Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents is a story of Hollywood—land of illusion and fantasy—interwoven with stories of pre-war and wartime Italy where illusions and fantasies were cruelly squelched. In it Marra exposes myriad ironies about our racial and other policies. It called to mind another book I recently read, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” by Philippe Sands. One of the topics of this book—part memoir, part history—was whether the international tribunals in Nuremberg after World War II should prosecute Nazis for “crimes against humanity,” that is, the killing of individuals on a large scale, or, as some contended, for the newly coined “genocide,” that is, the extermination of racial and other minorities in order to destroy those races and minorities. (After the war the U.N. said genocide is a crime and that genocide denied the “right of existence of entire human groups.”)
American prosecutors at Nuremberg, led by Robert Jackson on leave from his position as Justice of the Supreme Court, avoided the use of the term “genocide.” Sands speculates, “Maybe it was the southern senators who got to Jackson and his team, fearful about the implications that the charge of genocide might have in local politics, with the American Indians and the blacks.”
America oppressed Blacks, but it was not genocide. Even though there were many racial killings, the goal was not to wipe out a people; it was to subjugate them so that they could be exploited by other groups. We might label our slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices as crimes against humanity, but whatever we call them, they were certainly criminal.
American Indians, on the other hand, were decimated as a result of European immigration. To a large extent, this was a byproduct of the diseases the English and others brought, but there were also conscious attempts to rid the land of the Native Americans, especially as the “new” Americans pushed westward. Some of our Indian wars and other policies look like what we think of as genocide. However, Rafael Lemkin who coined the term defined “genocide” as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” Even some of the “kindly” efforts towards the Indians by the United States meet this broader definition of genocide. Consider Richard Henry Pratt.
Pratt was a soldier who fought for the North in the Civil War and then served in the West pursuing, fighting, and negotiating with Indians. He was the primary force behind the famous Carlisle Indian school, whose philosophy influenced many other Indian schools established by the federal government. Pratt believed that Indians were deserving of a place in American society and that racial differences were not innate but the product of environmental factors. He believed that Indians could–and should–integrate into mainstream white society, but here was the catch: He thought this was possible only if the Indians abandoned their tribal communities and culture.
Pratt’s theories required a school away from the native lands. The Carlisle Barracks were an old twenty-seven-acre army installation, but they had been damaged in the Civil War and then abandoned. Pratt talked the Army into allowing him to set up the school in the sixteen buildings that needed renovations. Almost immediately, Pratt constructed a seven-foot fence around the property as both a screen against sightseers—the townsfolk were curious about the young Indians—and to control the students.
The school separated both boy and girl students from their language. They were only to speak English. Uttering a native language was punished, and students from the same tribes were scattered among separate dormitories.
The students were also separated from their names, partly because the white teachers could not pronounce Indian names, but also to remove another aspect of their Indianness. As Sally Jenkins put it in The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation (2007), when they had new, Americanized names, another “piece of their Indian selves had been taken away.”
The males were separated from their hair and that, too, separated them from their heritage. Jenkins reports that braids were a symbol of maturity for Lakotas, who only cut their hair when in deep mourning.
And they were separated from their traditional clothing, often colorful and distinctive. Instead, they all had to dress in drab uniforms, and the students became “an indistinguishable gray mass with no discernible outward differences.”
The very nature of the school itself, however, separated the students from a fundamental aspect of their heritage. Indian tribes had varied cultural differences, Jacqueline Fear-Segal reports in White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation (2007), but in no Indian community was education a discrete endeavor conducted in a separate institution or by “teachers.” Education was woven into everyday patterns of living and took place informally in daily interactions.
Although the students were separated from the reservations where their families lived, whites had a similar goal in both places. Out west, the shared lands were broken up into parcels of private ownership, and at Carlisle the Indians were pushed to enter a wage economy. Jenkins notes that the U.S. government did not believe in sharing or communalism; it believed in private property. An Indian needed to be taught out West and at Carlisle “so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.’”
The school took an undeniable personal toll on students: it erased their personal histories, sundered families, and obliterated their languages, faiths, and traditions. The goal was not to kill a people, but even so, the goal was to wipe out the Native Americans and replace them with something else.
America has done many good things. It has done many bad things, too, and sometimes even when it has had good intentions, it has ended up doing bad things. Our history is complicated.