The Indian genocide

It is not easy to write about genocide. How can one possibly write in such a way that human tragedy should not boil down to statistics, suffering should not be converted into abstract notions and crime should not be diluted into interpretations ? It is difficult to write about genocide but it is still more difficult to accept the silence which covers up genocide.

Nowadays four crimes perpetrated in the twentieth century have been ackowledged by international organizations as pertaining to genocide : the Jewish holocaust during the Second World War, the massacre of Armenians in 1915, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 and the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. Four genocides have thus been exposed, but how many crimes have remained unnamed ? Among the tragedies which are not remembered or which people do not want to remember, there are the methodical massacres of native peoples carried out by colonial states. Among them, considering its scope and extent, the extermination of American Indians stands out in a conspicuous way. The crimes committed against the Indians still represent a gaping wound around which controversy and discussion are rife. The Indians do not harbour any doubt whatsoever that white colonizers committed genocide in the New World. This thesis, however, has many an opponent, in America as well as in Europe. One of them is Tawacin, a Polish magazine which defines itself as an « Indian Friends’ Paper ».

A few anthropologists from Poznan contributing to this review and expressing the standpoint of the editors protest against the constant accusations levelled at Europeans and Americans for the wrongs committed against the Indians. They reject such « an image of the past and the present, in which all Indians have always and everywhere been victimized » [1]. They consider the dichotomic differentiation between Whites and Indians as altogether groundless : « Can we claim that the Whites make up one species and the Indians another ? », they ask. « We cannot look at the history of the New World by only confronting all the time two senseless, heterogeneous categories (it is a form of racism !). Here we must always resort to historical further scrutiny : who ? where ? when ? » [2]. 

Speaking about the significance of Lévi-Strauss’s works for anthropology, Mircea Eliade emphasized once the philosophical approach of the ethnologist to the topics he was raising. « Anthropologists », he wrote, « wasted too much time trying to recreate the  history  of primitive cultures, whereas they devoted too little time trying to  understand their meaning [3] In other words, they too often rejected thinking about culture in the name of constant scrutinizing « who ? where ? when ? ». This can be noticed in reference to « primitive » cultures as well as ours. It is easy to pinpoint that what the anthropologists from Tawacin object to is the legitimacy of viewing Euro-American culture as Western culture. They also refuse the right to contemplate Indian cultures in a global way. Yet, to understand « the history of the New World », one cannot be content with just reviewing historical facts, these facts have to be grasped in keeping with a deep sense of the cultures that existed on those lands, as well as a deep sense of the culture that conquered them. And this implies a confrontation between a few meaningful cultural categories. Western culture has, indeed, a certain common denominator, just as Indian cultures also do. But this distinct common denominator cannot be restricted, as the editor of Tawacin would have it, to « the love of liberty and the survival instinct » [4].

Apart from Greek and Roman influences, European civilization is based on Christianity, the experience of Reformation, humanism, rationalism, the ideas of progress. These elements, among others, made up our European, Western identity, our outlook on life, our priorities and values. The fact that some Europeans fancy bullfighting [5] and some others prefer playing cricket does not really matter in the face of this common basis which determines our way of thinking.

The same applies to the peoples who were living on the American continent. Of course there were differences between the peoples of MesoAmerica and the nomads from Gran Chichimeca, between the Pueblo Indians and the Inuits, nevertheless one can find a common denominator for all of them. They are cultures based on mysticism and « cosmic spirituality », resting on pure metaphysics. They have many elements in common, with a few constants visible in each of them : their attitude to the earth, their notion of time, the cult of the sun and the stars, the role of myths and rituals. The absence of discrepancy between the sacred and the profane, a sense of spirituality which never turned into religion, shaped the identity of these people, their priorities and their values. They did not know about such experiences that moulded our being : the atrophy of faith, individualism, rationalism.

In 1492, the Indians met with Europeans on the American continent. It was more than a meeting between peoples, it led to a clash between different cultures and ways of thinking, with one of them feeling absolutely entitled to decide about the fate of the others. From 1492 onwards, a whole machinery of destruction and death was set in motion on these newly discovered lands. Fifty years after Europeans had landed in the New World, the empires of the Aztecs and Purhepechas were lying in ruins ; cities which were « more beautiful than Salamanca and Venice » had vanished. The Indians who greeted Christians « with great respect », interest and honours were massacred. « Because one should know », Bartolome de Las Casas writes, « that in all the countries the Spaniards stepped into, they would organize a cruel, noisy carnage » [6]. The advance of conquerors and colonizers, from south to north, from east to west, left destruction in its wake, it was synonymous with land plundering, it meant the end of a certain world. It was lavish with hundreds and thousands of victims.

