It is not easy to write about genocide. How can one possibly write in such a way that human tragedy should not boil down to statistics, suffering should not be converted into abstract notions and crime should not be diluted into interpretations ? It is difficult to write about genocide but it is still more difficult to accept the silence which covers up genocide.
Nowadays four crimes perpetrated in the twentieth century have been ackowledged by international organizations as pertaining to genocide : the Jewish holocaust during the Second World War, the massacre of Armenians in 1915, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 and the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. Four genocides have thus been exposed, but how many crimes have remained unnamed ? Among the tragedies which are not remembered or which people do not want to remember, there are the methodical massacres of native peoples carried out by colonial states. Among them, considering its scope and extent, the extermination of American Indians stands out in a conspicuous way. The crimes committed against the Indians still represent a gaping wound around which controversy and discussion are rife. The Indians do not harbour any doubt whatsoever that white colonizers committed genocide in the New World. This thesis, however, has many an opponent, in America as well as in Europe. One of them is Tawacin, a Polish magazine which defines itself as an « Indian Friends’ Paper ».
few anthropologists from Poznan contributing to this review and expressing
the standpoint of the editors protest against the constant accusations
levelled at Europeans and Americans for the wrongs committed against the
Indians. They reject such « an
image of the past and the present, in which all Indians have always and
everywhere been victimized » .
They consider the dichotomic differentiation between Whites and Indians as
altogether groundless : « Can
we claim that the Whites make up one species and the Indians another ? »,
they ask. « We cannot look at
the history of the New World by only confronting all the time two
senseless, heterogeneous categories (it is a form of racism !). Here
we must always resort to historical further scrutiny : who ?
where ? when ? » .
Speaking about the significance of Lévi-Strauss’s
works for anthropology, Mircea Eliade emphasized once the philosophical
approach of the ethnologist to the topics he was raising.
« Anthropologists »,
he wrote, « wasted too much time trying to recreate the history
primitive cultures, whereas they devoted too little time trying to understand
their meaning .»
In other words, they too often rejected thinking about culture in the name
of constant scrutinizing « who ? where ? when ? ».
This can be noticed in reference to « primitive » cultures as
well as ours. It is easy to pinpoint that what the anthropologists from Tawacin object to is the legitimacy of viewing Euro-American culture as Western
culture. They also refuse the right to contemplate Indian cultures in a
global way. Yet, to understand « the
history of the New World »,
one cannot be content with just reviewing historical facts, these facts
have to be grasped in keeping with a deep sense of the cultures that
existed on those lands, as well as a deep sense of the culture that
conquered them. And this implies a confrontation between a few meaningful
cultural categories. Western culture has, indeed, a certain common
denominator, just as Indian cultures also do. But this distinct common
denominator cannot be restricted, as the editor of Tawacin would have it, to « the
love of liberty and the survival instinct » .
Apart from Greek and Roman influences,
European civilization is based on Christianity, the experience of
Reformation, humanism, rationalism, the ideas of progress. These elements,
among others, made up our European, Western identity, our outlook on life,
our priorities and values. The fact that some Europeans fancy bullfighting
and some others prefer playing cricket does not really matter in the face
of this common basis which determines our way of thinking.
The same applies to the peoples who were living on the American
continent. Of course there were differences between the peoples of
MesoAmerica and the nomads from Gran
between the Pueblo Indians and the Inuits, nevertheless one can find a
common denominator for all of them. They are cultures based on mysticism
and « cosmic spirituality », resting on pure metaphysics. They
have many elements in common, with a few constants visible in each of them :
their attitude to the earth, their notion of time, the cult of the sun and
the stars, the role of myths and rituals. The absence of discrepancy
between the sacred and the profane, a sense of spirituality which never
turned into religion, shaped the identity of these people, their
priorities and their values. They did not know about such experiences that
moulded our being : the atrophy of faith, individualism, rationalism.
In 1492, the Indians met with Europeans on the American continent. It
was more than a meeting between peoples, it led to a clash between
different cultures and ways of thinking, with one of them feeling
absolutely entitled to decide about the fate of the others. From 1492
onwards, a whole machinery of destruction and death was set in motion on
these newly discovered lands. Fifty years after Europeans had landed in
the New World, the empires of the Aztecs and Purhepechas were lying in
ruins ; cities which were « more beautiful than Salamanca and
Venice » had vanished. The Indians who greeted Christians « with
great respect », interest and honours were massacred. « Because
one should know »,
Bartolome de Las Casas writes, « that
in all the countries the Spaniards stepped into, they would organize a
cruel, noisy carnage » .
The advance of conquerors and colonizers, from south to north, from east
to west, left destruction in its wake, it was synonymous with land
plundering, it meant the end of a certain world. It was lavish with
hundreds and thousands of victims.
