by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 1, Rajab, 1443)
The entire colonization project of North America can be summed up in one word: genocide. From the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the erasure of their culture and livelihoods to the horrors of residential schools in Canada, European colonial settlers have much to atone for. The discovery in June and July 2021 of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children in residential school compounds in various parts of Canada once again put a spotlight on the indescribable cruelty inflicted on Indigenous people, especially children.
Canada is not alone in such cruel, inhumane practices. Wherever European settlers set foot—whether in the West Indies, South and North America, or Australia and New Zealand—they indulged in wanton killings and genocide of Native peoples.
The European settlers landed on the shores of North America in 1492. The Indigenous people sheltered the new arrivals and provided them food. As the European settlers pushed westward, they naturally came into conflict with Native peoples. Wars were waged and ultimately peace treaties signed—most of them under duress—to limit the European settlers’ rapacious drive for more land.
The tribes that signed such treaties were often the first to be attacked and massacred. They were lulled into believing that European settlers would honour their treaty obligations. Some of the treacherous acts of European colonial settlers will be highlighted to show their betrayals. Regrettably, there has been little improvement in their behavior over the centuries that followed. The instruments of genocide may have changed— instead of swords and muskets they now use cruise missiles and drones—but the mindset has remained the same.
The arrival in South and North America of European settlers coincided with the Muslims’ defeat in Andalusia (present-day Spain) in 1492. The first European settlers were Spaniards. Consider for a moment if Muslims had done to the Spaniards what European settlers did to the Native peoples of North America. Today, Spain would be a Muslim majority country; there would probably be no United States of America or Canada and the Native population of the continent would probably be one billion or more.
It can be stated with confidence that the world would be a far better and safer place than it is today. Yet Muslims are accused of spreading their religion by the sword! One wishes the Muslims had done so. We would not have the massacres perpetrated by the US and its Nato allies worldwide on an industrial scale or the problem of Hindutva fascists rampaging in India today.
Genocides occur because the perpetrators develop a mindset of racial or cultural superiority viewing the victims as impediment to their ‘civilizing’ mission. Indigenous people looked different: their skin was dark, their languages foreign and their style of living was not what the Europeans were used to. And for white men steeped in Christian superstitions and inborn superiority, the Indigenous peoples’ worldview and spiritual beliefs were beyond their comprehension.
There was no attempt to understand. The Indigenous people had to be driven from their lands and physically eliminated. The Europeans’ quest for land—and as much of it as possible—made it impossible for the settlers to even attempt an understanding of Indigenous cultures and values. They simply had to be eliminated. Only one group could possess the land and as far as the European settlers were concerned, they had a natural right to it because of their inherent ‘superiority’.
Between Columbus’ arrival in North America to the end of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, an estimated 15 million Indigenous people, perhaps more, were slaughtered and reduced to fewer than 238,000. Once the US government was established, it authorized over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids, the most of any country in the world against its Indigenous population. The settlers’ racial hatred and paranoia made it easy to paint Indigenous peoples as pagan savages who must be killed in the name of civilization and Christianity.
Even the Natives’ conversion to Christianity did not save them from settler attacks as was the case with the Delaware Indians. They were massacred by a group of militiamen from Pennsylvania in 1782. Accused of attacks on white settlers, without proof, of course, 96 of them were beaten to death with wooden mallets and hatchets.
The Delaware Natives were the first Indigenous group to sign a treaty with the US that set the precedent for 374 other treaties over the next 100 years. Often called “peace and friendship” treaties, 229 of these agreements led to more tribal lands being grabbed by European settlers. The Indigenous people did not find any peace much less friendship despite the treaties because of the Europeans’ rapacious appetite for more land.
The settlers’ mindset was accurately reflected in General Andrew Jackson’s annual address to Congress in 1833 (after he became president). His racist cant about Indigenous people is quite revealing. “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race… they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere [before] long disappear.”