In view of the countless destructions and massacres committed by Europeans, and later on by Americans, Indian natives openly speak of genocide. For the anthropologists from Tawacin, this is an unfounded thesis, meant to derive economic and political interests on a short-term basis. The same opinion, after all, prevails beyond the ocean. « The notion of genocide », Thomas Bender says, « has become part and parcel of reflection upon American history, but it still is on the margin of mainstream language.It is seriously condemned by right-wing parties. This is one of the tragedies which Americans find extremely hard to admit to. » [7]

The Indians and ethnocide policy

Inasmuch as the concept of genocide lies « on the margin of mainstream language », many anthropologists and historians are prone to believe that in the case of the New World one should not speak so much of a genocide as of the extermination of a culture. Raphael Lemkin defined the notion of genocide as something large, a physical extermination accompanied by the wiping out of social and political structures, the destruction of a culture and a language. Since this extensive definition of genocide was not accepted by the United Nations, genocide has become differentiated today from ethnocide. Ethnocide is the methodical and planned destruction of the culture of conquered peoples, the crushing of the social and family tissue, the annihilation of beliefs, rituals and legends, the eradication of language and art. Genocide destroys people physically, ethnocide destroys their soul. When they arrived in the New World, Europeans, who saw in their own culture the crowning achievement of all cultures, in their own religion the source of happiness and redemption, felt absolutely entitled to impose on the natives their values, their way of life and their way of thinking. Indian cultures could not survive. From the 16th to the 20th centuries, colonial states resorted to all possible means necessary to implement the programme of destruction of indigenous societies and introduction of their own order. They despoiled the Indians of their lands, they forced them to work in inhuman conditions in mines and on plantations, they sold them as slaves, they settled them in so-called encomiendas, they banned their religious practices, they punished them for using their own language, they viewed any attachment to indigenous values as crime, they separated families and located children in religious institutions with a view to breeding them in hatred of their own traditions, they penned up people on reservations, they deported them to lands that were not theirs. The natives were not left with any choice between their own culture and their conquerors’. The choice they were given was that of someone with their backs to the wall : you will survive under the condition that you will change. For a lot of Indians, both options meant death. « Kill the Indian, save the man » was the motto of Europeans’ cultural terrorism. The premise contained in it, according to which the necessary condition for humanity was Christianity and civilization, was a horrible mistake of European thinking for which the natives paid with heaps of corpses. Indianity was doomed to die out. Is it necessary to bring perspectives into sharper focus to realize that as far as the policy of ethnocide was concerned, all the Indians were and are victims ?

Ethnocide and genocide derive from the conviction that otherness is bad, it is a weed which must be rooted out, a monster that must be destroyed. Juxtaposing these two practices, Pierre Clastres remarks : « The problem is not to state which evil is lesser : the answer is only too obvious. It is always better to have less barbarity than more. » [8] « Less barbaric » ethnocide assumes that godforsaken, debased creatures can be reformed and turned into human beings. It lays a bet on the conversion of man, so it is — as Clastres has it — the « optimistic version » of the extermination of otherness. Whereas genocide, which rules out the possibility of conversion, stands for its « pessimistic version ». Both versions are based on arbitrary definitions of man. And both of them are crimes. For the nazis, Jews represented absolute evil. The Indians, according to ethnocide, were granted a chance for survival. Was it really so and was it for all of them ? The fact that the actions of the Whites on the American continent were aiming at the methodical destruction of Indian cultures does not mean that they had nothing in common with genocide. In practice, these two ways of annihilating otherness interrelate and complement each other.

Ethnocide goes hand in hand with genocide, genocide is implied by ethnocide. It is plan B in case plan A did not work out, and more often than not it is carried out parallel to plan A. Plan A had in mind to destroy the Indian soul. The snag was that the Indians stood firmly their ground by their souls and in spite of the ultimatum « you won’t survive if you don’t change », they did not want to change. The history of colonization abounds in rebellions, insurrections, revolts, escapes from plantations, from mines and reservations. When men cannot be transformed into one’s own image, when it turns out that they cannot be reformed, they end up being killed off. Spanish missionaries expressed it most emphatically about Seri Indians : « As long as their whole race does not die out, no peace will be possible on these lands. » [9] Band after band, Indian insurrections were repressed, villages massacred, renegades eliminated. The suppression of Indian cultures meant hard toil and… hard killings. Native peoples vanished from the map of the New World at great speed. With each of them a culture was being burnt at the stake.

However, there is no denying that the tragic fall in the number of Indian peoples is not only the result of massacres. To a great extent it is the outcome of diseases imported from Europe, which the natives were helpless to resist. This factor is precisely emphasized by the anthropologists from Tawacin, who protest against equating Indian depopulation with genocide. « We have no doubt whatsoever », they say, « that the process of reduction of the Indian population looked as if we were dealing with genocide : if we take the North American continent and the South American continent as a basis, only a small 15 % of the Indian population from the 15th century were still alive at the turn of the 20th century. It is a huge loss […]. We do not question this evidence. What is disturbing is the interpretation which puts on an equal footing the phenomenon of Indian depopulation with such a specific form of genocide as the holocaust. It is an immense abuse to which we cannot accede. » [10] Acceding to such a way of reasoning is still more difficult to accept. Even if a majority of Indians died from an involuntary spread of diseases, it is no proof that a genocide did not take place on the American continent. The remaining 85 % which the colonization of America decimated are to be translated into 65 to 70 million people. This monstrous toll is not only statistics. It covers up tragedies caused both by diseases and crimes.


Genocide has been a centuries-old practice and reality which has not been named until recent times. The word was coined only in the 20th century, by an American lawyer, a Polish Jew, Raphael Lemkin. It was used in the Nuremberg trials to refer to the crimes committed against the Jews. In 1946, while Europe was still lying in ruins, a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations defined what was to be understood in the term « genocide ». The Convention of the United Nations on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide signed on 9 December 1948 was based on this resolution. In its first 1947 version, the Convention was planning to insert an article about ethnocide crime but it did not appear in its final version [11]. Under this Convention the neologism « genocide » was introduced into juridical language.

