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The Native American Genocide and the Teaching of US History

In many US classrooms, the United States is left out of the list of countries where genocide has occurred.

When the term “genocide” is uttered in mainstream school environments, it usually refers to the Jewish Holocaust, or to other genocides committed in the 20th century: Turkey, Stalin’s Russia, Nanking, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina. But in many US classrooms, the United States is left out of the list of countries where genocide has occurred. And so, when the College Board decided in 2012 (1) that high school students taking Advanced Placement US history should learn about the American Indian genocide – and other events in our history that do not support the notion that ours is a country where peace, justice and the so-called “American way” have always prevailed – the uproar could be heard from Texas to Georgia, and Colorado to North Carolina.

The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in August 2014 asking for a congressional investigation into the AP US history framework and exam, stating, “The Framework [curriculum of what students should learn in AP US history courses] presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th – 19th century settlers.”

State legislators have joined state and county school boards in condemning the exam for talking about the American Indian genocide and for not talking enough about military actions, American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. (2, see a sample question below) They join the ranks of a Florida state senator who introduced legislation that would mandate the showing of Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” America: Imagine the World Without Her in public school classrooms. In that film, D’Souza maintains that the American Indian genocide never occurred because most of the indigenous peoples of the Americas died from diseases introduced by Europeans to which they had no immunity.

James Riding In, who is Pawnee and an associate professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, responded to D’Souza’s thesis in an interview with Truthout, saying: “It seems to me that D’Souza does not understand what genocide is. [The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as] ‘the killing of members of a group.’ Or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. The third part is deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. And imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children to another group.”

One of the things that happened in the United States, Riding In points out, “was to take Indian children away from their parents, away from their tribes, away from their religious people, away from their nurturing environment of their communities and place them in these distant boarding schools where the Indian would be beat out of them if necessary. That policy falls within the definition of genocide, the plan to bring about the physical destruction of a … people. This was aimed at the children.”

The forced removal of children – which continues today as American Indian children are removed from their homes by state social service agencies at a far higher rate than non-Indian children are – was justified by the concepts of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

American exceptionalism is the precept that the United States is unique and qualitatively superior to other nations because it was founded based on democratic principles, Christian values and personal liberty. The concept in popular culture translates to Americans being somehow superior – more fair, more just, more moral, more acceptable in God’s eyes than other groups.

But Julia Good Fox, who is Pawnee and interim dean of natural and social sciences at Haskell Indian University, explains, “American exceptionalism is a particular political cultural ideology [that’s] been used to construct a particular type of nationalism or a particular type of US identity…. American exceptionalism [was a concept specifically] … constructed to justify anti-Indian policies, particularly during the 19th century.”

Tsianina Lomawaima of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, is a professor of justice and social inquiry, and distinguished scholar in indigenous education at Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education, concurs. “American exceptionalism is an ideological position. There are very important reasons that have given rise to it and fueled it over the years. But it’s not something that’s grounded in historic fact or reality,” she said. “It’s an ideological position of settlers in a settler colonial society where the foundation of the nation rests on dispossessing Native peoples of their lands.”

According to Lomawaima, the falseness – the mythologically constructed ideas – behind the mainstream curriculum (which erases genocide) is what has led to the anxiety-filled reaction to the new AP US history exam. “If your claims to your national territory are suspect, that’s going to create, to put it mildly, tremendous anxiety. I think that the reactions that you’re describing to the AP exam are expressing precisely that anxiety,” she said. “It’s an ideological belief that this nation was mandated by a Christian god and what we’ve inherited, so to speak, today rests on that legacy. So to challenge that in any way, shape or form is going to threaten the very basis of US national identity. Not to mention claims to territory. That’s pretty threatening to people.”

Indeed, in an open letter to the College Board, two conservative groups, American Principles in Action and Concerned Women for America, wrote, “The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.'”

This unquestioned belief that “America” – that is, white settlers – “had a mission” from God to spread democracy and new technologies sits at the heart of the problem. The issue before us is whether we want an educated populace that has a nuanced understanding of our history during the colonial period or a citizenry that is not equipped to think about history, because one very narrow interpretation of it is accepted without thought or criticism.

Michael Yellow Bird of the Arikara and Hidatsa Nation, a professor of sociology and director of indigenous tribal studies at North Dakota State University, said, “In my estimation, most American students receive what has been called an authoritarian education that celebrates a master narrative of this nation and really focuses on what appears to be its greatest accomplishment, the idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that America has done all these great things and sort of occupies a special place on the planet among all countries.”

The master narrative of which Yellow Bird speaks has not served any of us – Native Americans or immigrant Americans and their descendants – well. It is a skewed history that high school students are encouraged to accept without critical appraisal, as if they were young children. It does not and cannot create a well-educated citizenry equipped to solve the problems we face, nor does it, as some critics of the AP US history curriculum insist, create a patriotic citizenry, unless we define patriotism as thoughtless acquiescence to those who govern. The new exam and its framework encourage a thoughtful, knowledgeable analysis of our past that is essential if we are to create a viable future.

“It’s going to be very difficult for this country to live up to its democratic ideas of respect for diversity, justice and equality, and taking responsibility unless its people have a really clear and full view of the interactions between indigenous people, Native American people, and the American settler government and settler population,” Yellow Bird said.


1. AP United States History Course and Exam Description Including the Curriculum Framework

2. Sample question from the AP United States History Practice Exam released by the College Board:

“[W]e have in [United States history] a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West…. In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”

Frederick Jackson Turner, historian, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893

“[T]he history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences…. Deemphasize the frontier and its supposed end, conceive of the West as a place and not a process, and Western American history has a new look. First, the American West was an important meeting ground, the point where Indian America, Latin America, Anglo-America, Afro-America, and Asia intersected…. Second, the workings of conquest tied these diverse groups into the same story. Happily or not, minorities and majorities occupied a common ground. Conquest basically involved the drawing of lines on a map, the definition and allocation of ownership (personal, tribal, corporate, state, federal, and international), and the evolution of land from matter to property.”

Patricia Nelson Limerick, historian, “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,” 1987

3. Using the excerpts above, answer parts a, b, and c.
a) Briefly explain ONE major difference between Turner’s and Limerick’s interpretations.
b) Briefly explain how someone supporting Turner’s interpretation could use ONE piece of evidence from the period between 1865 and 1898 not directly mentioned in the excerpt.
c) Briefly explain how someone supporting Limerick’s interpretation could use ONE piece of evidence from the period between 1865 and 1898 not directly mentioned in the excerpt.