Cultural Genocide in the 20th Century

by Cole Bates

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Marsha Weisiger. Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country. University of Washington Press, 2011.

Douglas K. Miller. Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century. The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Brianna Theobald. Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century. The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

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Genocide is a relatively new term in history, with its origins coming out of World War II. Within Native American history there is a contentious debate on whether the term can be applied to the United States’ treatment of the Indian population. The “genocide debate” is usually centered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the field has not reached a consensus on deeming the actions genocidal or as acts of ethnic cleansing. Many Native voices that have been featured in historical writings from the time periods understand the actions through what present-day historians would call genocide. While most of the debate is centered within that timeframe, the twentieth century atrocities committed against Native Americans are rarely included in it.

Although widespread military actions against Indians had ended following the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, the United States government reassessed their policies. Most Native Americans across the country were confined to the reservation system and the federal government settled on pursuing assimilation over the policy of outright killing. The interpretation of assimilation policies by historians of Native Americans in the twentieth century is through the term cultural genocide, as Indians that experienced these policies described them as an extension of the actions taken upon their ancestors by the United States. Cultural genocide typically refers to the destruction or repression of a specific group’s cultural identity. Each of the three works reviewed here describe different instances of cultural genocide committed against the Native Americans by the United States.

Marsha Weisiger’s Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country is a microhistory focused on the 1930s New Deal era Navajo livestock reduction program. She examines these policies and the effect it had on the Navajo through the lenses of environmental history, Native American history, and gender history. By tracing the history of Navajo pastoralism throughout their history in the region, Weisiger proceeds to show the arguments of both the Navajo and the federal government. Ultimately, she argues that both groups were at fault and different measures could have been taken by both sides to save the land from climate change and overgrazing; however, she does side with the Navajo on the aspects of cultural genocide.

Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country is divided into nine chapters that are organized within four thematic sections, bookended by modern aspects in the prologue and epilogue. Part one contains brief discussions on the major conflicts over the livestock reduction policy, but essentially serves as an introduction to part four. Part two discusses the cultural traditions of the Navajo in the realm of gender roles and cosmology. Part three includes a history of the Navajo’s relationship to livestock and explains the science of overgrazing and its effect on soil erosion. Part four serves as the main thrust of the work as Weisiger discusses the livestock reduction program in detail from its inception to its dismantling. Within all four parts, Weisiger evidences her arguments through the voices of federal officials, anthropologists, soil experts of the time, and Navajos on both sides of the rift.

Parts One and Four argue that the New Deal livestock reduction program had not actually helped the deteriorating land, but also devastated the Navajo people culturally and economically. The federal government had levied the entire blame of the environmental issues on the Navajo grazing methods and attempted to educate the Navajo on the “correct” modern American methods.[1] Weisiger explains that the livestock reduction was divided into two phases, the first being a voluntary program, and the second a mandatory program that came with intense regulations. The voluntary program was poorly executed and resulted in herds of livestock being openly and cruelly executed in front of their owners, while the carcasses were left to rot. Not only did the Navajo care deeply for their animals, but they also relied on them for subsistence and trade. The resulting poverty, especially amongst subsistence herders, was a direct result of the reckless program and caused many Navajo to lose faith in the Indian Reorganization Act and ultimately turn on John Collier.[2]

The mandatory phase was the most blatant attempt of cultural genocide as the federal government began ruling the reservation through “enlightened despotism” after the broken promise made by Collier to expand the reservation boundary in New Mexico.[3] With a static boundary, Collier began programs that included breeding programs to make sheep offspring more commercially valuable, created fenced boundaries to stifle mobility, and even social engineering to create a more “equal” Navajo society by issuing grazing permits. The programs caused extreme poverty reservation-wide and destroyed aspects of Navajo culture such as mobility/freedom, the economic autonomy of women, and familial legacy built on wealth of livestock.[4] The Navajo tried to resist the programs through organized protests and even threats of armed resistance, but nothing really changed until the United States entrance into World War II in 1941-1942.