Here is a fragment of the Convention. The definition of genocide is contained in article 2 :

« The Contracting Parties,

Having considered the declaration made by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its resolution 96/1 dated 11 December 1946 that genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world,

Recognizing that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity, and

Being convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international co-operation is required,

Hereby agree as hereinafter provided :

Article I : The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish. 

Article II : In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such :

(a) Killing members of the group ;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group ;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group ;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. » [12]

Even though the word « genocide » was defined only after the Second World War, the Convention itself admits that genocide as a phenomenon has existed in all periods of history and brought about great human losses. It is worth wondering why such an old, popular practice had to wait for a legal definition and official condemnation only after a genocide was carried out in Europe. We can edge in the assumption that if this phenomenon did not receive a name earlier, it is because very few people felt the need to be revolted by it. The massacres of peoples carried out by Europeans on other continents — just to stick to our tradition — were rationally justified, considered to be necessary and tolerated. The fact was noticed but accounted for in other categories. They concentrated more on the profits derived from colonization than on the crimes that went along with it in hiding. Lemkin coined the word « genocide » when he wanted to define the crime committed by the Turks on Armenians, which shocked European sensitivities. Ten years earlier — Louis Sala-Molins remarks —, the Germans had slaughtered in the South-Western part of Africa 65 thousand Herero shepherds without excessively ruffling European sensitivity [13]. In the same way millions of Indians were written off as losses without an ounce of holy indignation and superfluous emotions. The sparse voices of opposition and condemnation are in no state to justify the indifference of the majority. When eventually racism produced the extermination of some six million Jews in Europe, the conscience of the Europeans started shaking, it was awakened from its ethical drowsiness and pushed to protest, at least against this genocide committed in Europe.

The authors of the article « To understand, not to judge » point out that there is many a definition of genocide, « all of them, however, presuppose two elements : the purpose of extermination of a given group must be CONSCIOUS and PLANNED, and the implementation of the task MUST imply state institutions » [14]. There are many definitions, indeed, which comes from the fact that the definition agreed upon by the Convention satisfies very few people. For some, it is all too narrow and it leaves a gaping ocean of suffering beyond the legal border meant to define the range of responsibility and… sympathy. For others, it cannot possibly be wider, since it would lead to the condemnation of countries that have no intention whatsoever to feel any guilt. The Convention on the Crime of Genocide was signed by victorious powers whose situation, at the time of signature, was not altogether clear or pure. In the United States the humanity of coloured people was not the humanity of white people, which was reflected in legal racial segregation, the sterilization of Indian women, the wiping out of Indianity in boarding schools. In the Soviet Union those who did not mature enough to humanity were massively shut up in gulags, while British people and French people crushed under their heels colonized nations whose humanity had always been dubious. In the face of such facts the definition of « genocide » had to be drawn up so as not to comprehend the barbarity that the « civilized world » tolerated. In order to appreciate the depth of the condemnation of genocide by the Convention — Louis Sala-Molins points out —, one should remember the historical context in which it came into being [15]. The definition mentions crimes committed against national, ethnic, racial and religious groups but it does not include social, political and sexual groups. The Soviet Union, who was present in Nuremberg and the United Nations, would never have agreed with such a notion. Concerning the exclusion of the policy of elimination of mentally ill people, it can be accounted for by the fear of many states of having to take their responsibilities for sterilizations carried out without the consent of their victims [16]. It is not difficult to guess, therefore, why the article about ethnocide did not appear in the ultimate version of the Convention. The consequence of the all too narrow comprehension of the definition of genocide is that, up to now, the murders of Pol Pot and the Red Khmers in Cambodia are not considered to be genocide : Pol Pot, indeed, had the fantasy to slaughter not ethnical and religious groups but his own nation. The definition of « genocide » was established under the distinct influence of the crimes perpetrated against the Jews, it also took into account the interests of the signatories, hence the result that, up to today, the notion of « genocide » is still not clear. That is why, among others, it gives rise to all manner of polemics.

The definition of « genocide » contained in the second article of the Convention does not say that actions planned, organized and carried out by state institutions are a necessary condition for genocide. The Indian Friends from Tawacin emphasize precisely these conditions in capital letters, for these conditions, in their view, allow to leave the crimes against the Indians beyond all forms of suspicion. One can easily understand the interest of European states and the United States in the wording of this definition in such and such a way that they will be redeemed once and for all from everything. It is more difficult, though, to grasp why the Indian Friends under the sign of Tawacin resort precisely and so hastily to that type of arguments in order to dismiss the genocide thesis, without getting into deeper reflection on the meaning of a definition around which so much noisy controversy is taking place. They prefer to reduce the annihilation of millions of American natives to a bacteriological catastrophe and to claim unwaveringly : « Equating the process of Indian depopulation with the holocaust is simply politicking. It belongs to our present world, a world of discourse bent on deriving economic, political, emancipation profits, etc. » [17] It is difficult to wave aside the dishonesty of this statement. It is also difficult not to notice that it stands in glaring contradiction with the exhortation of the same anthropologists not to strip the Indians of the « right to their own vision of events » [18]. It looks as if this « vision » can be granted to the Indians as long as their « vision of events » coincides with ours. Nevertheless, the truth of the conquered is not the truth of the conquerors. « If the conquered wrote the history of their own defeat », Sala-Molins says, « the winners would never suspect, when reading it, that it is the history of their own victory. » [19]

