More than 100 faculty, students, and community members gathered last Friday at Bristol Community College (BCC) for a one-day conference, “Crimes Against Humanity: Native American Genocide.” The event combined academic perspectives with Native American voices to explore the historical context of genocide committed against indigenous people as well as contemporary issues.
Columbia University professor Karl Jacoby provided a 45-minute keynote address, followed by a panel discussion with Tall Oak Weeden, Linda Coombs, Loren Spears, and Sheena Lee, who represented four of the Nations of the northeast. Following the panel, the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers led attendees in traditional social songs and dances.
The event was sponsored by BCC’s Holocaust Center, which for the past several years has developed programs focused on the Holocaust and other genocides. Director Ron Weisberger opened the event by describing the mission of the Center to “provide education on the number of genocides that have occurred — and are occurring even as we speak.” BCC President Jack Sbrega welcomed the participants and echoed Weisberger’s sentiment: “This is not a chapter, but a continuing story in the US today. The tribulations of Native Americans persist despite intentions to the contrary.”
Dr. Karl Jacoby, who taught at Brown for 10 years before moving to Columbia University, began his keynote by complimenting the organizers for the structuring of the conference. “I’m honored to share the stage with Native American communities,” he said, something that happens too infrequently at academic events.
Jacoby described the duty of the historian as being willing to “stare into the abyss,” and he recounted several first-hand accounts from the “so-called Indian Wars” of the 1870s, including a massacre of over 140 Aravaipa Apaches in Arizona which left the surviving children in a state of “wondering horror.”
“Violence both creates and destroys history,” said Jacoby. “It creates an intense desire to bear witness to transformative events. But those physically annihilated cannot recount their stories, so we’re left to contemplate the gap in historical record. That “wondering horror” persists even today. The responsibility for historians is to do what the dead could not do.”
To Jacoby, this marks an unresolved tension in the practice of history which he illustrated by turning to the definition of genocide, which, according to the United Nations, is “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Historians, he noted, rarely have access to intent, since most records only speak to external behavior. Hence, some historians describe such violence as “an accidental consequence of settler colonial policies.”
Jacoby disagrees with this approach. “Genocide is a structure, not an intent,” he said.
As an example, he turned to the question of European disease which decimated Native populations. While historians focused on this for positive reasons — among them, to diffuse the notion of European superiority — he argued that it created possibilities for deniability linked to intent (the occasions of actual disease vectors like blankets were less significant, he argued, than contact-based transmission exacerbated by food and resource induced stress). To hammer the point home, he noted, “Anne Frank expired in Bergen-Belsen from typhus. But no reputable scholar would argue that Frank died of disease rather than being killed by the Nazis.”
Nor is that the only connection between the Native American and Nazi genocides, Jacoby argued. He cited Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth, describing a through line of American influence in Germany’s extermination of the Herero in today’s Namibia to Hitler’s policy of settler colonialism in the East that “regarded indigenous inhabitants as Indians.”
For Jacoby, there is no evading the label of genocide. Responding to a question, he said, “I’m not particularly proud of how the historical profession has dealt with this issue. One of the first steps is acknowledgement. Before we can heal, we have to acknowledge. Then question is now that we have this knowledge, what do we do?”
That question was picked up by the panel, which was moderated by Michael Simpson of the Newport Historical Society, and was kicked off with an invocation led by Tall Oak Weeden which gathered the participants a circle to pray for enlightenment and for attendees to leave dedicated to making things better.
For Linda Coombs, an Aquinnah Wampanoag and program director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, making things better involves education and advocacy.
“You cannot understand American history,” she said, “Unless you have an understanding of us, and the interaction of Europeans with us. Coombs recently worked on an National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored conference at Amherst on the teaching of Native American studies. The good news is that “We had 200 applicants for 20 spots,” but the bad news: “Since it’s funded by the NEH, whether we’ll be able to offer it again remains to be seen.” She serves on the board of Plymouth 400 which is organizing around the upcoming anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing. Coombs was clear that this was not necessarily about celebrating the Pilgrims’ arrival, but rather “a national and international stage to get our message out.”
Loren Spears, a Niantic Narragansett and executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, stressed the importance of preserving history.
“When I think about the genocide of our people,” she said, “it is interwoven in who we are today.” But often in discussions of genocide, she said, the focus is on the West. “The East Coast gets erased,” she said, citing the lack of notoriety of the Great Swamp Massacre.
Nor, she argued, should the discussion be limited to physical genocide.
“Forced assimilative practices,” she said, are “cultural genocide.” The seizure of territory was “utilitarian genocide.” And “pencil genocide,” the erasure of native stories and lies propagated by education. “People get really literal, but there are these other layers. All these things are connected.” Spears also made connections to the Penobscot Nation in Maine facing water rights conflicts with the state as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline. “It’s all an attack. Indigenous people are being killed as we’re sitting here. This has to be acknowledged. Enslavement and genocide is happening today.”
Sheena Lee, Shinnecock and Montaukett from Long Island, stressed an activist response. “We’re kicking the doors off this,” she said. Settlers had been very successful in pushing natives out of Long Island, she said, describing the history of Southampton, NY. And then, the books were written by those in power determine what stories are told. “Genocide is not necessarily mass extermination of people, but also of ideas, lineage, and connection.”
Tall Oak Weeden, Mashantucket Pequot and Wampanoag, spoke of the obligation to bear witness. “We are the zoom lens that magnifies what must be seen in our culture of denial.” He described the first act of genocide in US history, the massacre of Pequot natives in Mystic on May 26, 1637. In the space of an hour, a militia led by Captain John Mason torched a Pequot village overlooking the Mystic River, burning more than 300 to death.
“The fire Mason had in his hand burned out in an hour, but the bigotry, greed, and intolerance continues to burn today. We have continued to feel the heat for 380 years,” Tall Oak said.
As an additional insult, a statue of Mason was erected on the site of the massacre in 1889. “Show me a nation’s monuments, and I’ll show you what they worship,” he said. “A nation that honors violence will always have violence.”
He urged attendees to “connect the dots,” saying, “To maximize the land taken from Native Americans, Black slaves were being brought to this country. The American Dream is constructed thus at our expense.”
Drawing connections between historical violence and that in contemporary culture, Tall Oak said, “We all share an obligation to learn the many lessons. America’s progress in this area is hampered by ignorance and hypocrisy.” The panel discussion closed with several of Tall Oak’s relatives leading attendees in the AIM Song, the anthem of the American Indian Movement. He described the origin of the song this way to a reporter: “ It was first sung at the funeral of Raymond Yellow Thunder, a Lakota. He was homeless, living in Gordon, Nebraska, and a group of young teenage boys beat him to death. When they had his funeral, many Lakota people came out, and that song was sung at his funeral. The leaders of AIM asked his family if they could use that song for the AIM national anthem. So everywhere you go where Indians are gathered, most of the gatherings end with the AIM song.” Tall Oak will be speaking on AIM at the Tomaquag Museum on Saturday, April 8.
Participants join Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers in the Stomp Dance.