restricted access 2 Cultural Genocide and the American Indians
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21 The theoretical background for our approach to cultural genocide is the universal phenomenon of natural localness. It is within this default position that most of us live our daily lives and come to know and understand our environment. In the case we are about to consider, the cultural genocide committed against the American Indians, the local environment of the frontier was one of confrontation between colonists and Indians. The “pictures in our heads” that evolved in this zone of confrontation did so against the backdrop of colonial domination of the land and Indian resistance. Away from this zone, the understanding of the frontier struggle conformed to the cultural paradigm of the competing parties. Here we will deal mainly with the outlook of the European colonists, the ones who perpetrated and supported the assault on American Indian cultures. The vast majority of colonists had arrived in the Americas with an assured sense of their own civilizational superiority and quickly developed a correspondingly negative view of Indian society and culture. This was so whether the Europeans came to the New World for religious reasons or economic ones, or whether they came from England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, or elsewhere. From the colonists’ point of view, the Indians’ tools and weapons, Cultural Genocide and the American Indians 2 2 their religions, their relative nakedness, their occupations, their family life—all were judged to be of an inferior nature. For the vast number of colonists, this assumption would never be questioned. This primary fact must be borne in mind as we go through the following history. Thus, both on and off the frontier, the Indians were seen as barbarians and savages who had to give way before colonial expansion, which represented the God-ordained advancement of civilization. The inferior naturally had to give way to the superior. This pervasive assumption, which rapidly became the foundational concept of a colonial thought collective, stood independent of the behavior of this or that set of Indians or colonists. Quite often particular frontier colonists could behave like barbarians (and be recognized as acting so by the government of the Great Britain or the United States), and particular Indian groups could behave in a benign and civilized fashion. It made no difference to the character and power of the evolving thought collective, which readily used emotive language that tapped into hardwired concerns for security against danger and maintenance of community solidarity. As a result, the colonial media (newspapers), “Indian experts” (often clergymen), and politicians all subscribed to the notion that Indians were enemies and their extinction was justified and inevitable. That meant that the ordinary colonial citizen behind the frontier was immersed in an information environment that reflected and buttressed the thought collective. An important aspect of this situation was that domain or content knowledge about the frontier situation, as well as about Indian life and culture, was super- ficial and subject to distortion. It was certainly not sufficient to allow the colonists to make an independent critical judgment about the struggle taking place between the two peoples. If one combines the power of the thought collective and the superior strength of the cultural genocide 22 colonists, both in weapons and, in the long run, in numbers, one can see that the position of the Indians was poor in the extreme. Within the colonial society it was not a question of whether the Indians ought to go extinct. The question was how it should occur. Should it be by a process of physical genocide, or by the more “benign” process of cultural genocide? Early Contacts: Two Precedent-Setting Examples The first substantial number of European settlers came to the shores of what is now the United States in the early seventeenth century. Among the best known of the early settlements was the one at Jamestown, established in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London. The initial number of settlers was 105. Within seven months, only thirty-eight survived. This first-season mortality rate was not due to hostile action by indigenous peoples but rather to the malarial environment in which the colony sat, the lack of adequate drinking water, and an underestimation of the sheer hard work it would take to endure in a wilderness. Indeed, the European population in Virginia would not be able to sustain its own numbers until the end of the seventeenth century. Until that time it had to rely on a steady stream of new immigrants (mostly in the...


Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Russia -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Palestinian Arabs -- Israel -- Social conditions -- 20th century
  • Tibet Autonomous Region (China) -- Social conditions.
  • Assimilation (Sociology).
  • Indians, Treatment of -- North America -- History.
  • Ethnic conflict.
  • Persecution -- Social aspects.
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