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UMass hosts lecture on the meaning of the word ‘genocide’

(Katherine Mayo / Daily Collegian)

The University of Massachusetts held a lecture aiming to face the nation’s history of genocide and the treatment of Native Americans on Thursday.

The Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies—co-sponsored by the Five Colleges Native American and Indigenous Studies Program—hosted the lecture by Alex Alvarez, a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at Northern Arizona University. Titled, “Native America and the Question of Genocide,” the lecture dissected the term “genocide” and its applicability to the history of Native Americans after contact with Europeans.

Alvarez began his lecture by quoting William Faulkner, a 20th-century writer: “The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past.”

He went on to say that “our history is still very much with us, even if it’s not always that evident.”

“It’s all around us and shapes and guides us as individuals, as communities and as nations,” said Jonathan Skolnik, associate professor of German at UMass and IHGMS board member, in an introduction of Alvarez.

Yet, he warned the audience that human beings “remember selectively.”

“We create stories and narratives and mythology out of past events and experiences, real or imagined,” Skolnik said.

The American national identity “is largely something that we create out of shared stories about where we come from and what we’ve done and what we stand for,” he said. He believes the U.S. is in the midst of “a great struggle, a debate about who and what we are.”

“We are at war with our past,” Alvarez stated.

One facet of this “struggle” is the United States’ relationship with Native Americans. Dating back to the first European settlers, Native Americans are victims of colonialism and oppression. To Alvarez, the U.S. struggles to face its violent treatment of Native Americans.

At the root of his lecture, Alvarez pondered, “What is genocide?”

To Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer and Holocaust survivor credited with the coinage of the term, genocide is “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” Similarly, the legal definition, as defined in the United Nations definition Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, was created in reference and response to the Holocaust.

“Keep in mind, genocide was a concept made with a specific template in mind, with a specific model in mind; that was the Holocaust. So what does it mean, however, to apply this term to events in the past that don’t necessarily conform to the Holocaust?”

The use of the term “genocide” was in relation to the Sand Creek Massacre, where in 1864, Col. John Chivington of the Union Army pillaged and massacred a village of Cheyenne Indians settled along Sand Creek, Colo. Alvarez described the attitude of the soldiers toward decimating almost an entire village, picking off women and children fleeing for their lives.

“It is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice,” Chivington infamously rationalized, demonstrating attitudes of the time.

Alvarez elaborated that while there was national uproar following the action, the massacre was supported, in Colorado, due to the circulation of a story that a massacre of a white family was committed by Native Americans a few months prior.

Physical weapons were not the only tools used in the genocide of Native Americans, according to Alvarez. Relating the lecture to a pressing contemporary issue, Alvarez next discussed Lord Jeffrey Amherst’s advice of “genocidal intentions and attitudes” to Col. Henry Bouquet of Fort Pitt—now Pittsburgh, Pa.—in treating Native Americans: use biological weapons such as  smallpox-infested blankets. or “make use of the Spanish method, and hunt them with English dogs” in order to “successfully extirpate this inextricable race.”

However, Alvarez countered that “deaths from disease don’t count as genocide, if the definition of genocide relies on the notion of intent.”

Toward the end of his lecture, Alvarez noted that because genocide is “the go-to word…to describe the worst possible crime of violence that communities inflict on others,” it has resulted in the recent application of the term to describe a variety of topics ranging from tuition hikes or the deterioration of the environment. Alvarez attributed this to the further complications in constituting the Native American experience as genocide.

“Whose [definition of genocide] do we weigh? Whose do we dismiss?” Alvarez asked.

Following the lecture, Alvarez opened the floor to questions, where he received pushback from the audience.

“If we’re using this term to talk about any injustice, it minimizes the crimes of the murder of the Jews, or the murder of the Armenians, or the murder of Namibians,” said John Wade, an Amherst local..

Alvarez said that the movement to rename the town of Amherst may be a part of confronting the past.

“If [acknowledging the past]  involves looking at what we’ve named, what we’ve memorialized, and how we make sense of the past, I think this is a healthy thing for us to do…I find it necessary.”

Kathleen Brown-Perez, senior lecturer for the Commonwealth Honors College, anthropology department, advisor for the Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies Program, federal Indian law attorney, and member of the Eeyamquittoowauconuck (Brothertown Indian Nation), found it “problematic” to use Native Americans as the topic of a debate on what is considered genocide.

“I think there are better examples to use because there are students in here who are going to take away from this talk the idea that nothing really bad happened to the Indians,” Brown-Perez said.

Rebecca Duke Weisenburg can be reached at rdukeweisenb@umass.edu.

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