In view of the countless destructions and massacres committed by
Europeans, and later on by Americans, Indian natives openly speak of
genocide. For the anthropologists from Tawacin,
this is an unfounded thesis, meant to derive economic and political
interests on a short-term basis. The same opinion, after all, prevails
beyond the ocean. « The
notion of genocide »,
Thomas Bender says, « has
become part and parcel of reflection upon American history, but it still
is on the margin of mainstream language.It is seriously condemned by
right-wing parties. This is one of the tragedies which Americans find
extremely hard to admit to. »
The Indians and ethnocide policy
Inasmuch as the concept of genocide lies
« on the margin of mainstream language »,
many anthropologists and historians are prone to believe that in the case
of the New World one should not speak so much of a genocide as of the
extermination of a culture. Raphael Lemkin defined the notion of genocide
as something large, a physical extermination accompanied by the wiping out
of social and political structures, the destruction of a culture and a
language. Since this extensive definition of genocide was not accepted by
the United Nations, genocide has become differentiated today from
ethnocide. Ethnocide is the methodical and planned destruction of the
culture of conquered peoples, the crushing of the social and family
tissue, the annihilation of beliefs, rituals and legends, the eradication
of language and art. Genocide destroys people physically, ethnocide
destroys their soul. When they arrived in the New World, Europeans, who
saw in their own culture the crowning achievement of all cultures, in
their own religion the source of happiness and redemption, felt absolutely
entitled to impose on the natives their values, their way of life and
their way of thinking. Indian cultures could not survive. From the 16th to
the 20th centuries, colonial states resorted to all possible means
necessary to implement the programme of destruction of indigenous
societies and introduction of their own order. They despoiled the Indians
of their lands, they forced them to work in inhuman conditions in mines
and on plantations, they sold them as slaves, they settled them in
so-called encomiendas, they banned their religious practices, they punished them for using
their own language, they viewed any attachment to indigenous values as
crime, they separated families and located children in religious
institutions with a view to breeding them in hatred of their own
traditions, they penned up people on reservations, they deported them to
lands that were not theirs. The natives were not left with any choice
between their own culture and their conquerors’. The choice they were
given was that of someone with their backs to the wall : you will
survive under the condition that you will change. For a lot of Indians,
both options meant death. « Kill the Indian, save the man »
was the motto of Europeans’ cultural terrorism. The premise contained in
it, according to which the necessary condition for humanity was
Christianity and civilization, was a horrible mistake of European thinking
for which the natives paid with heaps of corpses. Indianity was doomed to
die out. Is it necessary to bring perspectives into sharper focus to
realize that as far as the policy of ethnocide was concerned, all the
Indians were and are victims ?
Ethnocide and genocide derive from the conviction that otherness is bad,
it is a weed which must be rooted out, a monster that must be destroyed.
Juxtaposing these two practices, Pierre Clastres remarks : « The
problem is not to state which evil is lesser : the answer is only too
obvious. It is always better to have less barbarity than more. »
« Less barbaric » ethnocide assumes that godforsaken, debased
creatures can be reformed and turned into human beings. It lays a bet on
the conversion of man, so it is — as Clastres has it — the « optimistic
of the extermination of otherness. Whereas genocide, which rules out the
possibility of conversion, stands for its « pessimistic version ».
Both versions are based on arbitrary definitions of man. And both of them
are crimes. For the nazis, Jews represented absolute evil. The Indians,
according to ethnocide, were granted a chance for survival. Was it really
so and was it for all of them ? The fact that the actions of the
Whites on the American continent were aiming at the methodical destruction
of Indian cultures does not mean that they had nothing in common with
genocide. In practice, these two ways of annihilating otherness
interrelate and complement each other.
Ethnocide goes hand in hand with genocide,
genocide is implied by ethnocide. It is plan B in case plan A did not work
out, and more often than not it is carried out parallel to plan A. Plan A
had in mind to destroy the Indian soul. The snag was that the Indians
stood firmly their ground by their souls and in spite of the ultimatum
« you won’t survive if you don’t change », they did not
want to change. The history of colonization abounds in rebellions,
insurrections, revolts, escapes from plantations, from mines and
reservations. When men cannot be transformed into one’s own image, when
it turns out that they cannot be reformed, they end up being killed off.
Spanish missionaries expressed it most emphatically about Seri Indians :
long as their whole race does not die out, no peace will be possible on
these lands. »
Band after band, Indian insurrections were repressed, villages massacred,
renegades eliminated. The suppression of Indian cultures meant hard toil
and… hard killings. Native peoples vanished from the map of the New World
at great speed. With each of them a culture was being burnt at the stake.