All the same, it is worth wondering whether the definition of « genocide » implying the conscious and planned involvement of state institutions absolves, indeed, colonial states from their responsibility for the crimes committed against the Indians in America. Does a crime have to take place exactly in the same conditions as the extermination of the Jews to be allowed to be called « genocide » ? In Europe a meticulous organization of the « final solution », an accurate plan, distinct orders, a discretionary bureaucratic machinery, technical and psychological preparations were needed to make the Hitlerian machine of death move and work. A centralized state was necessary, a state of emergency, the breaking out of a war and the crushing of conquered countries. Undoubtedly ingrained and fuelled antisemitism represented a necessary condition for the whole undertaking and it made it easy to perform, nevertheless planning and organizing were essential to set it in motion and carry it out speedily. Hitlerians did not inform the world public opinion about extermination camps, rightly assuming that this ignorance would facilitate roundups, deportations, not to mention the cooperation of conquered states. In this respect — Zygmunt Bauman says —, the Jewish genocide is an exceptional phenomenon. It is, indeed, a modern genocide, resting upon social engineering aiming at the creation of an ideal society and carried out with the help of modern technology and a quite efficient bureaucratic apparatus [20]. Things were different in America. Regardless of their nationality and religion, the Europeans felt entitled not only to methodically destroy the material culture of the Indians and make a clean sweep of it, to smash their economy and social tissue, but also to exterminate physically peoples whom they denied any dignity and humanity. All this resulted in massacres, lynching, tricks, handing out poisoned food, tearing apart with fighting dogs, burning to death. If there did not exist any accurate extermination plan, it was simply because there was no need for it. The death machine was set in motion and it worked by itself in a perfect manner. And the states in Europe and later in America just had to close their eyes and allow every violence. There did not exist any coherent, determined policy to put a stop to banditry, punish criminal orders and bring civilians who assassinated Indians to account for their acts. Allowing murders, tolerating murders is the same crime as organizing them. The crimes against a population are always collective crimes, committed with the consent of the state or tolerated by it. State institutions actively and deliberately cooperated in the extermination of the Indians. The army gave following orders with impunity : « Use all means to persuade the Apaches or any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray the expense of killing the Indians. » (John Baylor, 20 March 1862) [21]. « This band of Indians must be exterminated to a man. Use every available man. Scour every foot of ground and beat up all their haunts. » (Joseph West, June 1863) [22]. Governors set prices for the scalps of men, women and children, which represented a real windfall for rascals of every description looking for some sort of earning. The 1849 so-called Fifth Constitution of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico was legal permission for massacre. Regardless of their nationality, everybody could be entitled by the authorities of the state to exterminate Apaches. Legal hunting for Indian scalps was for many a more lucrative job than digging for gold [23]. Honourable citizens, with the full support of civilian authorities, organized punitive expeditions which ended up in massacres. The border press represented a tribune of hatred and racism, spurring on to genocidal expeditions. The judiciary system did not punish for either these orders or the massacres. A woman living in California remarked : « The stories alone about the injustices, the persecutions and the murders against the Indians in the last three decades along the Pacific Coast would fill in quite a few volumes and would be too horrendous to be believed in. » [24] Las Casas writes in the same vein : « Human language, news and abilities will not manage to express the appalling crimes which, in various parts simultaneously and in various times, have been committed on that land by foes of the human race. » [25] And he goes on to describe the devastation — extermination, as we would have it today — caused to the Indians : « The conquerors started to commit great crimes, to plunder, take into captivity, offend God gravely, and they keep doing it today and they have almost entirely depopulated a good three hundred miles which used to be, as I remember, so populated and lively. » [26]

The anthropologists from Tawacin do not want to regard Indians as victims. They prefer to perceive them as people who « played an active role, dominated, influenced their own destinies and the destinies of those who came to America and became their allies or their enemies » [27]. Hence, the suggestion that the fate of the Indians was first and foremost their own doing is quite near at hand. Trying to burden the victims with part of the responsibilities for the crimes is no novelty. Did the Indians really have any influence on their own fates ? Can they really be presented as the allies of their invaders in the full sense of the word ? For a very long time American natives were not aware that they were confronted with a global war waged against their race, their culture and their world. When they agreed to treaties and truces, none of which was kept, when they believed in promises thrown in the air, they thought that, in the face of constant threats hanging over them, they could rescue themselves, their families, their bands. Colonizers unfailingly took advantage of tribal rivalries to antagonize some Indians against the others and, dividing them, achieve their aims. In contrast to the natives, they were aware of their far-reaching project to conquer and submit the whole continent, as well as their global plan to eradicate indigenous cultures. It is precisely the conscious exploitation of the natives in fulfilling the destruction of the native world which exposes the organized character of the enterprise. Zygmunt Bauman thoroughly analyzes the mechanism of collaboration between the victims and their torturers during the Jewish extermination. He remarks that such a cooperation between the victims and the perpetrators of irrational pogroms would be absolutely unthinkable. Whereas their cooperation with SS bureaucrats was not only part of the plan but represented the basic condition for its efficient implementation [28]. This cooperation was obtained through coercing people who stood with their backs to the wall into making rational choices in a situation where the only option left was either life or death.

