil.

Note the juxtaposition:  to be a man, by which Pratt meant human, one could not be Indian; the terms are mutually exclusive in his formulation.

Children were systematically taught to despise themselves, while being trained to perform menial services for the settler society.  While the initiative, which lasted into the 1980s, was not entirely successful—no more than half of any of several succeeding generations of American Indian children were subjected to the boarding schools—the psychological devastation wrought upon those thus processed was incalculable.  The effects, in terms of the trauma suffered, have proven to be transmissible from one generation to the next, and are therefore ongoing.

Taken in combination with a simultaneous process of blind adoptions, wherein Indian children were denied any and all knowledge of their heritage, the boarding schools have severely impaired the ability of indigenous societies to retain (or regain) their coherence and stability.

Much of what has been said will resonate with considerable familiarity among Palestinians.  While the particulars are in many respects different, the effects suffered are entirely similar.  So, too, the remedy.  Since the ravages of colonialism are always everywhere the same, the only “cure” is decolonization, pure and simple.

Thank you for listening.



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