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'Genocide was at work here'

Mass killing not the only way to destroy indigenous peoples

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North America has had its own genocides, scholars from across the continent and from the UK agreed last month when they gathered at the University of Manitoba.

Some reserve the term for instances of mass killing, such as that experienced by the Modoc in 1850s Oregon and California. Disease, displacement and violence reduced the population of this indigenous group by as much as 88 per cent, California historian Benjamin Madley reminded participants at the Colonial Genocide and Indigenous North America workshop.

However, a sizable proportion of the workshop's experts in history, anthropology, sociology, law, political studies and native studies also applied the term genocide more broadly to multiple strands of the colonial assault on indigenous peoples. These include land expropriation, assimilative schooling, forced removals, imposed government restructuring and buffalo annihilation.

This move follows a couple of trends in genocide studies.

First is renewed interest in the work of Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the term genocide. Lemkin's conception of genocide and his notes for a planned encyclopedic volume on genocide show that he considered relevant North American cases, including those involving so-called cultural genocide.

Second, Australia's "history wars" of the past few decades demonstrated a vibrant public discussion can evolve out of such questions and advance public knowledge of the destructiveness of colonial interventions into aboriginal lives.

Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is wrestling with these very issues with respect to Indian residential schools.

"I cannot see any other conclusion but that genocide was at work here," he said at the close of his keynote address to the University of Manitoba workshop.

When asked what value there is in referring to residential schools as genocide, Justice Sinclair replied he was following the lead of survivors, who describe what they experienced as genocide. He said survivors are "demanding something be acknowledged around it before they are prepared to go forward with the issue of reconciliation."

In previous decades, many aboriginal people referred to their nations' experiences of genocide, but only a handful of scholars embraced the term. Today, genocide conferences feature multiple sessions dedicated to colonial genocide, and the 2014 meetings of the International Association of Genocide Scholars will be held in Winnipeg, where Canadian and other indigenous cases will feature prominently.

The reason for this rise in legitimacy is the understanding that genocide is first and foremost about the destruction of group life. The survival of a group is a product of local factors -- not solely the lives of group members, but also their languages, cultural practices, governance structures and territories.

Too often in the past, the tendency has been to look at genocide through a European lens. In particular, we have focused on the loss of individual life, rather than the destruction of group life. Our workshop sought to understand those relationships that allow a group to persist and re-create itself on a day-to-day basis.

Genocide disrupts these dynamic processes of interaction, cultural transmission and self-definition. The colonial powers viewed indigenous peoples as an obstacle to land acquisition and nation-building on the continent. A variety of culturally and physically violent tactics were implemented to try to destroy these groups so they could be replaced by expanding new nation-states.

Until Canadians confront how the emergence of our nation impacted and continues to impact those already here, we are far removed from reconciliation.


Andrew Woolford is a sociology professor at the University of Manitoba. Jeff Benvenuto is a PhD student at Rutgers University-Newark in the division of global affairs. Alex Hinton is executive director of the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights and a professor of anthropology and global affairs at Rutgers University-Newark. Together they organized last month's international workshop on Colonial Genocide and Indigenous North America.


The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to .

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 J12

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