The authors of the aforementioned article eventually indicate that « the aim of [the Whites’] actions was not to murder the Indians as a human race, as was the case with the holocaust. Their aims were different, in keeping with the spirit of the time and the interests of both parties. » [29] The assumption that in the methodical destruction of their own culture and their own world the Indians had any interest is quite a weird assumption. The « party » represented by conquered or threatened peoples does not have much room for manoeuvre or much to say. Even if the aim of the conquerors was to take possession of the continent, to loot land and riches, even if they were mad with gold fever, the will to wipe out the Indians as a race was not foreign to either colonizers or army generals. « The only good Indian is a dead Indian », a maxim attributed to General Sherman, reflects the fairly popular approach to the natives. The examples are numerous of the many crimes committed against Indians who converted themselves, became « civilized », lived piously but were assassinated in the end. Converting an Indian was not enough to turn him into a human being. Ethnocide, the optimistic version of the annihilation of otherness, is the theoretical version of « kind souls » and « humanists ». In practice it looked quite differently. « Kill the Indian, save the man » was tantamount to allowing crimes. Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, a half-Indian, half-black Colombian writer and lawyer, demonstrates in her works that the official recognition of the inferiority of the natives, the policy of hatred and scorn of colonial states had to bring about the encoding in social conscience of the permission for extermination and, in the end, for genocide [30]. The author relates a shocking fact which took place forty years ago, in 1967, in Colombia. The example is so telltale that it is worth quoting it in a brief way.

Workers from the farm « La Rubiera » noticed on the river pirogues carrying 18 Indians, women and men. They struck up a conversation with them, then invited them home for a meal. When the Indians had settled themselves comfortably in front of the house, the farmers, at a given signal, started the massacre. Out of the 18 Indians, two saved their lives, managed to get back to their village and told about the crime. When, thanks to the intervention of a humanitarian organization, an investigatory commission came to the farm three weeks later, the overjoyed farmers tried to outdo one another telling who had killed whom and how, sincerely convinced that they would be rewarded for that. « Remember, Sir, that I killed this woman near the hen house and that woman not far from the kitchen. I also killed off this man near the fence : put two and a half down to me ! » During the hearings and the process, these people came back down to earth. The investigation revealed that the authors of these murders were illiterate, pious, honest peasants, sincerely convinced that theft and killing were crimes. The only thing was that since their birth they had been inculcated, just as Christians had been inculcated from generation to generation, that the Indians represented a real plague and killing them was not a sin. Throughout their lives, they saw Indians being killed like flies and it never occurred to them that it could be punishable. The defence of these people was based on those arguments. The judge himself stated : « Those who look for objective truth in this crime will find out that this is not a new phenomenon but a problem which originated in 1492 and has accompanied the whole of our institutionalized existence. » The jury acquitted the killers. « Well », Plumelle-Uribe notices with bitterness, « these poor peasants were the bearers of the culture of extermination left in legacy by Spain but they were not responsible for it. » [31] If people guilty of murders can be not guilty, who is guilty then ? During the Nuremberg trials, it was decreed that obeying criminal orders was a crime. A society consenting to a criminal ideology is guilty. The institutionalized policy of contempt, racism and hatred towards the Indians carried out in America by all colonial states, the genocidal effects of which were still exemplified in the United States in the 20th century in the sterilization of Indian women who did not suspect anything about it, or in the massacres of natives in Brazil, or in the elimination of Indians « as such » : this policy was a crime.

What is particularly shocking in the way people go about the crimes committed against American natives is the conviction openly displayed that since the Indian genocide is not officially recognized, nothing sinful really happened. Is our sensitivity able to be moved only by crimes which our laws rate among the heaviest ? It is also because of this discrepancy between the memory nurtured by native peoples of the ordeal they went through and our light-hearted approach to it that natives rush so solidly towards legal recognition of the crimes perpetrated against them. Viewing in this an activity « bent on economic profit » is a sign of blindness to everything the memory of these peoples refers to.

The rejection of the genocide thesis often goes hand in hand with a protest against the juxtaposition of crimes against the Indians with the extermination of the Jews. The anthropologists from Tawacin express such a protest. Hence the question : can we legitimately differentiate between these tragedies ? Are there not any links and similitudes between a genocide officially acknowledged and genocides which people prefer to forget about ?  

« Hitler is your demon »

Throughout many centuries Western man has fed and still feeds today on the myth of humanity emerging from barbarity and becoming more and more perfect thanks to the processes of civilization and rational action. Western culture presented its struggle for the domination of the world as a holy war of civilization against barbarity. It is commonly considered that civilized man is someone to whom all forms of brutality, violence and cruelty are foreign. From this perspective the extermination of Jews which took place in the heart of Europe is viewed as a sudden and incomprehensible failure of civilization. Ian Kerschaw expresses this conviction in the form of a question : « How is it possible that such a brutal, unprecedented collapse of civilization could happen in an industrial, modern and highly developped country ? » [32] Hannah Arendt comes to the same conclusion writing that « nazism is the collapse of German and European traditions, the good ones and the bad ones alike ». [33] The assumption that one cannot understand nazism is dangerous. If nazism is unforeseeable, every attempt to prevent such crimes becomes impossible.