However, there is no denying that the
tragic fall in the number of Indian peoples is not only the result of
massacres. To a great extent it is the outcome of diseases imported from
Europe, which the natives were helpless to resist. This factor is
precisely emphasized by the anthropologists from
who protest against equating Indian depopulation with genocide. « We
have no doubt whatsoever »,
they say, « that the process of reduction of the Indian
population looked as if we were dealing with genocide : if we take
the North American continent and the South American continent as a basis,
only a small 15 % of the Indian population from the 15th century were
still alive at the turn of the 20th century. It is a huge loss […]. We
do not question this evidence. What is disturbing is the interpretation
which puts on an equal footing the phenomenon of Indian depopulation with
such a specific form of genocide as the holocaust. It is an immense abuse
to which we cannot accede. »
Acceding to such a way of reasoning is still more difficult to accept.
Even if a majority of Indians died from an involuntary spread of diseases,
it is no proof that a genocide did not take place on the American
continent. The remaining 85 % which the colonization of America
decimated are to be translated into 65 to 70 million people. This
monstrous toll is not only statistics. It covers up tragedies caused both
by diseases and crimes.
Genocide has been a centuries-old practice
and reality which has not been named until recent times. The word was
coined only in the 20th century, by an American lawyer, a Polish Jew,
Raphael Lemkin. It was used in the Nuremberg trials to refer to the crimes
committed against the Jews. In 1946, while Europe was still lying in
ruins, a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations defined
what was to be understood in the term « genocide ». The
Convention of the United Nations on the Prevention and Punishment of the
Crime of Genocide signed on 9 December 1948 was based on this resolution.
In its first 1947 version, the Convention was planning to insert an
article about ethnocide crime but it did not appear in its final version .
Under this Convention the neologism « genocide » was
introduced into juridical language.
Here is a fragment of the Convention. The
definition of genocide is contained in article 2 :
considered the declaration made by the General Assembly of the United
Nations in its resolution 96/1 dated 11 December 1946 that genocide is a
crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the
United Nations and condemned by the civilized world,
that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on
convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge,
international co-operation is required,
agree as hereinafter provided :
I : The
Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of
peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they
undertake to prevent and to punish.
II : In
the present Convention, genocide means 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. » 
Even though the word « genocide »
was defined only after the Second World War, the Convention itself admits
that genocide as a phenomenon has existed in all periods of history and
brought about great human losses. It is worth wondering why such an old,
popular practice had to wait for a legal definition and official
condemnation only after a genocide was carried out in Europe. We can edge
in the assumption that if this phenomenon did not receive a name earlier,
it is because very few people felt the need to be revolted by it. The
massacres of peoples carried out by Europeans on other continents — just
to stick to our tradition — were rationally justified, considered to be
necessary and tolerated. The fact was noticed but accounted for in other
categories. They concentrated more on the profits derived from
colonization than on the crimes that went along with it in hiding. Lemkin
coined the word « genocide » when he wanted to define the
crime committed by the Turks on Armenians, which shocked European
sensitivities. Ten years earlier — Louis Sala-Molins remarks —, the
Germans had slaughtered in the South-Western part of Africa 65 thousand
Herero shepherds without excessively ruffling European sensitivity .
In the same way millions of Indians were written off as losses without an
ounce of holy indignation and superfluous emotions. The sparse voices of
opposition and condemnation are in no state to justify the indifference of
the majority. When eventually racism produced the extermination of some
six million Jews in Europe, the conscience of the Europeans started
shaking, it was awakened from its ethical drowsiness and pushed to
protest, at least against this genocide committed in Europe.
The authors of the article « To
understand, not to judge » point out that there is many a definition
of genocide, « all
of them, however, presuppose two elements : the purpose of
extermination of a given group must be CONSCIOUS and PLANNED, and the
implementation of the task MUST imply state institutions » . There are many
definitions, indeed, which comes from the fact that the definition agreed
upon by the Convention satisfies very few people. For some, it is all too
narrow and it leaves a gaping ocean of suffering beyond the legal border
meant to define the range of responsibility and… sympathy. For others,
it cannot possibly be wider, since it would lead to the condemnation of
countries that have no intention whatsoever to feel any guilt. The
Convention on the Crime of Genocide was signed by victorious powers whose
situation, at the time of signature, was not altogether clear or pure. In
the United States the humanity of coloured people was not the humanity of
white people, which was reflected in legal racial segregation, the
sterilization of Indian women, the wiping out of Indianity in boarding
schools. In the Soviet Union those who did not mature enough to
humanity were massively shut up in gulags, while British people and French
people crushed under their heels colonized nations whose humanity had
always been dubious. In the face of such facts the definition of « genocide »
had to be drawn up so as not to comprehend the barbarity that the « civilized
world » tolerated. In order to appreciate the depth of the
condemnation of genocide by the Convention — Louis Sala-Molins points
out —, one should remember the historical context in which it came into
The definition mentions crimes committed against national, ethnic, racial
and religious groups but it does not include social, political and sexual
groups. The Soviet Union, who was present in Nuremberg and the United
Nations, would never have agreed with such a notion. Concerning the
exclusion of the policy of elimination of mentally ill people, it can be
accounted for by the fear of many states of having to take their
responsibilities for sterilizations carried out without the consent of
their victims .
