Genocide is a modern term—coined by Raphael Lemkin shortly after the Nazi Holocaust. The literal meaning of the term is race or tribe killing. The term is generally used to refer to any coordinated set of acts committed with the intent of destroying or eradicating a race or ethnic group of people.As a matter of modern international law, genocide is a crime against humanity. 

Though genocide is often associated with events like the Jewish Holocaust during World War II and Tutsi genocide during the Rwandan Civil War,  genocides have occurred throughout history and many different cultures. In the Americas, there have been two recorded genocides, both of which targeted indigenous groups. In South America, the “Conquest of the Desert” saw the demise of over a thousand indigenous Americans. In North America, the other genocide is seen through the decimation of the Native American population in the land now comprising the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The effects of genocide often leave a lasting impression on survivors. For example, the results of the 1994 Rwandan genocide include: children left without parents, children who were recruited as soldiers left to answer for the crimes they were forced to commit, homelessness, as well as victims of rape and sexual assault seeking some form of vindication. However, despite the lasting consequences, genocides have continued to take place around the world, including the recently declared genocide in Darfur during the Sudanese Civil War.


Post-Genocide Assimilation: Indian Boarding Schools

Following the war, disease, and forced migration of Native Americans, the US government began a policy of assimilation for the remaining Native American population. The result was the phrase, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Civil War veteran Captain Richard Henry Pratt coined this phrase. The policy that followed the phrase was designed to “Americanize” Native Americans by forcing Native American children to attend boarding schools. Many times, Native American children did not willingly succumb to the “education” of Native American boarding schools. Much of the supposed education revolved around removing as much of the Native American culture as possible. To accomplish this, Native American children were given new names, prohibited from speaking their tribal languages, forced to wear Western clothing and forced to cut their hair. 

One of the most famous of these boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The school began as an experiment by Captain Pratt on seventeen (17) Comanche and Kiowa prisoners. These prisoners were sent to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which would become Hampton University, one of the earliest historically black colleges and universities. As a result of their assimilation to Western ways, Pratt was encouraged to open the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which would seek to perform the same task on more Native American children. After being put through the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, many children felt “alien” in both White and Native American settings, because they were always too Native for White communities and too White for Native American communities. This result is especially problematic, given Pratt’s reasoning for developing the school. In order to convince tribal leaders to send children to Carlisle, he told them that the reason they kept losing land to White Americans was because they were uneducated. However, even after leaving the schools, Native Americans were no better off in American society. The sacrifice of assimilation into Western culture meant that the children were taken from their families and forced to learn another language and conform to other behavior only to be rejected by both family and society.


American Genocide: The Decimation of the Native American Population

In the United States, the most notable genocide is the one that was committed against the Native American tribes living here before the arrival of European colonization. In 1492, the year Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the estimated population of the United States and Canada is between seven (7) and twelve (12) million. This population decreased, resulting in a population of approximately 250,000 people in the decade between 1890 and 1900. The most current estimate of the Native American population in the United States shows that the proportion of Native American people has dropped to about 1.2 percent of the total population, which is approximately 3.7 million. The number is even worse for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, who make up 0.2 percent of the total population, a little over 623,000. Comparatively, White Americans make up 78.1 percent of the US population, Black Americans make up 13.1 percent, and Asian Americans make up 5 percent. Hispanic/Latin@ people are not considered a separate race, but with all races accounted, they make up 16.7 percent of the US population. These numbers indicate that the groups originally inhabiting what would become the United States now comprise the smallest percent of its population.

The decimation of the Native American population in the United States came about for a number of reasons, including: disease, warfare, forced migration and removal. The arrival of Europeans to North America meant the arrival of new diseases. One of the most fatal of these diseases was smallpox, which not only devastated populations in the British Colonies, but also killed a large portion of the Aztec and Inca in Mexico. In terms of warfare, there were numerous battles that took place during the settling of the United States, including: the Tigeux War, the Powhatan Wars, the Pequot War, the Mystic Massacre, King Philip’s War, the Pueblo Revolt, King William’s War, the French and Indian War, the Tuscarora War, the Yamasee War, the Cherokee Uprising, Pontiac’s Rebellion, Lord Dunmore’s War, the Chickamuaga Wars, and the Old Northwest War, which all took place before 1800. In regards to forced migration and removal, the most notorious is the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was part of President Andrew Jackson’s Native American removal policy. The US government forced the Cherokee nation to relinquish its lands east of the Mississippi river and to migrate to what would become Oklahoma. This migration took place on foot, and resulted in the death of over four thousand (4,000) of the fifteen thousand (15,000) Cherokees who were forced to march.


Rape and Sexual Assault: Genocide’s Gendered Face

The stories from different genocides vary depending on the who, what, when, where and why. However, there is one thing common amongst all genocides: sexual violence. During the Holocaust, Jewish women were forced to become prostitutes to the Nazi soldier who armed the concentration camps. During the genocide in Rwanda, rape was used as a tool of genocide against the Tutsis, with the number of rapes being estimated between two hundred and fifty thousand (250,000) and five hundred thousand (500, 000) rapes. Rape also took place during the Armenian Genocide,  the genocide against several ethnic groups in Darfur, during the Bosnian genocide, and during the Civil War in the Congo.  The use of rape during times of war is not uncommon, and has affected both soldier and civilians. Yet, the use of rape coupled with genocide leads to long-term pain, and may set a violent precedent. The history of rape in the United States against Native American women has preceded the current high rate of rape and sexual assault against Native American women. While the genocide of Native Americans may not have caused the current high rate of rape and sexual assault against Native American women, there is no denying the long history of violence against Native American people in the US and the use of sexual violence during the Native American genocide

In 2007, the US Department of Justice found that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Injury Prevention reported that one in three American Indian women have been raped and that more than one in three have experienced domestic violence. More specifically, 34.1 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives have experienced and attempted or completed rape at some point in their lives. Comparatively, 10.6 percent of women reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives. For Hispanic White women the statistic falls to 11.9 percent, for non-Hispanic White women the number is 17.9 percent, and for Black women the number is 18.8 percent. Compounding the issue is that while most rapes occur within racial groups, for Native American women, this trend does not stand. For Native American women, eighty-six (86) percent of offenders are not Native American. Seventy (70) percent are White. In addition, the Department of Justice, who has jurisdiction over Native American reservations, did not prosecute sixty-five (65) percent of the rape cases on Native American reservations in 2011. For a group of people who have suffered violence on their ancestral land since the arrival of the Pilgrims, these statistics are particularly grim, leaving only hope for a better future.