By Norman Lambert
The recent observance of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide and the denunciations of Turkey for not owning up to it raises a host of questions. While we ask Turkey to acknowledge what most of us believe is a well-documented act of genocide against Armenians, when will we call for the same taking of responsibility by U.S. citizens and their government for the genocide we perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of our own country?
American exceptionalism has allowed us to lay waste to the indigenous human inhabitants of our country because they were better off dead than living life as a savage brute. What could’ve made us so brazen? Land. Desire for land made colonial America drive the Indians off of their land.
In the 1500s, there were 100 million indigenous people living in the American hemisphere, with about 40 million living in the United States and Mexico. What we do not acknowledge is that the indigenous people cultivated their land every bit as well as the European farmers. The basic element of the Indian’s diet was corn.
The cultivation of corn in Mexico dates back 10,000 years. Corn cultivation was taking place throughout the United States when the Jamestown settlers arrived on our shores. In 1669, a traveler in French-occupied North America noted that six square miles of cornfields surrounded each Iroquois village that he saw in his travels. Also, the governor of that territory reported in the 1680s that a military raid destroyed more than 42,000 tons of corn belonging to four Iroquois villages.
The Indians also managed buffalo and deer, two essential parts of their diet, by maintaining their habitats to provide a ready source of meat and hides. They cleared underbrush in forests close to their villages to encourage herds of deer to remain there and prosper.
Two hundred years later, after countless “Indian Wars” as recorded by the War Department, the North American Indian population, which started at 100 million, was down to 10 million, a drop of 90 million. The survivors were put on reservations, requiring government subsidies to live because they no longer had land suitable for farming. Their buffalo were all but wiped out as a byproduct of the building of the intercontinental railroad.
Some have said that the Indians died off because of their lack of immunity to European diseases. This definitely was a factor, but counting the recorded numbers of men, women, children and the elderly viciously slain by federal troops, raiders and militia puts the lie to the “disease theory.”
President Andrew Jackson, when he was a general at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and after killing 800 of the Indian warriors and only losing 49 of his own troops, said, “The fiends… will no longer murder our women and children…How lamentable it is that the path to peace should lead through blood and over the carcasses of the slain! But it is in the dispensation of that Providence, which inflicts a partial evil to produce general good.”
As President, Jackson directed the Second Seminole War, led by General Thomas Jesup, who later stated that “the country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.” In fact, the Seminoles were never defeated and have remained in the Everglades up to today.
In other words, when you displace the owner of a piece of land who has been there several thousand years, and he resists you, then you have to murder him, and his women, children and old folks, so that you can have his land and know that in your heart it was the right thing to do.
California started with 130,000 Indians in the 1500s. Twenty-five years after the gold rush, the Indian population was a mere 30,000. More than 100,000 California Indians had been killed. That works out to 11 Indians killed every day for 25 years.
So, is it time for us, the citizens of the United States, to look at our own history of genocidal actions and admit that we are guilty, as is Turkey, of not admitting the obvious? Ours started in the mid-17th century, Turkey’s in the early years of the 20th century. By all rights, maybe we should go first.
Norman Lambert has lived in Fresno since 1989. He has an advanced degree in theology and taught Bible literacy for a number of years at a local adult school.