It is not difficult to guess, therefore, why the article about ethnocide
did not appear in the ultimate version of the Convention. The consequence
of the all too narrow comprehension of the definition of genocide is that,
up to now, the murders of Pol Pot and the Red Khmers in Cambodia are not
considered to be genocide : Pol Pot, indeed, had the fantasy to
slaughter not ethnical and religious groups but his own nation. The
definition of « genocide » was established under the distinct
influence of the crimes perpetrated against the Jews, it also took into
account the interests of the signatories, hence the result that, up to
today, the notion of « genocide » is still not clear. That is
why, among others, it gives rise to all manner of polemics.
The definition of « genocide »
contained in the second article of the Convention does not say that
actions planned, organized and carried out by state institutions are a
necessary condition for genocide. The Indian Friends from
emphasize precisely these conditions in capital letters, for these
conditions, in their view, allow to leave the crimes against the Indians
beyond all forms of suspicion. One can easily understand the interest of
European states and the United States in the wording of this definition in
such and such a way that they will be redeemed once and for all from
everything. It is more difficult, though, to grasp why the Indian Friends under
the sign of Tawacin resort precisely and so hastily to that type of arguments in order to
dismiss the genocide thesis, without getting into deeper reflection on the
meaning of a definition around which so much noisy controversy is taking
place. They prefer to reduce the annihilation of millions of American
natives to a bacteriological catastrophe and to claim unwaveringly : « Equating
the process of Indian depopulation with the holocaust is simply
politicking. It belongs to our present world, a world of discourse bent on
deriving economic, political, emancipation profits, etc. »  It is difficult to wave
aside the dishonesty of this statement. It is also difficult not to notice
that it stands in glaring contradiction with the exhortation of the same
anthropologists not to strip the Indians of the « right
to their own vision of events » . It looks as if this
« vision » can be granted to the Indians as long as their
« vision of events » coincides with ours. Nevertheless, the
truth of the conquered is not the truth of the conquerors. « If
the conquered wrote the history of their own defeat », Sala-Molins
says, « the winners would never suspect, when reading it, that it
is the history of their own victory. » 
All the same, it is worth wondering
whether the definition of « genocide » implying the conscious
and planned involvement of state institutions absolves, indeed, colonial
states from their responsibility for the crimes committed against the
Indians in America. Does a crime have to take place exactly in the same
conditions as the extermination of the Jews to be allowed to be called
« genocide » ? In Europe a meticulous organization of the
« final solution », an accurate plan, distinct orders, a
discretionary bureaucratic machinery, technical and psychological
preparations were needed to make the Hitlerian machine of death move and
work. A centralized state was necessary, a state of emergency, the
breaking out of a war and the crushing of conquered countries. Undoubtedly
ingrained and fuelled antisemitism represented a necessary condition for
the whole undertaking and it made it easy to perform, nevertheless
planning and organizing were essential to set it in motion and carry it
out speedily. Hitlerians did not inform the world public opinion about
extermination camps, rightly assuming that this ignorance would facilitate
roundups, deportations, not to mention the cooperation of conquered
states. In this respect — Zygmunt Bauman says —, the Jewish genocide
is an exceptional phenomenon. It is, indeed, a modern genocide, resting
upon social engineering aiming at the creation of an ideal society and
carried out with the help of modern technology and a quite efficient
bureaucratic apparatus .
Things were different in America. Regardless of their nationality and
religion, the Europeans felt entitled not only to methodically destroy the
material culture of the Indians and make a clean sweep of it, to smash
their economy and social tissue, but also to exterminate physically
peoples whom they denied any dignity and humanity. All this resulted in
massacres, lynching, tricks, handing out poisoned food, tearing apart with
fighting dogs, burning to death. If there did not exist any accurate
extermination plan, it was simply because there was no need for it. The
death machine was set in motion and it worked by itself in a perfect
manner. And the states in Europe and later in America just had to close
their eyes and allow every violence. There did not exist any coherent,
determined policy to put a stop to banditry, punish criminal orders and
bring civilians who assassinated Indians to account for their acts.
Allowing murders, tolerating murders is the same crime as organizing them.
The crimes against a population are always collective crimes, committed
with the consent of the state or tolerated
by it. State institutions actively and deliberately cooperated in the
extermination of the Indians. The army gave following orders with impunity :
« Use all means to persuade the Apaches or any tribe to come in
for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together kill all
the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray
the expense of killing the Indians. » (John Baylor, 20 March
« This band of Indians must be exterminated to a man. Use every
available man. Scour every foot of ground and beat up all their haunts. »
(Joseph West, June 1863) .
Governors set prices for the scalps of men, women and children, which
represented a real windfall for rascals of every description looking for
some sort of earning. The 1849 so-called Fifth Constitution of the state
of Chihuahua in Mexico was legal permission for massacre. Regardless
of their nationality, everybody could be entitled by the authorities of
the state to exterminate Apaches. Legal hunting for Indian scalps was for
many a more lucrative job than digging for gold .
