Genocide Denial in History Education

Americans often question or deny claims of genocide against indigenous peoples because they challenge our patriotic version of American history. We might have been upset if Chiitaanibah Johnson disrupted our classes. But we might have learned more about genocide and U.S. history.
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History education includes education about genocide. But all nations, including the United States, teach patriotic histories. Such histories highlight some genocides and ignore or deny others.

On September 2 at California State University--Sacramento, Professor Maury Wiseman apparently told his history class that the term "genocide" was "too strong" to describe the fate of American Indians. The actions of U.S. governments and colonists lacked genocidal intent, he explained, adding that most native people were wiped out by European diseases to which they had no immunity.

This account of the September 2 class session comes from Chiitaanibah Johnson, a 19-year-old sophomore of Navajo and Maidu ancestry, who strongly disagreed but said nothing at the time. After researching the issue of native genocide, she came prepared to the next class meeting and argued that there were many examples of genocide in U.S. history.

According to Johnson, Wiseman suggested she talk to him after class. She replied, "Well, no, I don't think that's acceptable because this is a very heavy statement you've made to your students publicly, and you need to justify it publicly." His response, she says, was to accuse her of hijacking his class. Eventually he dismissed the other students, with apologies for the "disruption."

Both Johnson and Wiseman had a right to express and explain their views. Academia is not simply a forum for free expression, however. Universities are concerned with the justification of ideas and the pursuit of truth.

So what's the truth about genocide? To determine whether an historical event falls in the category of genocide requires detailed knowledge about the event, of course, but such knowledge is not sufficient. To distinguish genocides from ethnic cleansings, wars, and other historical events, we need a definition of genocide.

There are many definitions of genocide in the scholarly literature. Examining their substantial overlap, however, we can identify a scholarly consensus sufficient for present purposes. Genocide, virtually all experts agree, is not simply large-scale mass killing. Rather, genocide is an act or process of destruction aimed at a human social group, such as an ethnic, cultural, or religious group.

Millions of indigenous people died as a result of the European colonization of the Americas. Most of these, in the U.S. and elsewhere, died of unintended pestilence, but many died of famine, enslavement, or direct killing. There is plenty here to lament, but is this genocide? These figures are about numbers of individuals, whereas genocide concerns the destruction of groups.

Turning to groups, it is true that many native groups were unwittingly destroyed through pestilence. The destruction of many others in the course of enslavement or ethnic cleansing may or may not be deemed genocide depending on one's precise definition. But there were also many unambiguous cases of genocide. In the United States alone, hundreds of native groups were targeted for destruction, and many of these, though not all, were destroyed.

Don't take my word for it. On genocide in the Americas, the top two books are American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World and A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. For a broad overview of scholarly work on genocide in world history, see The Historiography of Genocide, which includes a substantial chapter entitled "Genocide in the Americas" and another entitled "Genocides of Indigenous Peoples."

Of course no one is obligated to agree with these books. To avoid indoctrination, however, teachers must acknowledge when they are dissenting from a scholarly consensus, and explain why. That doesn't seem to have happened in Sacramento.

Americans often question or deny claims of genocide against indigenous peoples because such claims challenge the patriotic version of American history we all learned in school. We might have been upset if Chiitaanibah Johnson had been there to disrupt our classes. But we might have learned more about genocide and U.S. history.

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