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Dartmouth professor defines actions against Native Americans as genocide

Published: Monday, November 21, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 03:11

dartmouth genocide speaker

Charmaine Poh / Tufts Daily

Dartmouth College Professor Benjamin Madley last night asserted that a genocide was perpetrated against Native Americans early in American history.

Tufts Against Genocide brought Dartmouth College Professor Benjamin Madley to the Hill last night to discuss what he described as the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans throughout early U.S. history.

Madley is an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department and Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth whose research focuses on the question of whether or not the treatment of Native Americans by Europeans should be considered genocide.

The lecture, titled "Genocide in America: The Native American Debate," was held in the Granoff Family Hillel Center. The event was sponsored by the Cummings/Hill Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education and was the latest in a series of events intended to promote awareness of genocide on the Tufts campus.

The event was designed to demonstrate the importance of studying instances of genocide in history in order to better understand how to define genocide in the future.

"Why should we care?" senior Doreen Ndishabandi asked the audience as she introduced Madley. "Because genocide is never an isolated event. Each person will leave better prepared to examine and identify situations of genocide, racism and xenophobia."

Madley echoed this theme throughout his presentation. He explained that it is important to decide whether the conquering of Native Americans by Europeans constitutes genocide both in order to fulfill a moral obligation and for the sake of accuracy in historical scholarship.

"We are obligated to honor the memory of victims and to stop future occurrence of genocide on their behalf," he said. "Historical veracity demands complete examination. This is formative in both our histories."

Madley began the lecture by posing several controversial questions about the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans that led to the founding of the United States.

"How do we explain the catastrophic demographic decline following contact with Europeans?" he asked. "How do we explain the development of the nation we live in?"

He used scholarly historical evidence as well as his own research to support his view that government−endorsed violence is in fact the primary cause of the near disappearance of Native American tribes from North America.

This view is in opposition to what he said was the current consensus among most historians, who hold that the primary cause of the demise of Native Americans was their exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity.

"The near annihilation of Native Americans was perhaps not merely an inevitable consequence of the clash of two opposing ways of life," he said.

He offered a candid examination of the implications of research in this area for both Native Americans and Americans of European descent.

If the United States was founded through genocide, the entirety of historical scholarship on the development of America would require reevaluation, as would public school curricula and public knowledge on the topic, he said.

The U.S. government would have to face complicated and highly politicized questions regarding official apologies and reparation payments to tribes, as well as offer national commemoration through monuments and other endeavors.

There are identity issues for both populations at stake, Madley explained. He raised the possibility that unrecognized genocide against Native American tribes has played a role as a cause of psychological problems, such as alcoholism, depression and high suicide rates that occur in many tribes.

"The stakes are high for scholars, Native Americans and all Americans," he said.

This particular topic has received little discussion among historians, Ndishabandi stressed.

"You don't hear many conversations about what happened to the Native Americans, even though it's so close to us," she told the Daily.

Madley strongly agreed. "Most scholars have avoided this question and it is unsurprising that it remains unresolved," he said.

It is a sensitive issue that evokes strong reactions among Americans, he explained.

"I've experienced people being really angry," he said. "But when you start to unpack the overwhelming evidence, it becomes really difficult to refute."

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