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The United States Must Reckon With Its Own Genocides

Emily Prey

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Confronting abusers like China demands accountability for the treatment of Indigenous people at home.

Today is Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States, and U.S. President Joe Biden has become the first president ever to issue a proclamation marking the day. But the United States can do far more. Just as Canada is reckoning with its genocidal history of colonization, so must the United States. This is not only a moral necessity at home but one vital if Washington wants to be a credible opponent of abusive regimes worldwide.

In May, 215 unmarked graves were uncovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. In June, 751 additional graves were discovered near a former residential school in Saskatchewan province. Some of the children were as young as 3 years old. It is believed that between 4,000 and 10,000 children died in such “schools” across Canada.

But forcing Indigenous children to attend residential boarding schools was not a practice exclusive to Canada. The United States has a long and dark history of the same government-sanctioned abuses. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were more than 350 government funded, and often church run, Indigenous boarding schools across the United States.

Fortunately, Biden’s appointment of Deb Haaland to the Interior Department, making her the first Indigenous interior secretary, has paved the way to the U.S. government engaging with this history of colonial abuse for the first time: In June, the department announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a comprehensive review of the legacy of federal boarding schools.

The department’s own news release announcing the initiative concedes that “the purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed. For over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities.”

Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children passed through, or died in, these schools between 1869 and the 1970s, until the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 finally allowed Native American parents to legally deny their children’s placement in these schools.

While these kinds of policies were tragically typical of colonial states during the 19th century, they are squarely in contravention of the 1948 Genocide Convention, and thus they meet the standing legal definition of genocide in international law. At least between 1948 to 1978, the United States was not just morally, but also legally responsible for the crime of genocide against its own people.

The 1948 Genocide Convention specifically includes in its definition of genocide the separation of children from families with the intention to destroy the identity of a group, in part or in whole. To the extent to which the boarding schools were specifically designed to “kill the Indian, save the man,” their assimilationist ambitions were explicitly genocidal.

When such policies are enacted in other countries, the United States of today has no difficulty seeing those policies for what they are. The removal of children from their families and their placement into state-run boarding schools was one of the criteria the Biden administration and its predecessor used to correctly identify China’s actions against the native Uyghurs in Xinjiang as genocide.

The U.S. boarding schools program was specifically intended to erase the Native American identities of children in just the same way that Beijing’s current policies are designed to erase the cultural identities of the Uyghur children they have removed from their parents. Even without considering past atrocities against Native American populations, this crime alone — committed after the United States was a signatory to the Genocide Convention — was a genocidal act under the law. Before 1978, the United States was in violation of the Genocide Convention, just as Beijing is now.

Getting Americans to engage seriously with their own history is a politically fraught task. From the history and legacy of slavery to Confederate monuments, nearly all calls for an objective examination of U.S. history are challenged, most vituperatively by conservatives who prefer the illusion of American perfection to the reality of a country that has often fallen far short of its ideals.

Read more in Foreign Policy.