Honourable citizens, with the full support of civilian authorities,
organized punitive expeditions which ended up in massacres. The border
press represented a tribune of hatred and racism, spurring on to genocidal
expeditions. The judiciary system did not punish for either these orders
or the massacres. A woman living in California remarked : « The stories alone about the injustices, the
persecutions and the murders against the Indians in the last three decades
along the Pacific Coast would fill in quite a few volumes and would be too
horrendous to be believed in. »  Las Casas writes in the
same vein : « Human
language, news and abilities will not manage to express the appalling
crimes which, in various parts simultaneously and in various times, have
been committed on that land by foes of the human race. »
And he goes on to describe the devastation — extermination, as we would
have it today — caused to the Indians : « The
conquerors started to commit great crimes, to plunder, take into
captivity, offend God gravely, and they keep doing it today and they have
almost entirely depopulated a good three hundred miles which used to be,
as I remember, so populated and lively. »
The anthropologists from
do not want to regard Indians as victims. They prefer to perceive them as
people who « played
an active role, dominated, influenced their own destinies and the
destinies of those who came to America and became their allies or their
Hence, the suggestion that the fate of the Indians was first and foremost
their own doing is quite near at hand. Trying to burden the victims with
part of the responsibilities for the crimes is no novelty. Did the Indians
really have any influence on their own fates ? Can they really be
presented as the allies of their invaders in the full sense of the word ?
For a very long time American natives were not aware that they were
confronted with a global war waged against their race, their culture and
their world. When they agreed to treaties and truces, none of which was
kept, when they believed in promises thrown in the air, they thought that,
in the face of constant threats hanging over them, they could rescue
themselves, their families, their bands. Colonizers unfailingly took
advantage of tribal rivalries to antagonize some Indians against the
others and, dividing them, achieve their aims. In contrast to the natives,
they were aware of their far-reaching project to conquer and submit the
whole continent, as well as their global plan to eradicate indigenous
cultures. It is precisely the conscious exploitation of the natives in
fulfilling the destruction of the native world which exposes the organized
character of the enterprise. Zygmunt Bauman thoroughly analyzes the
mechanism of collaboration between the victims and their torturers during
the Jewish extermination. He remarks that such a cooperation between the
victims and the perpetrators of irrational pogroms would be absolutely
unthinkable. Whereas their cooperation with SS bureaucrats was not only
part of the plan but represented the basic condition for its efficient
This cooperation was obtained through coercing people who stood with their
backs to the wall into making rational choices in a situation where the
only option left was either life or death.
The authors of the aforementioned article
eventually indicate that « the
aim of [the Whites’] actions was not to murder the Indians as a human
race, as was the case with the holocaust. Their aims were different, in
keeping with the spirit of the time and the interests of both parties. »
The assumption that in the methodical destruction of their own culture and
their own world the Indians had any interest is quite a weird assumption.
The « party » represented by conquered or threatened peoples
does not have much room for manoeuvre or much to say. Even if the aim of
the conquerors was to take possession of the continent, to loot land and
riches, even if they were mad with gold fever, the will to wipe out the
Indians as a race was not foreign to either colonizers or army generals.
« The only good Indian is a dead Indian », a maxim attributed
to General Sherman, reflects the fairly popular approach to the natives.
The examples are numerous of the many crimes committed against Indians who
converted themselves, became « civilized », lived piously but
were assassinated in the end. Converting an Indian was not enough to turn
him into a human being. Ethnocide, the optimistic version of the
annihilation of otherness, is the theoretical version of « kind
souls » and « humanists ». In practice it looked quite
differently. « Kill the Indian, save the man » was tantamount
to allowing crimes. Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, a half-Indian, half-black
Colombian writer and lawyer, demonstrates in her works that the official
recognition of the inferiority of the natives, the policy of hatred and
scorn of colonial states had to bring about the encoding in social
conscience of the permission for extermination and, in the end, for
The author relates a shocking fact which took place forty years ago, in
1967, in Colombia. The example is so telltale that it is worth quoting it
in a brief way.
Workers from the farm « La Rubiera »
noticed on the river pirogues carrying 18 Indians, women and men. They
struck up a conversation with them, then invited them home for a meal.
