On May 12 and 13, the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History at Chicago’s Newberry Library hosted scholars and community members from around the country to discuss the central role violence has played in European colonization of indigenous homelands, and the innovative modes of resistance Native communities have employed to fend off the destruction of their ways of life.
Supported by funding from Michigan State University and the University of Oregon, the two-day event featured talks and workshops by 30 participants representing disciplines ranging from literary studies and history to linguistics and anthropology.
Historian Susan Sleeper-Smith of Michigan State University, and one of the symposium organizers, offered a retelling of George Washington’s tactics in the Ohio River Valley during his presidency that crystallized the centrality of violence to federal Indian policy. In a letter to the militia he had sent to the Ohio, Washington was blunt: “assault the said towns, and the Indians therein, either by surprise, or otherwise, as the nature of the circumstances may admit— sparing all who may cease to resist, and capturing as many as possible, particularly women and children.”
Throughout the symposium, speakers recounted the pervasiveness of such tactics, not only in the U.S., but also in Oceania, Central America, and Canada. In every case, however, participants found that indigenous peoples were very rarely passive victims. Rather, they mobilized to counter this aggression with innovative strategies of resistance. Their pushback was both large and small. In 1675, Wampanoag Confederacy leader Metacom launched a full scale assault against the English colonies of New England. In Los Angeles at the present moment, Maya women defy verbal abuse in the streets of the city by proudly wearing their traje (traditional woven, multicolored blouse called a huipil, a corte, a woven wraparound skirt that reaches to the ankles, and is held together by faja/sash at the waist) in public places.
Shadowing all of these talks was the one word no one who studies these histories can avoid: genocide.
It is a hot button issue, and often in the news. Just two years ago, at Sacramento State University in California, a Native university student, Chiitaanibah Johnson (Navajo/Maidu), took her history professor to task because he refused to acknowledge that what happened to Native peoples in the Americas was indeed genocide (Read more). She was initially suspended for her dissent, but reinstated when the incident became national news.
genocide . . . includes the criminalization and displacement of survivors as well as the destruction of their livelihoods and lives
Among the speakers at the Newberry symposium, there was a general consensus that genocide was indeed embedded in colonial policies towards indigenous peoples, that it is a structural, and that it is still an issue today. Dr. Alicia Ivonne Estrada of California State University, Northridge, cited the stark statistics from Guatemala: “170,000 Mayas killed in Guatemala during the armed conflict [of the 80s and 90s]. The militia Washington sent to the Ohio Valley “marched across the Ohio River and north into Indian Country, where they enthusiastically leveled all the villages surrounding Ouiatenon, torched the adjacent cornfields, reduced every house to ash, uprooted vegetable gardens, chopped down apple orchards, killed the Indians who attempted to escape, and captured and forcibly transported fifty women and children to Fort Steuben at the Falls of the Ohio.” Richard Henry Pratt, the man who set up the U.S. Indian boarding school system, demanded his teachers “kill the Indian,” in the cultural sense—that is, take away his language, his religion, his family.
But genocide is more than raw killing. As Dr. Estrada observes, casualty numbers “indicate one aspect of genocide, but not its entirety, which includes the criminalization and displacement of survivors as well as the destruction of their livelihoods and lives.” Professor Sleeper Smith summed it up this way: “We have spent too long focused on Indian demise. If we stopped focusing on the plow agriculture of settler colonists and stopped imagining settler societies as peaceable places but more closely examined places like the Ohio River Valley we could better understand how violence became embedded in social formation during the Early Republic.”
We have spent too long focused on Indian demise.
Although most speakers expressed how difficult it has been to pursue research on these topics, given the grisly accounts and archives they have had to face, most expressed hope and cited significant signs of rebuilding in the many Native communities that have been subjected to this violence. In the Yakama Nation, new speakers of the language are being trained in the schools, and the ethical lessons of traditional storytelling rekindled for a new generation. All of the scholars seemed to agree that the ugly history of colonial violence need to be told—to raise awareness in policy makers, teachers, and the general public. That is because with the violence came resistance, and with resistance, new ways of community building that have benefitted Native and non-Native peoples alike. Just take a look at the final image from the event.