From 1830 to 1840, this “superior race” went about removing 60,000 Indians—Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and others—from the East in exchange for ‘new territory’ west of the Mississippi. Thousands died along the way of what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” But even in the territory west of Mississippi, the Indigenous people were not safe. European settlers continued to push westward, resulting in the Native people’s territory shrinking further.
Several European powers were competing for territory. These included the British, Spaniards and French. Since the European settlers entered into separate treaties with the Indigenous people, this resulted in Native peoples often fighting each other because they were aligned with different settler colonialists.
The Indigenous people did not simply roll over. They put up valiant resistance to defend their people and territory but they were outgunned and often tricked into not fighting. They were also denied food and other provisions that were promised as part of the ‘peace’ treaties. This forced the Indigenous people to carry out raids against white settlers leading to more attacks on them and massacres.
The Sand Creek massacre stands out as a prime example of the settlers’ brutal conduct. On November 29, 1864, a former Methodist minister (yes, a man of religion!), John Chivington, led a surprise attack on peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos on their reservation at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Leading a force of 700 men of the First and Third Colorado Regiments, Chivington and his men boasted that they were going to kill Indians.
Chivington had once been a missionary to Wyandot Indians in Kansas. He declared, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!… I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heavens to kill Indians.”
And who did they attack? Their victims were 200 peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos. As part of their peace deal, Cheyenne Chief, Black Kettle had been told to hoist an American flag on his lodge pole to indicate his village was at peace. When Chivington ordered the attack, Black Kettle tied a white flag beneath the American flag, telling his people that the soldiers would not kill them. More than 160 were massacred, mostly women and children.
The Cheyennes and their Arapahos allies were a particular target of US troops. Within four years of the massacre in Colorado, they were again attacked on November 29, 1868, near the Washita River. George Custer, considered a hero of the Civil War, led his mostly Irish Seventh Cavalry in this attack. He wanted fame. Killing Indians—especially peaceful ones who weren’t expecting an attack—represented an opportunity he did not want to miss.
General Philip Sheridan ordered Custer to attack the Cheyennes and their Arapaho allies on the western frontier of Indian Territory. After slaughtering 103 warriors, plus women and children, Custer sent the following message to Sheridan boasting that “a great victory was won.” He explained: “One, the Indians were asleep. Two, the women and children offered little resistance. Three, the Indians are bewildered by our change of policy,” (violating the terms of the peace treaty).
Custer would later lead the Seventh Cavalry on the northern Plains against the Lakota, Arapahos and Northern Cheyennes. He boasted, “The Seventh can handle anything it meets,” and “there are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.” He met an ignominious end when he attacked the largest gathering of warriors on the high plains on June 25, 1876—near Montana’s Little Big Horn River. The Indian warriors were making their last stand. Custer’s death only intensified propaganda for military revenge to bring “peace” to the frontier.
Long before Custer’s rise to fame—or infamy—a brave attempt was made by the charismatic Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, and his brother, known as the Prophet, in the early 1800s. They wanted to end in-fighting among tribes and convinced them to protect their mutual interests together. While Tecumseh was away with the Choctaws to gather warriors, th Indiana Territorial Governor (and later president) William Henry Harrison ordered an attack on Prophetstown, capital of the Shawnee tribe located on the Tippecanoe River. In the 1811 attack, the capital was burnt to the ground.
The great warrior chief was deeply offended by the destruction of their capital. He vowed to seek revenge. This time, however, he was able to persuade the British to fight alongside his warriors against the Americans. Regrettably, Tecumseh’s death resulted in defeat of the brave warriors in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The Ohio frontier became “safe” for American settlers.
In the American settler colonial project, many more horror stories can be narrated. What is certain is that it is a litany of betrayals, aggression and massacres. Not only warriors but even women and children were slaughtered. This can hardly be described as bravery. But the Americans are notorious for taking on weaker adversaries and still get beaten up. Afghanistan and Iraq immediately come to mind.