When the Indians had settled themselves comfortably in front of the house,
the farmers, at a given signal, started the massacre. Out of the 18
Indians, two saved their lives, managed to get back to their village and
told about the crime. When, thanks to the intervention of a humanitarian
organization, an investigatory commission came to the farm three weeks
later, the overjoyed farmers tried to outdo one another telling who had
killed whom and how, sincerely convinced that they would be rewarded for
that. « Remember, Sir, that I killed this woman near the hen house
and that woman not far from the kitchen. I also killed off this man near
the fence : put two and a half down to me ! » During the
hearings and the process, these people came back down to earth. The
investigation revealed that the authors of these murders were illiterate,
pious, honest peasants, sincerely convinced that theft and killing were
crimes. The only thing was that since their birth they had been
inculcated, just as Christians had been inculcated from generation to
generation, that the Indians represented a real plague and killing them
was not a sin. Throughout their lives, they saw Indians being killed like
flies and it never occurred to them that it could be punishable. The
defence of these people was based on those arguments. The judge himself
stated : « Those who look for objective truth in this crime
will find out that this is not a new phenomenon but a problem which
originated in 1492 and has accompanied the whole of our institutionalized
existence. » The jury acquitted the killers. « Well »,
Plumelle-Uribe notices with bitterness, « these poor peasants were
the bearers of the culture of extermination left in legacy by Spain but
they were not responsible for it. » 
If people guilty of murders can be not guilty, who is guilty then ?
During the Nuremberg trials, it was decreed that obeying criminal orders
was a crime. A society consenting to a criminal ideology is guilty. The
institutionalized policy of contempt, racism and hatred towards the
Indians carried out in America by all colonial states, the genocidal
effects of which were still exemplified in the United States in the 20th
century in the sterilization of Indian women who did not suspect anything
about it, or in the massacres of natives in Brazil, or in the elimination
of Indians « as such » : this policy was a crime.
What is particularly shocking in the way
people go about the crimes committed against American natives is the
conviction openly displayed that since the Indian genocide is not
officially recognized, nothing sinful really happened. Is our sensitivity
able to be moved only by crimes which our laws rate among the heaviest ?
It is also because of this discrepancy between the memory nurtured by
native peoples of the ordeal they went through and our light-hearted
approach to it that natives rush so solidly towards legal recognition of
the crimes perpetrated against them. Viewing in this an activity
on economic profit »
is a sign of blindness to everything the memory of these peoples refers
The rejection of the genocide thesis often
goes hand in hand with a protest against the juxtaposition of crimes
against the Indians with the extermination of the Jews. The
anthropologists from Tawacin express such a protest. Hence the question : can we legitimately
differentiate between these tragedies ? Are there not any links and
similitudes between a genocide officially acknowledged and genocides which
people prefer to forget about ?
« Hitler is your demon »
Throughout many centuries Western man has
fed and still feeds today on the myth of humanity emerging from barbarity
and becoming more and more perfect thanks to the processes of civilization
and rational action. Western culture presented its struggle for the
domination of the world as a holy war of civilization against barbarity.
It is commonly considered that civilized man is someone to whom all forms
of brutality, violence and cruelty are foreign. From this perspective the
extermination of Jews which took place in the heart of Europe is viewed as
a sudden and incomprehensible failure of civilization. Ian Kerschaw
expresses this conviction in the form of a question :
is it possible that such a brutal, unprecedented collapse of civilization
could happen in an industrial, modern and highly developped country ? »
Hannah Arendt comes to the same conclusion writing that « nazism
is the collapse of German and European traditions, the good ones and the
bad ones alike ».
The assumption that one cannot understand nazism is dangerous. If nazism
is unforeseeable, every attempt to prevent such crimes becomes impossible.
Theodor Adorno, Claude Lévi-Strauss and
Zygmunt Bauman have dealt with the problem in a completely different way.
They consider nazism to be the consequence of European thinking and the
practical implementation of some of its intellectual discoveries. Lévi-Strauss
examines the issue in a very large framework. He perceives the source of
great extermination wars and the monstrous destruction of cultures which
are different from ours in the arrogant, aggressive conception of man
coined by European humanism, according to which
is the master and ruler of creation, and the whole rest is at his disposal ».