Theodor Adorno, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Zygmunt Bauman have dealt with the problem in a completely different way. They consider nazism to be the consequence of European thinking and the practical implementation of some of its intellectual discoveries. Lévi-Strauss examines the issue in a very large framework. He perceives the source of great extermination wars and the monstrous destruction of cultures which are different from ours in the arrogant, aggressive conception of man coined by European humanism, according to which « man is the master and ruler of creation, and the whole rest is at his disposal »[34]. The basis of such a conception is undoubtedly the Judeo-Christian belief that man was created to God’s image and the earth was « submitted » to him. Humanistic ideas began to turn domineering man into the ultimate reference to everything at a time when faith itself was shrinking. On one hand the Church asserted itself as a political and economic power, in jarring contradiction with propagated principles, the contemplation advocated by holy texts gave way to economic activity, rituals took on a formal character and morality became hypocrisy. On the other hand, in the wake of Reformation fervour and protest against the abuses of papacy, doctrine gradually underwent free interpretation and there was a shift on to human reason. Man became the master and ruler of creation not only « as a living creature but as a thinking creature » [35]. Thanks to rational thinking and action, scientific mastery over nature, man felt capable of creating his own happiness and the happiness of others. And just as Christianity does not foresee redemption without faith, western culture does not foresee happiness without civilization. Christianity and this radical humanism made western culture exceptionally aggressive. Crusaders and conquistadors gave each other a helping hand. The discovery of America exposed this tendency. The most beautiful findings of the Renaissance, restoring the concept of value and human dignity, attributing to man the rights to which he was entitled, were all restricted to white man and denied to the peoples of America, Africa, Australia and Asia. Man as a thinking creature was limited to European man. The Age of Enlightenment did not weaken in the least this dangerous conception of man. Man found a confirmation of his greatness in rationalism, when the whole intelligence of the world was demonstrated to be contained in human reason, and science became the new cult. The scientific understanding of the world permitted rational considerations on the hierarchy of living creatures, which gave rise to the conviction that races were not equal to one another and found a quick practical application, namely the « Black Code » in reference to black people or the encomienda system in relation to the Indians. Issued in 1865 in France, the « Black Code » ascribed to Black people the legal status of movables which could be purchased, sold and liable to transactions. This legal act which deprived them of any rights stemmed from the conviction of the absolute superiority of white man, who claimed his right to analyze scientifically the degree of humanity of conquered peoples. Long before the emergence of racist theories, naturalist George Buffon drew up in the 18th century a hierarchy of races. For Buffon, the White stoof for ethical and esthetic perfection while the Black represented the degeneration of white man and was placed at the very bottom of the race scale. A similar division into a superior race and inferior races was meticulously described and justified by 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus. The conviction of the superiority of white man over the rest of humanity who were stripped of dignity and the name of humans formed the basis of European racist theories, which the scientific theory of evolution helped hatch out. The achievements of civilization and faith in reason did not allow Europeans to understand that Indian and, on the whole, native cultures were rich in most essential values.

Adorno reflects upon the essence of rationalism, German idealism and Kant’s criticism, heirs to the Age of Enlightenment, which were not free of any link with the bureaucratic and administrative Hitlerian machinery ; he comes to the conclusion that « reason is totalitarian » [36] and he asks the question whether western culture can still work carelessly after the Auschwitz experience. What Adorno considers on the philosophical level, Zygmunt Bauman analyzes as a sociologist and he demonstrates step by step that only modern, western civilization could lead to such a phenomenon as the holocaust [37]. He underlines the disparity that rationality has introduced between pragmatic action and morality. Science, technology and discoveries have become a value as such. Other values have been relegated to the sphere of private subjectivity. Thinking and doing have been subjected to the gauge of efficiency and economy. People have believed in the supremacy of efficiency calculus over ethical rules. Today they recognize professional, technical responsibility but they close their eyes to moral responsibility. Bauman formulates and demonstrates an upsetting statement : « The process of civilization rests upon liberating rationality from the influences whatsoever of ethical norms and moral inhibitions. Smothering morality is the basic condition for the success of rationalization. » [38] The moral misery of Christian civilization, as Andrzej Wala analyzed it [39], appears therefore, among others, as the result of a wider and wider abyss between spiritual culture and rational, scientific, technical civilization, being also, simultaneously, the expression of the great weakness of this culture.

Adorno and Bauman analyze the extermination of the Jews in the context of European philosophy whereas Kerschaw and Arendt deny it any tradition. But all of them turn this tragedy into the tragedy of the Old Continent. They do not envisage the implications of European thinking, or European prejudice at that, beyond Europe. These implications, yet, were perfectly noticed by ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, theologian René Guénon and, first and foremost, autochthonous peoples, who have yet to overcome the psychological and physical traumas inflicted by the European way of reasoning. The monstrosity of Western people’s actions is obvious for Aimé Césaire, a French poet from Martinique and descendant of black slaves, who exposed it in 1950 in a famous essay accusing colonialism :

« Yes, it is worth taking pains to analyze in a thorough, clinical way the conduct of Hitler and hitlerism and disclose to the very distingued, very humanistic, very Christian 20th century middle-class citizen that he is bearing a hidden Hitler inside himself without his being aware of it, that Hitler is inside him, that Hitler is his demon, and if he accuses Hitler today, it is inconsistent with any form of logic, because in actual fact if there is something he cannot forgive Hitler, it is not so much his crimes as such, crimes against man, his humiliation of man on the whole, but his crimes against white man, his humiliation of white man, the fact that he applied to  Europe the procedures of colonialists, which until then had been experienced only by Arabs in Algeria, coolies in India, blacks in Africa. » [40]  And American natives.

