We must recognize our own genocides, too.

There is still more work to be done…

It took over a century, but the United States has formally recognized the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians as a genocide. The move represents a marker of the United State’s commitment to humanitarianism, but now that it has finally happened, there is more to be recognized. 

In 1607, the first colony within the United States was founded in Jamestown, Virginia. In 1620, the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Both colonies, along with the entire United States, were populated by various Native American tribes made up of millions of people. Within a few generations of colonization, 95% of those people were murdered. The percentage of the dead is incomprehensible, but perhaps best understood by the fact that Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders make up 1.5% of the United State’s population according to Census data

While the exact amount of Native Americans killed during the colonization of the United States is unknown, it is estimated that 55 million people were murdered during the colonization of the Americas, constituting one of the largest genocides in the world. This death toll puts the United States on par with Nazi Germany, China, the USSR, the Ottoman Empire, and various other nations that have committed genocides. 

Certainly, it is hard to comprehend our role in the murders of millions of Native Americans when it is not something that has been actively taught to us. The school systems have often described our country’s relationship with Native Americans as cordial, with various lessons being taught yearly about tribes helping colonists survive the winter and plant vegetables. It, however, takes only a short look at our history and the definition of the word “genocide” to understand the true nature of our relationship. 

According to the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Although this definition is broad and contains a variety of components, the United States has committed every single act listed. The American-Indian Wars constitutes “killing members of the group,” enslaving Native Americans constitutes “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” colonists purposely spreading disease and the conditions during the Trail of Tears constitutes “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” the forced sterilization of Native American women constitutes “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” and the stealing and forced assimilation of Native American children constitutes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

With the definition met on every level, and the fact that the United States is a signatory on the very document that outlines the definition, it is impossible to dismiss the slaughter as anything but a genocide. Calling the death of millions of Native American’s anything other than genocide and refusing to formally acknowledge it would be hypocritical and put our country’s commitment to human rights in jeopardy. Something, truly, that has already been done as the government has had decades to recognize the atrocity. 

But if it is ever recognized, it is not the only genocide we have to take accountability for. 

In 1619, about 20 enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia. By 1860, there were 3,952,838 enslaved people in the United States according to that year’s census. While there is no set estimate of enslaved people that died while enslaved within the United States specifically, American slavery itself meets the aforementioned definition of genocide. The legality of killing slaves and its use as punishment for runaways constitutes “killing members of the group,” whippings and frequent sexual abuse constitutes “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” the inhumane living and working conditions constitutes “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” and the removal and sale of enslaved children from their families constitutes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Our crimes as a country are clear to see. We have killed and pillaged and raped and committed unspeakable acts of genocide. But admitting this – admitting that we were in the wrong – is not the weakness we may think it is. Acknowledging our past is one of many ways to begin correcting the pain we have caused the Native American and Black communities as a country, and it is the only way to move forward.