The basis of such a conception is undoubtedly the Judeo-Christian belief
that man was created to God’s image and the earth was « submitted »
to him. Humanistic ideas began to turn domineering man into the ultimate
reference to everything at a time when faith itself was shrinking. On one
hand the Church asserted itself as a political and economic power, in
jarring contradiction with propagated principles, the contemplation
advocated by holy texts gave way to economic activity, rituals took on a
formal character and morality became hypocrisy. On the other hand, in the
wake of Reformation fervour and protest against the abuses of papacy,
doctrine gradually underwent free interpretation and there was a shift on
to human reason. Man became the master and ruler of creation not only « as
a living creature but as a thinking creature » . Thanks to rational
thinking and action, scientific mastery over nature, man felt capable of
creating his own happiness and the happiness of others. And just as
Christianity does not foresee redemption without faith, western culture
does not foresee happiness without civilization. Christianity and this
radical humanism made western culture exceptionally aggressive. Crusaders
and conquistadors gave each other a helping hand. The discovery of America
exposed this tendency. The most beautiful findings of the Renaissance,
restoring the concept of value and human dignity, attributing to man the
rights to which he was entitled, were all restricted to white man and
denied to the peoples of America, Africa, Australia and Asia. Man as a
thinking creature was limited to European man. The Age of
Enlightenment did not weaken in the least this dangerous conception of
man. Man found a confirmation of his greatness in rationalism, when the
whole intelligence of the world was demonstrated to be contained in human
reason, and science became the new cult. The scientific understanding of
the world permitted rational considerations on the hierarchy of living
creatures, which gave rise to the conviction that races were not equal to
one another and found a quick practical application, namely the « Black
Code » in reference to black people or the encomienda system in relation to the Indians. Issued in 1865 in France, the
« Black Code » ascribed to Black people the legal status of
movables which could be purchased, sold and liable to transactions. This
legal act which deprived them of any rights stemmed from
the conviction of the absolute superiority of white man, who claimed his
right to analyze scientifically the degree of humanity of conquered
peoples. Long before the emergence of racist theories, naturalist George
Buffon drew up in the 18th century a hierarchy of races. For Buffon,
the White stoof for ethical and esthetic perfection while the Black
represented the degeneration of white man and was placed at the very
bottom of the race scale. A similar division into a superior race and
inferior races was meticulously described and justified by 18th century
naturalist Carl Linnaeus. The conviction of the superiority of white man
over the rest of humanity who were stripped of dignity and the name of
humans formed the basis of European racist theories, which the scientific
theory of evolution helped hatch out. The achievements of civilization and
faith in reason did not allow Europeans to understand that Indian and, on
the whole, native cultures were rich in most essential values.
Adorno reflects upon the essence of
rationalism, German idealism and Kant’s criticism, heirs to the Age of
Enlightenment, which were not free of any link with the bureaucratic and
administrative Hitlerian machinery ; he comes to the conclusion that
is totalitarian »
and he asks the question whether western culture can still work carelessly
after the Auschwitz experience. What Adorno considers on the philosophical
level, Zygmunt Bauman analyzes as a sociologist and he demonstrates step
by step that only modern, western civilization could lead to such a
phenomenon as the holocaust . He underlines the
disparity that rationality has introduced between pragmatic action and
morality. Science, technology and discoveries have become a value as such.
Other values have been relegated to the sphere of private subjectivity.
Thinking and doing have been subjected to the gauge of efficiency and
economy. People have believed in the supremacy of efficiency calculus over
ethical rules. Today they recognize professional, technical responsibility
but they close their eyes to moral responsibility. Bauman formulates and
demonstrates an upsetting statement : « The
process of civilization rests upon liberating rationality from the
influences whatsoever of ethical norms and moral inhibitions. Smothering
morality is the basic condition for the success of rationalization. »
The moral misery of Christian civilization, as Andrzej Wala analyzed it ,
appears therefore, among others, as the result of a wider and wider abyss
between spiritual culture and rational, scientific, technical
civilization, being also, simultaneously, the expression of the great
weakness of this culture.
Adorno and Bauman analyze the
extermination of the Jews in the context of European philosophy whereas
Kerschaw and Arendt deny it any tradition. But all of them turn this
tragedy into the tragedy of the Old Continent. They do not envisage the
implications of European thinking, or European prejudice at that, beyond
Europe. These implications, yet, were perfectly noticed by ethnologist
Claude Lévi-Strauss, theologian René Guénon and, first and foremost,
autochthonous peoples, who have yet to overcome the
psychological and physical traumas inflicted by the European way of
reasoning. The monstrosity of Western people’s actions is obvious for
Aimé Césaire, a French poet from Martinique and descendant of black
slaves, who exposed it in 1950 in a famous essay accusing colonialism :
« Yes, it is worth taking pains to analyze in a
thorough, clinical way the conduct of Hitler and hitlerism and disclose to
the very distingued, very humanistic, very Christian 20th century
middle-class citizen that he is bearing a hidden Hitler inside himself
without his being aware of it, that Hitler is inside him, that Hitler is
his demon, and if he accuses Hitler today, it is inconsistent with any
form of logic, because in actual fact if there is something he cannot
forgive Hitler, it is not so much his crimes as such, crimes against man,
his humiliation of man on the whole, but his crimes against white man, his
humiliation of white man, the fact that he applied to
Europe the procedures of colonialists, which until then had been
experienced only by Arabs in Algeria, coolies in India, blacks in Africa. »
And American natives.
The ways and means of Europeans in
America, Africa, Australia and Asia were accompagnied by genocide.
Throughout five centuries of colonization — Sala-Molins says —
Christian states perpetrated all the forms of genocide mentioned in
article 2 of the Convention .
Consenting to the crimes had to bounce back on the Europeans themselves.
