Why Indigenous Lives Should Matter

In the United States, we live in a “post-genocide” society, whether or not we are cognizant of this fact or not. What do I mean by that? In order for the United States to have fulfilled its so-called “Manifest Destiny”—the divine right to conquer the lands west of the Mississippi River—we needed to wipe out the remaining Native Americans living on western lands. The idea was coined by the journalist John O. Sullivan in 1845when he stated: “…In the spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Today, unfortunately, many indigenous peoples are still broken because of this past genocidal history. Native Americans were put on reservations, their lands were stolen, and their cultural heritage was dismissed and eradicated through the boarding school system.

Those Natives currently living on reservations do so forty to sixty-percent below the poverty line. While Native Americans are also 82% more likely to die from suicide than Caucasians and 177% more susceptible to diabetes and alcoholic problems endemic. Statistically, more than a quarter of American Indian and Alaska Natives are more likely to live in poverty, more than double the general population, and more likely to experience violence and traumatic events than other populations.

On Pine Ridge Reservation among the Lakota and Oglala Sioux with a population of about 20,000, there are 11,000 cans of beer consumed per day and 4 million cans per year from nearby Whiteclay, Nebraska. As one Lakota-Sioux woman described it: “Whiteclay is a hole…It’s been based on liquid genocide for generations.” As such, trauma causes alcoholism, and to many Sioux people, the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre at Pine Ridge, has been an ever-occurring trauma and was highlighted by the American Indian Movement (AIM)occupation in 1973 as protest to the past violence as well as Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) inequities.

Yet, the United States has not been alone in its maltreatment of its indigenous populations. For example, Australia, Brazil, and Canada, have similar histories of genocide against their aboriginal peoples. In the cases of Australia and Canada, like the United States, are only recently coming to terms with their genocidal histories. While Brazil is still massacring its indigenous peoples in favor of agro-businesses, cattle ranching, hydro-electric dam construction, timber extraction, mining and oil operations, and other development schemes in Amazonia.

There is a psychological pattern which follows on from massacres of indigenous peoples, which is suffering from alcoholism, child neglect, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. Moreover, there is increasing evidence demonstrating an epigenetic association of transgenerational trauma, that is traumatized parents genetically passing on trauma effects to their children. The trauma of the external is internalized, scarring populations for years.

This was the case among the Oombulgurri people in northwestern Australia and the “Forrest River Massacre” of 1926 when 30 aboriginal Oombulgurri people were murdered by white settlers. The remaining population suffered from alcohol abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and suicide. The history of aboriginal massacres throughout Australian history may be characterized as “conspiracies of silence”. The countless tragic murders were covered up, bodies burned, evidence falsified, not discussed, or witnesses just disappeared, which became known as the “Great Australian Silence”, according to Australian anthropologist, William Stanner, and “a cult of forgetfulness”. Some of the knowledge about these massacres have been passed on from aboriginal oral histories through the generations while material evidence remains scarce.

According to The Centre for 21stCentury Humanities at Newcastle University, Australia, there were conservatively about 14,387Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders murdered between 1788-1930 from 522 massacres in Central and Eastern Australia and Torres Strait Islands. At least 51of these massacres occurred as reprisals for “killing or theft of livestock or property.” Yet, other estimates suggest there were at least 60,000 Aborigines murdered. There were possibly some 1 million Aboriginesliving in Australia prior to European contact, and by 1901had been reduced to over 100,000 First Nations people. Originally, Aborigines spoke perhaps 250 languagesof which about 145 languages are still spoken today and of which 110 are critically endangered.

Only now have Australian officials begun apologizing for such atrocities. Even raising a monument about past massacres has been difficult for survivor aboriginal families such as the one at Waterloo Bay when about 200 Wirangu and Kokatha people were killed near Elliston, South Australia.

But there have also been some tearful reconciliations as well. Descendants of white militia-soldiers responsible for massacres as well as aboriginal victim-descendants have gathered to commemorate the murders of men, women, and children lost from the Dharawal, Gandangarra, and Muringong Nations in the Appin Massacre of 1816, near Sydney.

Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, First Nations people at the Cat Lake Reservation declared a state of emergency in Northern Ontario, Canada because of excessively poor housing conditions—mold, leaky roofs, and undrinkable water. Native children also suffer from skin ailments and facial sores. One tribal member died from respiratory-related problems, causing much outrage. “The government’s complacency is usually at the cost of our people’s lives. There’s just no will to fix the problem,” stated a member of the provincial parliament for Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario, including Cat Lake Reservation. In all about 700 First Nations people live at Cat Lake Reservation. Fortunately, the Canadian government has responded by sending aid in the amount of about $10 million but some Natives have commented the problem is endemic throughout Canada and not limited to Cat Lake Reservation.

On another indigenous Canadian reservation, the Six Nations Reservation (Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora) of the Grand River in Ontario near Toronto, the multinational corporation, Nestlé, is extracting millions of liters of drinking water from reservation lands, while the Native peoples themselves do without. Most Native peoples living on this reservation do not have running water while Nestlé sells the water from their land. It is one of many ironic tragedies associated with indigenous peoples and the first world.

While in the southern hemisphere of the Americas, in Brazil, indigenous peoples there are fighting for recognition and struggling against new directives of President Jair Bolsonaro to limit Amerindian rights and eradicate tribal lands. Peoples such as the Waimiri-Atroarihave asked the government to recognize their genocide during the construction of Highway BR-174beginning in 1970. Whereas the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, an Amerindian group of only about 120 people, are fighting against outsiders encroaching on their lands for tin mining, timber extraction, and farmlands delimiting their lands.

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has proclaimed indigenous peoples are like “animals in zoos”and he favors development projects prospecting for precious minerals on Native lands. Nevertheless, Brazil’s 1988 Constitution prevents mining and commercial farming on Amerindian lands without congressional approval. Bolsonaro appears to be adamant in ignoring the 1988 Constitution. For Native Brazilians, it is a desperate situation. Many indigenous peoples believe they are fighting for their lives. In fact, in central Brazil, the Kayapó people are readying themselves for warfare with Bolsonaro. One Kayapó elder chief stated: “We are ready to go to war against any misstep from President Bolsonaro…He wants to reduce our land, he wants to end our traditions, and we are warriors defending our rainforest, our river, and our culture.”

The Swiss-Brazilian photographer, Claudia Andujar, who along with French-anthropologist, Bruce Albert, and other Brazilian anthropologists, and shaman-chief, Davi Kopenawa, helped demarcate Yanomami lands in the early 1980s, and have carefully documented the current genocide of Yanomami people from gold prospectors (garimpeiros). Additionally, oil companies and agribusinesses are vying for Yanomami lands, while Bolsonaro openly encourages such disastrous and illegal incursions.

So, what is to be done?

First, we must recognize how indigenous peoples have been dehumanized and how such dehumanization has led to genocide. Moreover, we must recognize many indigenous peoples live in areas of the world needing protection for the sake of our environment and our planet. The Brazilian Amazon is just one good example. Second, we need to recognize the needs for a healing process to begin for past atrocities against Native peoples. While indigenous peoples themselves must be recognized as having the right to decide for themselves appropriate ways to remember genocides against them.So, truth and reconciliation commissions should be established to be able to heal and listen to truth telling. Likewise, apologies should be official and made by governments and reparations should be established for survivor-descendant victims.

Reconciliation begins with apologizing, with truth-telling, and with commemorating the wrongs done.

As the great Hunkpapa-Lakota Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull, purportedly said: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).