The ways and means of Europeans in America, Africa, Australia and Asia were accompagnied by genocide. Throughout five centuries of colonization — Sala-Molins says — Christian states perpetrated all the forms of genocide mentioned in article 2 of the Convention [41]. Consenting to the crimes had to bounce back on the Europeans themselves. This is pointed out by Andrzej Wala : « The American who says that he is not responsible for the crimes of his ancestors absolves himself only on the surface because the peace of innocence makes him insensitive to the continuation of the policy of extermination in our times. » [42] I myself wrote once : « One cannot agree to evil with impunity. The acceptance of plunder, crime and injustice was doomed to turn against our own persons. Getting accustomed to crime, overturning all values in turn, we prepared the ground for the final solutions of unique and real ideologies. One cannot reject reflection on history for fear of dogged rancor. If Western people had realized earlier the monstrosity of what they had done to American natives, if they had given the alert when their values were shaking, maybe there would not have been so easily, in the heart of civilized Europe, a new extermination. » [43]

Aimé Césaire, along with Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, notices a logical connection between the racist policy of the West towards other nations and the racist policy of Hitlerians applied to the white race. The policy of Hitlerians is the extension of the race scale scientifically worked out in Europe, from the lowest situated Black to the perfect in every respect white man. Why is it that such a classification, still prevailing in the 20th century, did not stir any indignation whereas suddenly the extension of this scale and introduction of differences in the field of whiteness, from the lowest Jew to the snow-white Aryan, became for humanistic and enlightened Europeans an absolute scandal ? Why does the juxtaposition of the fates of Native Americans and European Jews look like an abuse which one cannot agree to ? Césaire and Plumelle-Uribe pinpoint in this the hypocrisy of the West towards nazism. Trivializing the crimes and barbarity committed thoughout the centuries, implanting in itself a feeling of superiority, the West debased itself. Nazism applied to non-Aryans what the Whites, in the course of centuries, had applied to non-Whites [44].

Thus, it was necessary for the crime of genocide to be committed in Europe against Europeans to deserve a legal name and bring about official condemnation. However, one cannot help remarking that, accepting the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defining genocide and its various forms, Western powers were at the same time providing a stick which they themselves would be beaten with. Because now the whole world could learn that the « civilized world » officially considered certain practices to be criminal, condemned them and punished them. That is undoubtedly why there are so many skirmishes as to the semantic shades of meaning about the definition, for fear that the weapon which fell into the hands of massacred and humiliated peoples would not fire right away. However, this weapon was granted them : a legal basis was worked out which allows to name and point so far unpunished aggressions and cruelty. The time has come to confess that the conquest of America, the extermination of the Indians and the black trade which was one of its consequences belong to the greatest crimes of our modern times. Considering this to be « politicking, a discourse bent on deriving economic, political, emancipation profits » is an expression of the wish to trivialize, negate and cover up crimes committed for centuries against peoples guilty of not being white, Christian and « civilized ». This truth cannot be rejected under the pretext that it is no use scratching old wounds, that it is better to focus on the present and make plans for the future. It is a very convenient approach for those who draw benefits from the conquest and wish to keep the whole of its fruit. But one has to settle accounts with the past, it has to be admitted to. The « duty of memory » does not concern only the victims of the Hitlerian genocide. The crimes against humanity are not an unintentional accident. They are always state crimes. They left their brand not only on millions of people, whose life became a nightmare, but also on colonizers, grafting on them racism and scorn for man in general.

Thanks to the determined struggle of the people concerned, time has come to clear accounts. In 2001 France declared the black trade to be a crime against humanity. African Hereros won compensations from Germany. This year the United Nations recognized the rights of Indians and native nations to their own lands. The activity of autochthonous peoples aiming at stirring up the conscience of those sleeping on comfortable truths is imposing, but in their struggle these peoples must no doubt count mainly and only on themselves. Andrzej Wala stated once : « If there had not been remarkable activists and native intellectuals in the Indian world of the United States, like Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Vine Deloria Jr, Jack Forbes, Ward Churchill, Winona LaDuke or M. Annette Jaimes, if there had not been the courage and determination of people from the American Indian Movement, the National Congress of American Indians or the Native American Rights Fund, their white « well-wishers » would have done nothing to correct the wickedness of the past. » [45] It remains to be hoped that new generations of Indian lawyers, writers and activists will succeed in their fight for the recognition of their wrongs and will settle accounts with them, were it only in part, whether it be with the help of their white friends, without their help, or, should the need arise, against them.

Zofia Kozimor, September 2007

(Translated from the Polish by André Kozimor.)


1. Adorno, Theodor, Horkheimer, Max. La dialectique de la raison. Paris : Gallimard, 1974.

2. Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernité et holocauste. Paris : Éditions La Fabrique, 2002.

3. Césaire, Aimé. Discours sur le colonialisme. Présence Africaine, 2001.

4. Clastres, Pierre. « Ethnocide », Encyclopædia Universalis France, 2002.

5. Guénon, René. La crise du monde moderne. Paris : Gallimard, Folio essais, 1994.

6. Las Casas, Bartolomé. Krótka relacja o wyniszczeniu Indian. Poznań, W drodze, 1988.

7. Le Clézio, Jean-Marie Gustave. Le Rêve mexicain. Paris : Gallimard, 1988.

8. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Race et histoire. Race et culture. Paris : Albin Michel / Éditions Unesco, 2001.