This is pointed out by Andrzej Wala :
« The American who says that he is not responsible
for the crimes of his ancestors absolves himself only on the surface
because the peace of innocence makes him insensitive to the continuation
of the policy of extermination in our times. »  I myself wrote once :
cannot agree to evil with impunity. The acceptance of plunder, crime and
injustice was doomed to turn against our own persons. Getting accustomed
to crime, overturning all values in turn, we prepared the ground for the
final solutions of unique and real ideologies. One cannot reject
reflection on history for fear of dogged rancor. If Western people had
realized earlier the monstrosity of what they had done to American
natives, if they had given the alert when their values were shaking, maybe
there would not have been so easily, in the heart of civilized Europe, a
new extermination. »
Aimé Césaire, along with Rosa Amelia
Plumelle-Uribe, notices a logical connection between the racist policy of
the West towards other nations and the racist policy of Hitlerians applied
to the white race. The policy of Hitlerians is the extension of the race
scale scientifically worked out in Europe, from the lowest situated Black
to the perfect in every respect white man. Why is it that such a
classification, still prevailing in the 20th century, did not stir any
indignation whereas suddenly the extension of this scale and introduction
of differences in the field of whiteness, from the lowest Jew to the
snow-white Aryan, became for humanistic and enlightened Europeans an
absolute scandal ? Why does the juxtaposition of the fates of Native
Americans and European Jews look like an abuse which one cannot agree to ?
Césaire and Plumelle-Uribe pinpoint in this the hypocrisy of the West
towards nazism. Trivializing the crimes and barbarity committed thoughout
the centuries, implanting in itself a feeling of superiority, the West
debased itself. Nazism applied to non-Aryans what the Whites, in the
course of centuries, had applied to non-Whites .
Thus, it was necessary for the crime of
genocide to be committed in Europe against Europeans to deserve a legal
name and bring about official condemnation. However, one cannot help
remarking that, accepting the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment
of the Crime of Genocide, defining genocide and its various forms, Western
powers were at the same time providing a stick which they themselves would
be beaten with. Because now the whole world could learn that the « civilized
world » officially considered certain practices to be criminal,
condemned them and punished them. That is undoubtedly why there are so
many skirmishes as to the semantic shades of meaning about the definition,
for fear that the weapon which fell into the hands of massacred and
humiliated peoples would not fire right away. However, this weapon was
granted them : a legal basis was worked out which allows to name and
point so far unpunished aggressions and cruelty. The time has come to
confess that the conquest of America, the extermination of the Indians and
the black trade which was one of its consequences belong to the greatest
crimes of our modern times. Considering this to be
« politicking, a discourse bent on deriving
economic, political, emancipation profits »
is an expression of the wish to trivialize, negate and cover up crimes
committed for centuries against peoples guilty of not being white,
Christian and « civilized ». This truth cannot be rejected
under the pretext that it is no use scratching old wounds, that it is
better to focus on the present and make plans for the future. It is a very
convenient approach for those who draw benefits from the conquest and wish
to keep the whole of its fruit. But one has to settle accounts with the
past, it has to be admitted to. The « duty of memory » does
not concern only the victims of the Hitlerian genocide. The crimes against
humanity are not an unintentional accident. They are always state crimes.
They left their brand not only on millions of people, whose life became a
nightmare, but also on colonizers, grafting on them racism and scorn for
man in general.
Thanks to the determined struggle of the people concerned, time has come to clear accounts. In 2001 France declared the black trade to be a crime against humanity. African Hereros won compensations from Germany. This year the United Nations recognized the rights of Indians and native nations to their own lands. The activity of autochthonous peoples aiming at stirring up the conscience of those sleeping on comfortable truths is imposing, but in their struggle these peoples must no doubt count mainly and only on themselves. Andrzej Wala stated once : « If there had not been remarkable activists and native intellectuals in the Indian world of the United States, like Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Vine Deloria Jr, Jack Forbes, Ward Churchill, Winona LaDuke or M. Annette Jaimes, if there had not been the courage and determination of people from the American Indian Movement, the National Congress of American Indians or the Native American Rights Fund, their white « well-wishers » would have done nothing to correct the wickedness of the past. »  It remains to be hoped that new generations of Indian lawyers, writers and activists will succeed in their fight for the recognition of their wrongs and will settle accounts with them, were it only in part, whether it be with the help of their white friends, without their help, or, should the need arise, against them.
Kozimor, September 2007
(Translated from the
Polish by André Kozimor.)
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Kairski, Krokoszyński, ibidem, p. 54.
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Sweeney, Edwin R. Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief. Norman:
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 Ibidem, p. 213.
 Ibidem, p. 76.
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 Ibidem, p. 81.
Kairski, Krokoszyński, op. cit., p. 50.
Bauman, op. cit., p. 54-55.
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 Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann à Jérusalem. Rapport sur la banalité de la mort. Paris : Gallimard, 1966, in Sala-Molins, Louis, « Génocide », op. cit.
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 Césaire, Aimé. Discours sur le colonialisme. Présence Africaine, 2001.
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Wala, op. cit., p. 21.
 Plumelle-Uribe, op. cit.
 Wala, op. cit., p. 20.