restricted access Native America and the Question of Genocide by Alex Alvarez (review)
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Native America and the Question of Genocide, Alex Alvarez (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), ix + 202 pp., hardcover $44.00, paperback $32.00, electronic version available.

In this rather short book of some 200 pages, Alex Alvarez has tackled an intriguing and increasingly controversial issue: What kind of name do we use to explain the crime that Europeans inflicted upon the American Indian? The issue did not appear in the scholarship in the decades following the Second World War, when genocide became the commonly accepted term for explaining what had happened to the Jews of Europe. Arguments for defining what had happened to Native Americans increasingly found their way into American historiography following the collapse of Yugoslavia and the terrible slaughter that occurred there. Alvarez takes a topical approach, discussing disease, wars and massacres, exile (deportation), assimilation (cultural genocide), and yes, genocide.

There is a rather clear-cut answer to the "question" of genocide in this book. The word, the author believes, is often "used and misused" (p. 3), and "poorly understood" (p. 13). When discussing agents of the persecutions, Alvarez rejects the notion that the federal government sanctioned state-sponsored genocide of Native Americans—there is simply no evidence to support the claim that it did. At the heart of this argument is the issue of "intent": Alvarez believes that if what happened to the American Indians is to be termed genocide, then it must be shown to have resulted from "purposive behavior," meaning that it was "planned and deliberate" (p. 28). In the end, the author argues that while war crimes, atrocities, even "widespread deaths due to disasters and dislocation" (p. 29) did occur in the United States, and while they were often horrific, they did not constitute genocide.

Specific cases in point are discussed at some length. For example, the author discusses the impact of massacres such as Sand Creek (1864) and Wounded Knee (1890). He writes that they "were certainly atrocities, and perhaps genocide, but not necessarily." He notes that many spontaneous outbursts of violence were abhorred by the general public and government officials (page 39), and once again, were not part of any concerted, intentional policy enacted by government or even state or territorial officials. Colonel John Chivington, who commanded troops at Sand Creek, was investigated by the Army and by a congressional joint committee. His career was ruined. On the other hand, he was never prosecuted (pp. 96–98). [End Page 133]

Moving down the pecking order of topics, Alvarez also addresses the more nuanced concept of "settler colonialism" (p. 26), an increasingly popular concept used by scholars such as James Belich, Lisa Ford, and Patrick Wolfe. Alvarez suggests that settlers were for the most part intent upon removing natives as quickly as possible in order to take their land. The category of "settlers" includes massive, unorganized groups of people who never articulated an intentional policy aimed at the destruction of the Native Americans. Settler sovereignty, a catch-word increasingly used by some scholars to explain the destruction of native groups world-wide, does resemble in some senses the idea of "cultural genocide," which the author also addresses. Culture, Alvarez writes, is all about how a "group of people are connected" (p. 29). Cultural genocide, by definition, attacks those connections, breaking them apart. This may in fact have dramatic effects on a group's survival. Yet such policies do not constitute genocide, Alvarez argues persuasively, since they attack the bonds that unify people rather than the people themselves.

Despite this rather careful and intellectually interesting approach, Alvarez seems to ignore the new definitions adopted by the United Nations in the 1998 "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court." The treaty provides legal descriptions of "Genocide" (Article 6), "Crimes Against Humanity" (Article 7), and "War Crimes" (Article 8). There is plenty of material in these legal definitions that might be employed in discussion of the fate of the American Indian. Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, for example, were clearly war crimes of the first order. The removal of 130,000 Indians from east of the Mississippi River to the west of it most likely fits the new journalistic term often...