9. Plumelle-Uribe, Rosa Amelia. La Férocité blanche : des non-Blancs aux non-Aryens, ces génocides occultés de 1492 à nos jours. Paris : Albin Michel, 2001.

10. Sala-Molins, Louis. « Génocide », Encyclopædia Universalis France, 2002.

11. Sala-Molins, Louis. Le Code Noir ou le calvaire de Canaan. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2002.

12. Sweeney, Edwin R. Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief. Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

13. Wala, Andrzej J. R., « Ludobójstwo podboju Ameryki. Rozmyślania nad moralną nędzą cywilizacji chrześcijańskiej ». Atlantic City, Zeszyty Naukowe PATE im. Bronisława Malinowskiego, 2007.

[1] Kairski, Mariusz, Krokoszyński, Łukasz. « Przyjaciele Indian i miłośnicy Indian », Tawacin No 76, winter 2006, p. 50.

[2] Ibidem, p. 50.

[3] Eliade, Mircea. Okultyzm, czary, mody kulturalne. Cracow : Oficyna Literacka, 1992, p. 20.

[4] Maciołek, Marek. « Dwa światy », Tawacin No 76, winter 2006, p. 3.

[5] Maciołek, Marek, ibidem, p. 4.

[6] Las Casas, Bartolomé de. Krótka relacja o wyniszczeniu Indian. Poznań : W drodze, 1988, p. 62.

[7] Bender, Thoma. « Czy Ameryka jest wyjątkowa ? », interview with Artur Domosławski, Gazeta Wyborcza, 22. 09. 2007 (www.gazetawyborcza.pl).

[8] Clastres, Pierre. « Ethnocide », Encyclopædia Universalis, 2002.

[9] « Cartas Anuas », in « Misiones Norteñas Mexicanas de la Compañia de Jesús », in Le Clézio, J.-L. G. Le Rêve mexicain. Paris : Gallimard, 1988, p. 150.

[10] Kairski, Mariusz, Krokoszyński, Łukasz. « Rozumieć, nie oceniać », Tawacin No 78, summer 2007, p. 53.

[11] Hofmann, Tessa. « Ethnocide: le meurtre d’une culture », www.yevrobatsi.org.

[12] www.preventgenocide.org.pl/konwencja.htm.

[13] Sala-Molins, Louis. « Génocide », Encyclopædia Universalis, 2002.

[14] Kairski, Krokoszyński, op. cit., p. 53.

[15] Sala-Molins, op. cit.

[16] Ibidem.

[17] Kairski, Krokoszyński, ibidem, p. 54.

[18] Kairski, Krokoszyński, « Przyjaciele Indian i miłośnicy Indian », op. cit., p. 51.

[19] Sala-Molins, Louis. Le Code Noir ou le calvaire de Canaan. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2002.

[20] Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernité et holocauste. Paris : Éditions La Fabrique, 2002, p. 143-194. (Nowoczesność i zagłada. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo literackie, 1992).

[21] Sweeney, Edwin R. Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, p. 195.

[22] Ibidem, p. 213.

[23] Ibidem, p. 76.

[24] Jackson, Helen Hunt. Un siècle de déshonneur, Paris : Union Générale d’Éditions, 1972, p. 246.

[25] Las Casas, op. cit., p. 62.

[26] Ibidem, p. 81.

[27] Kairski, Krokoszyński, op. cit., p. 50.

[28] Bauman, op. cit., p. 54-55.

[29] Kairski, Krokoszyński, « Rozumieć, nie oceniać », op. cit., p. 53.

[30] Plumelle-Uribe, Rosa Amelia. La Férocité blanche : des non-Blancs aux non-Aryens, ces génocides occultés de 1492 à nos jours. Paris : Albin Michel, 2001.

[31] Ibidem.

[32] Kerschaw, Ian. Qu’est-ce que le nazisme ? Problèmes et perspectives d’interprétation. Paris : Gallimard, 1997, p. 424.

[33] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann à Jérusalem. Rapport sur la banalité de la mort. Paris : Gallimard, 1966, in Sala-Molins, Louis, « Génocide », op. cit.

[34] Interview with Claude Lévi-Strauss conducted in 1972 by J. J. Marchand, in Claude Lévi-Strauss, a film by Pierre Beuchot, ARTE France, 2004.

[35] Ibidem.

[36] Adorno, Theodor, Horkheimer, Max. La dialectique de la raison. Paris : Gallimard, 1974, p. 24.

[37] Bauman, Modernité et holocauste, op. cit.

[38] Ibidem, p. 63.

[39] Wala, Andrzej J. R. « Ludobójstwo podboju Ameryki. Rozmyślania nad moralną nędzą cywilizacji chrześcijańskiej ». Atlantic City, Zeszyty Naukowe PATE im. Bronisława Malinowskiego, 2007.

[40] Césaire, Aimé. Discours sur le colonialisme. Présence Africaine, 2001.

[41] Sala-Molins, Génocide, op. cit.

[42] Wala, op. cit., p. 21.

[43] Kozimor, Zofia, www.cochise.com.pl, page « Le Clézio », article « Podwójny dramat podboju Ameryki » [« The double tragedy of the conquest of America »].

[44] Plumelle-Uribe, op. cit.

[45] Wala, op. cit., p. 20.


©Zofia Kozimor




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