Indians on the Move by Douglas K. Miller is a broad scoped approach to Indian relocation programs created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the termination era and how Indians adapted to the push for urbanization. Miller organizes his work into six chronological chapters spanning from the nineteenth century to the 1990s, with the specific focus on mid-twentieth century. Methodologically, Miller discusses the theme of Indian mobility, indigeneity, and adaption in response to government relocation policies. His major argument is Indians survived relocation and the policy would ultimately be a positive outcome for Native Americans in the end, despite the broken promises and attempts at assimilation by the federal government. He proves his argument throughout the work by including numerous accounts of Indian lived experiences.

Chapters One and Two cover the years before relocation policy was implemented and discusses early Indian voluntary migration to urban areas and highlights the importance of Indian mobility. Chapters Three and Four display the relocation policies in action and discusses the inefficiency of the government, but also stresses individual Indian self-determination created a “sink or swim” situation with many Indians integrating into urban areas. Chapter Five addresses the drawbacks of the relocation program on Native Americans, with Chapter Six serving as the aftermath of the programs and the state of Indians in both reservations and urban areas.

Miller largely continues his main argument throughout the work and begins by explaining that Indians had always chosen to be mobile throughout history and thrived in urban areas, referencing Cahokia, the Great Depression labor programs, and World War II era manufacturing jobs in the first two chapters. The main thrust of his argument comes in the middle chapters when discussing termination era. Miller argues that both Indians and the federal government wanted Indian migration to urban areas, but for conflicting reasons. The Indians wanted economic opportunities, while the federal government largely wanted cultural assimilation and to cut federal expenditures on reservations in the face of the Cold War.[5] By relocating Indians, the federal government had attempted to link termination and relocation policies, but Native Americans continued to strengthen and rely on reservations through their mobility.[6]

Despite the government’s attempt to isolate Native Americans by trying to sever their ties to their land and culture through threats of termination (resulting in poor reservation economies) and pushing assimilation into American gender roles and familial roles, Miller argues that the program solidified Indian self-determination.[7] Indians were given false promises by the government during relocation, but Indians shaped their own experiences through self-determination. Many gained vocational or academic educations in urban areas, as well as education on how to integrate into white society, which gave firm grounding for the various Indian movements to improve not only urban opportunities, but also the lives of their kin that remained on the reservations.

Brianna Theobald’s Reproduction on the Reservation is a multi-scoped discussion of pregnancy and childbirth on reservations in the twentieth century. The work is organized into six chronological chapters that alternates between Crow history and broad government Indian policy. Although Theobald offers multiple arguments in her introduction, the common argument throughout is colonialism shaped Native reproduction experiences that crossed into the realms of cultural genocide and legitimate genocide by the 1970s. She proves her claims by using Native history on culture, government documents and statements, and the voices of prominent Native women throughout the work.

Chapters One and Two cover the history of Crow reproduction practices on the reservation and government intervention to change these practices through government funded education and hospitals. Chapter Three discusses the reality of reservation hospitals, while Chapter Four discusses the reality of urban Indian reproduction. Chapter Five encompasses the termination era and the influence of Susie Yellowtail, while Chapter Six contains the resulting Red Power Movement activism of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Women of All Red Nations (WARN).

Theobald’s major argument in Chapters One through Three mainly focuses on the colonial mentalities of the federal government to reshape traditional Indian reproductive practices, including both birth and childrearing. She focuses on the Crow tribe specifically to demonstrate the picture of early reservation life and explain the traditions. Typically, women on reservations would give birth in spiritual areas with the assistance of midwives, which allowed women to have significant amounts of autonomy in reproduction. Women chose freely whether to have an abortion and how to raise their children. “Flexible childrearing” is a term Theobald introduces here explaining that children were raised by all the people in the tribe to create ties of kinship.[8]

