History, Department of


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Published in Genocide of Indigenous Peoples: Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review Volume 8, Samuel Totten and Robert K. Hitchcock, editors (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction Publishers, 2011), pp. 15-36. Copyright 2011 Transaction Publishers.


One of the most sobering themes that underlie North American history is the demographic collapse that Euro-American contact initiated among many of the continent's indigenous peoples. As twentieth-century scholars consider the post-contact unfolding of Euro-American and Native American histories and the ways in which they have become inextricably intertwined, their oft-divergent trajectories raise immediate questions of causality. There is no doubt that contact with Euro-Americans served as the catalyst for sea changes in Native America, but the demographic decline apparent in historical retrospect was not an inevitable outcome to be imposed upon historical actors or events. To presume that the tragic fate of many indigenous peoples was unavoidable precludes carrying out any inquiry into the causal relationships between cultures, empires, and individuals. This chapter explores some prominent issues in the field of Native American studies germane to the field of genocide studies. The primary foci are upon philosophical debates, historiographic trends, and the relative virtues and challenges presented by the current body of scholarship. The accompanying set of annotated entries considers both sides ofthis spectrum: the praiseworthy and the problematic. Doing so should provide a clearer picture of the state of Native American genocide studies.

While many historical events could be investigated within the framework of comparative genocide studies, recent trends in Native American genocide research have often been deterred from such prolificacy. Worthwhile scholarship has not been altogether arrested, but rather, impeded. Foremost, debates and arguments over the very definition of "genocide," and whether it should be applied to Native American history have overwhelmed the scholastic vigor of aspects of the field of genocide studies. On one hand, historians dedicate energy extolling their reasons for terming events as genocide and on the other critics lambaste such efforts. Israel Charny (1996) feared that "such intense concern with establishing the boundaries of a definition" might ultimately downplay the historical realities of human tragedy or infamy (p. ix). While using genocidal terminology too liberally can prove equally damaging to useful scholarship, excessive definitionalism must not come at the cost of moving scholarship forward. Some Native American scholarship focusing on genocide oscillates between two opposing camps: those that devote energy simply to proving that genocide did occur in Native American history and those that more liberally apply the concept of genocide without sufficient analytical support.

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