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Uncommon Sense


By oieahc · November 11, 2015

Evolving the discussion of what Columbus began

WMQ 8 min read

In today’s post, WMQ author Jeffrey Ostler reflects on what inspired his research and what questions he is still asking.


holidaybanner1I’m sure that most historians occasionally reflect on the paths that lead us to write the things we do. When I trace the path that led to the publication of “To Extirpate the Indians: An Indigenous Consciousness of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s-1810” in the October 2015 issue of William and Mary Quarterly, I think first of Columbus Day 1992 in New York City where I witnessed protesters at the United Nations with signs denouncing the genocide of the western hemisphere’s indigenous people. I had been interested in the question of whether European actions toward Native Americans in North America amounted to genocide before then, but because the Columbus Quincentennial produced a heated debate about the issue, it grabbed my attention in new ways.

For the next several years, I followed this debate through books like Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide and rejoinders, like one by Richard White, arguing that such perspectives are reductionist because they understate the complexities of U.S. policy and deny the agency of Indian people.[1] At the same time, I was writing a book on Lakota history that, among other things, analyzed the causes of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre.[2] Having investigated an event crucial to an assessment of genocide in American history and still interested in the debate about genocide, I decided to write a book addressing the impact of U.S. expansion on Indian nations.[3]

As I began research for this book, I kept stumbling upon examples of Indians indicting Europeans or European Americans for wanting to kill them all and having frequently done so. These examples seemed to reveal an important but neglected perspective. Although scholars had noted some of these examples, they had done so in passing without comment on their implications.

Some examples involved disease and were from the region where I live, the Pacific Northwest. In the early 1830s, for example, when a malaria epidemic swept through western Oregon, some Indians contended that the disease had spread from a vial opened by a “Boston” trader when Indians refused unfavorable terms of trade.[4] Other examples involved violence in the southwest borderlands. In the mid-1860s Apaches informed U.S. officials that “the Zunis had told them after the Navajoes surrendered we [the U.S.] had killed all the men, and left none alive but the women and children, of whom we made slaves,” a reference to the forcible removal of the Navajos to the Bosque Redondo reservation in New Mexico. Drawing on that historical example, Apaches opposed to making peace with the U.S., saying that the “whites were only doing it [making peace] to kill them.”[5]

I also found numerous examples from the Ohio Valley and lower Great Lakes from the 1750s into the early nineteenth century. These examples are the tip of the iceberg of an unacknowledged discourse, or as I termed in the WMQ article, an “indigenous consciousness of genocide.” As Indians contemplated their history and future, they feared that the very existence of their communities was being threatened. From a native perspective, Europeans and European Americans not only wanted their lands, they intended to kill them all to obtain them.

Recovering an “indigenous consciousness of genocide” does not resolve the debate about whether the European empires or the United States and/or its people committed genocide against Native Americans. I believe, however, that it asks historians to take the matter seriously. As I have witnessed students, colleagues, and scholars discuss and write about the issue of genocide over the years, I have concluded that this is the most intractable debate of any in American history. This is not to say that other debates aren’t difficult and sometimes polarizing and unproductive, but genocide sucks the oxygen out of a room more quickly and completely than any other word.

Are there new ways to talk about genocide among ourselves, with our students, to a general public? Can we get past discussions that become bogged down in disputes over the proper definition of genocide and that seem to require one of two simplistic answers: “yes, it was always genocide” or “no, it was never genocide?” Can we resist the impulse to respond with certainty when the issue arises, as though we already know all there is to know? Perhaps considering the testimony of Indians living through the history we study can provide us with an opening to begin a more productive discussion.—Jeffrey Ostler

[1]Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997); Richard White, AUsing the Past: History and Native American Studies,@ in Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects, ed. Russell Thornton (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), pp. 234-235.

[2]Jeffrey Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[3]The book, under contract with Yale University Press, has the working title, AThe Destruction and Survival of American Indian Nations, 1750s-1900.@

[4]Robert Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874 (Seattle, 1999), p. 109.

[5]Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 176.

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