Despite the poor conditions on the reservations caused by the federal government, the Office of Indian Affairs faulted high infant mortality rates on Indian women and pushed for “scientific motherhood.” Indian women on the reservation were pushed to give birth in hospitals and participate in paternalistic classes to learn how to parent correctly, while midwifery, abortion, and flexible childrearing/adoption traditions were abhorred by the government.[9] Indian women approached these programs differently. Some wanted to continue strictly using traditional practices, while others selectively chose which of the programs would benefit the health of themselves and their child the most.[10] However, many women experienced poor treatment in the reservation hospitals. Theobald displays this by showing instances of condescension, understaffed/undertrained doctors, and even cases of forced sterilization. However, Theobald does acknowledge that some women chose to be sterilized on their own volition, but many others were sterilized without their knowledge or complete understanding of the procedures.[11]

Once termination policy became the federal obligation, the reservation hospitals they had been forced to depend on decades before were in jeopardy of being terminated.[12] The fear that the Crow reservation would lose their hospital caused Susie Yellowtail and several other prominent women to form the Crow Health Committee to continue to advocate for the treatment of reservation women, as well as migrating urban Indians.[13] Beginning in the mid-1960s, government health officials began being actively involved in family planning services of Indian women, resulting in a push for birth control methods. Accompanying the increased involvement came accusations of coercive sterilization being perpetrated by physicians at reservation hospitals. Theobald explains that coercion occurred both directly through scare tactics and indirectly through the lack of options available to reservation women.[14] As a result, by the mid-1970s, Women of All Red Nations, proclaims that the federal government had been using “healthcare as a vehicle for genocide,” citing the 1948 UN definition of genocide.[15] Investigations showed WARN was not off base about the coercive sterilization accusations and regulations were implemented in 1979.

All three authors agree that Native Americans in the twentieth century had experienced some form of attempts at cultural genocide, although with different interpretations. The United States government had committed atrocities against Indians in ways different from the previous century, but the overall intentions were very much the same. The common themes of Indian adaptation and resistance accompany the attempts of cultural genocide are apparent across all three works.

 Through the lens of adaptation, Douglas K. Miller’s arguments are the strongest. As Miller traces Indian mobility throughout history, he shows how Natives had always been adept at being able to adapt to their situations. This is evident by his references to Cahokia and explaining how the urban mecca had eventually disintegrated and Indians diffused throughout the region and used different methods to facilitate trade. He continues this thread by showing that even in poor economic times before relocation policy, Indians returned to traditional mobility to better their socioeconomic situations during the Great Depression and World War II. Indians during this time moved to places in need of work and filled those roles and returned to the reservation as they pleased, this is also apparent in the Indians that chose not to return and integrate into those urban areas. Relocation was not a new idea amongst Native Americans, but they reaped what benefits they could, and many enriched their lives by adapting to urban environments and using the knowledge they acquired to better the lives of all Indians. Theobald makes a similar argument when discussing the introduction of reservation hospitals and the increased access to healthcare. Women adapted to walk a line between traditional health practices and “modern” healthcare and selectively participated in programs that would benefit them. This is most notably seen in Theobald’s discussion of birth control methods. Many women chose to use contraceptives and adapted to this policy as they created their own lives without having to be discriminated against for having too many children or even being single mothers. However, Weisiger’s argument on adaptation is the weakest. She discusses situations where certain Navajo supported the livestock reduction program and argues that they had adapted to the new reality of their world. However, these adaptations do not fully explore the actual level of adaptation. Many of the tribal councilmen supported the measures because of coercive threats but did not adapt to the policy in action. They were impacted just as much as the rest of the Navajo as their herds were also decimated as well as having their freedoms limited too. They may have agreed that something needed to change to save the state of their land, but they did not adapt to meet these ideas.

