17 The Extinction of History: How Genocide is a “Look the Other Way Affair” in the U.S.

How Genocide is a “Look the Other Way Affair” in the U.S.

James Murphy

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Murphy tackles history, colonization, and (the lack of) education in this essay. In it, Murphy asserts the importance of being aware of the United States’ history of genocide towards Indigenous peoples. This essay examines historical documents and takes into account multiple perspectives. One of the notable aspects about this essay is Murphy’s decision to include historical events that spans across various geographies in the Americas to illustrate the prevalence of colonization and genocide. Murphy engages in close reading at the level of the word to reveal how these documents expose the writers’ intentions and understandings of the Indigenous peoples they encounter. In this critique of US colonization, Murphy provides a number of calls to action that educators and the public can follow.

James Murphy


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

The Extinction of History: How Genocide is a “Look the Other Way Affair” in the U.S.

The education system in the United States fails to address the seriousness and widespread genocide perpetuated by European colonists and later American citizens. It is important that children engaged in primary and secondary school education are made aware of the United States history of genocide and cruelty towards indigenous peoples so that we can begin to mature as a nation.

In Alysa Landry’s essay entitled, “All Indians are Dead? At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children,” she discusses the lack of studies focused on Native Americans in k-12 schools today. For instance, Landry goes on to cite: “In half of the states no individual natives or specific tribes are mentioned.” This example is disturbing because it emphasizes The United States willingness to ignore Native American history.

Perhaps more telling though is the kind of history being taught to children. According to Landry, “A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context,” with very few references to treaties and land rights (Landry). Furthermore, “All of the states are teaching that there were civil ways to end problems and that the Indian problem was dealt with nicely,” with “Washington being the only state to use the word genocide in relation to Natives” (Landry).

This kind of skewed history in which genocide and the history of Native Americans is consistently brushed under the rug is however not entirely the fault of our education system. For instance, “ninety percent of all manuscripts written about Native people are authored by non-Native writers” (Landry). History is often written by the victors and so the lack of accounts from a Native perspective is not in the least bit surprising. By this token, I am somewhat sympathetic towards all the teachers and professors out there trying to penetrate the dirty waters of a history largely polluted by white perspectives.

Many of the documents written by European and American perspectives however paint a revealing and disturbing picture of how Europeans viewed Native Americans and in particular how they were treated. Historian Howard Zinn discusses how Columbus is often treated as a figure of heroic adventure in primary and secondary school textbooks as opposed to the ruthless oligarch he truly was. Zinn illuminates Columbus’s true motives by explaining how he convinced the king and queen of Spain to finance his expedition to the then undiscovered region of the Americas in search of gold. When Columbus encountered the Arawak tribe of the Bahamas, he wrote in his journal explaining that:

They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They would make fine servants . . . with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Zinn)

The words “subjugate” and “servant” are crucial here in exposing Columbus’s true motives because they allow the reader to understand him as a figure that saw the indigenous peoples of the Bahamas not as human beings but as tools that he could exploit in his conquest for gold. When barely any gold could be found Columbus had to pay dividends to the Spanish crown in some way so he, “rounded up 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children,” before picking the “500 best specimens to load unto ships. Out of these 500 200 died en route” (Zinn). These massive deaths meant nothing to Columbus and his men, who frequently inflicted horrific acts of cruel violence unto the Arawak people. Las Casas, a priest on Columbus’s expedition and a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty writes that, “The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades” (Zinn).

Another example of the cruel treatment of Native Americans comes in the form of a letter written by United States brigadier general John E. Wood in which he states that if the Cherokee do not move to a territory west of the Mississippi and relinquish their lands to the U.S. government, they “will be hunted up and dragged from,” their “lurking places and hurried to the west” (Wood). By using such words as “hunted” and “dragged,” Wood paints the Cherokee as nothing more than animals to be hunted for sport and mercilessly tortured if they do not give up the lands that they have resided in for centuries to white settlers. Wood ends his letter by describing how if the Cherokees comply with the government’s request and move west of the Mississippi, they will be provided with “rations, blankets and clothing to be furnished to the poor and destitute of your people” (Wood). In other words, the only way Cherokee could receive any kind of government aid was if they gave up the lands that they had known their entire lives, in turn sacrificing their entire history and culture associated with their lands to be owned and exploited by white settlers. The Cherokee’s refusal to remove themselves from their lands eventually resulted in the Trail of Tears in which thousands of Cherokees were placed in “temporary stockades,” forced to leave their home as captives (Garrison). On this journey an estimated “4,000 to 5,000 Cherokees…died” (Garrison).

This kind of cruelty exposes the very worst qualities of humanity and the sickening truth behind a figure often celebrated in the United States. Educators throughout the United States seem content to ignore this cruelty, to bury the worst aspects of America’s history under the rug and continue teaching as if these tragedies never occurred. Native American history Professor Gregory D. Smithers posits several reasons as to why this may be:

We live in an age of social and political polarization, an era in which some of our leaders demand a “pro-American” history curriculum for K–12 students. Ours is also a time when violence is all too commonplace in our communities, and when serious intellectual debate over historical symbols causes deep anxieties everywhere from the op-ed pages of our newspapers to college classrooms.  (Smithers)

While it is understandable that politicians and educators may fear that teaching about Native American genocide may stoke the flames of division in a modern age of polarization, this lack of knowledge “imperils rather than strengthens American democracy” (Smithers). Isn’t one of the key values of The United States freedom of speech and freedom of thought? How free is the thinking of America’s citizens if it is being manipulated and transformed to be “pro-American”? If our history lessons are dictated by lack of honest discussions regarding genocide and other Native American tragedies, students may bring “deep-seated cultural assumptions, clichés, and racial preconceptions about Native American people,” perpetuated by Hollywood films “with them when they arrive at university” (Smithers).

As a nation, a healthy response would be to come to terms with the truth of what happened. This response includes making the displacement and genocide of Native Americans a core part of the curriculum we teach our children. In order to properly apologize for the mass genocide and displacement of Native American peoples perpetuated by the United States government and early European settlers, we need to recognize that the progeny of the people we harmed still live among us today. Thus I believe is also important that we create a fund in which we pay reparations to Native Americans for the crimes we have committed similar to the “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future Fund,” implemented in Germany in 1999 that compensated individuals used as “forced labor and slave labor by private companies during the Nazi era” (Weyeneth 18). Only after completely responding in these ways may we ask for their forgiveness and have a chance to create a peaceful end to this horrible story.

Works Cited

Garrison, Tim A. “Cherokee Removal.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 06 June 2017, https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/cherokee-removal. Accessed 31 Mar. 2018.

Landry, Alysa. “All Indians Are Dead? At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children.” Indian Country Media Network, 17 Nov. 2014, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/all-indians-are-dead-at-least-thats-what-most-schools-teach-children. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.

Smithers, Gregory D. “Teaching Native American History in a Polarized Age.” The American Historian, 11 Nov. 2015, https://tah.oah.org/content/teaching-native-american-history-in-a-polarized-age/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.

Weyeneth, Robert R. “The Power of Apology and the Process of Historical Reconciliation.” The Public Historian, vol. 23, no. 3, Aug. 2001, pp. 9-38, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2001.23.2.9. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

Wool, John E. “An 1837 message from Brigadier General John E. Wool to the Cherokee Nation warning them of the consequences of resisting removal.” 1837. TS. Digital Public Library of America, https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/cherokee-removal-and-the-trail-of-tears/sources/1511. Accessed 29 Mar. 2018.

Zinn, Howard. “The Real Christopher Columbus.” Jacobin, 12 Oct. 2015, www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/the-real-christopher-columbus/. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.

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