On resistance, all three works are very strong. Although Weisiger’s work is mainly set in the New Deal era, the Navajo resisted the livestock reduction program in a few different ways. To fight back against the policies, wealthy Navajo leased off-reservation land to keep excess livestock, but Weisiger’s strongest argument takes place during Fryer’s reign over the reservation. As the enforcement of grazing permits increased, Navajo across the reservation attended organized protests and even took direct action. Instances of physically assaulting reservation riders, burning permits, and even disrupting legal proceedings occurred. These actions of resistance eventually led to Collier scaling back permit enforcement. Both Miller’s and Theobald’s arguments of resistance come from a different era than Weisiger’s, but they are just as strong. In both cases, Indians selectively participated in what was best for them despite government insistence. This is seen in Theobald’s work in instances where Crow women would use the excuse of logistics to explain why they gave birth at a place of their choosing when government officials would heavily push for a hospital birth. Miller relatively argues the same thing, but in a different context by showing Indians resisting union support and negotiating their workplace accommodations themselves. Miller and Theobald both argue that the experiences Indians experienced during the termination era influenced the organized resistance of various arms of the Red Power Movement.

Within the context of interpreting cultural genocide, both Miller and Theobald make strong arguments that the actions the United States government took were ultimately conducted through negative intentions. In Miller’s work, he argues that the intention of relocation to finally rid the United States of the “Indian Problem.” This is evident through the propagandistic pamphlets that the government circulated to Indians that portrayed reservation Indians in despair and highlighted the benefits of urban relocation. The poor situation on reservations was directly caused by the United States government and was allowed to continue through willful neglect. By pushing Indians from reservations, the U.S. would assimilate them into white society resulting in the disappearance of Native culture. The United States had aims to reclaim the lands that reservations were on and would appear like a cohesive society during the Cold War, as well as save money that could be used on defense spending. Theobald’s argument revolves around reproductive justice. Her major argument on cultural genocide claims that the United States government was attempting to assimilate Native Americans into American conceptions of family structure and then into broader American society following the termination of the reservation system. From the early twentieth century forward, Theobald shows evidence of government authorities attempting to shape Indian family life into one that matched the typical American family. Crow adoption and childrearing policies were seen as backwards and attempts to abolish them were undertaken. However, the calls for birth control measures were to limit Indian family size and the attempts to create nuclear Indian families in urban areas are the most significant examples of cultural genocide.

Weisiger’s arguments take a much different perspective than both Miller’s and Theobald’s. While she does agree that cultural genocide was committed against the Navajo through governmental policy that completely shifted their gender dynamics and regulated lands and livestock (both of which were sacred to the Navajo), she argues that it may not have been completely intentional. Weisiger takes the position that Collier’s policies had good intentions but were undertaken in the wrong way. Collier verbally supported Indian self-determination, but a simple misinterpretation of Navajo social structure set everything in the wrong direction, per Weisiger. On numerous occasions throughout the work, she levies equal blame of the situation on the Navajo and the government authorities and charges that situation was due to stubbornness on both sides without a will to compromise. Acknowledging the failure and unjustness of the program, she argues that a theoretical middle ground could have been found if both sides had listened to each other. However, she gives too much credit to John Collier’s “good intentions” and includes several pages discussing his regret for how everything turned out.

When acknowledging the horrible actions taken by the federal government against Indians, it is important to discuss the violent actions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that took the lives of Indians, but also the assimilation policies that attempted to destroy Indian culture. All three works discuss governmental actions of cultural genocide conducted against Indians, while only two do this well. The future scholarship on cultural genocide within the field needs to follow the methods of Douglas K. Miller and Brianna Theobald. By acknowledging the lived experiences of Indians that endured the government’s assault on their culture, Indian agency in history will grow substantially. However, by dismissing these claims and giving credit to the system that instituted cultural genocide, a disservice is done unto the twentieth century experiences of Native Americans. The works of Weisiger, Miller, and Theobald move the field forward to form a more complete depiction of the treatment of Native Americans throughout American history.

[1] Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 164

[2] Ibid, 176-181.

[3] Ibid, 181-185.

[4] Ibid, 193-196, 204-205.

[5] Douglas K. Miller, Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 69.

[6] Ibid, 93.

[7] Ibid, 137, 176.

[8] Brianna Theobald, Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 26-30.

[9] Ibid, 44, 54-59.

[10]  Ibid, 64-66, 77.

[11] Ibid, 78-80, 89-95.

[12] Ibid, 123-124.

[13] Ibid, 141.

[14] Ibid, 157-159.

[15] Ibid, 163.

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