24 Nov 2017

Text: Corinna/ Translation: Miriam & Daniel

#European colonialisation of the Americas

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered America – or rather the Caribbean islands; the American mainland was ‘discovered’ shortly after that. It was, however, by no means uninhabited. The American indigenous population, colloquially known as ‘Indians’, colonised the continent more than 12,000 years ago when northeast Asian inhabitants crossed the Bering Strait.

Photo: Boston Public Library/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

A wave of European settlers followed in the 16th century. They majority came from England, but some immigrants came from Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and the Netherlands. Most of the settlers left their countries due to political or religious oppression, but some left out of pure desire for adventure. The first English colony was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia; the first German colony in Pennsylvania in 1683.[1]

During the winter of 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers came to America on the Mayflower and founded the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts. Even though they weren’t the first English settlers, the Pilgrim Fathers play a central role in the history of America. They only survived their first winter because the indigenous inhabitants provided them with food and taught them how to plant corn and other foods. The following autumn, the Pilgrim Fathers shared their food with the native Americans – and so Thanksgiving was born. [2]

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#Land theft & epidemics

But the relationship between the indigenous population and the settlers deteriorated shortly after that. More and more European settlers arrived in the colonies, demanded increasingly more land, and brought a range of illnesses that made the indigenous population decrease dramatically. The number of Native Americans dropped from between 7 and 10 million people to only 237,000 in roughly 500 years. [3] Alongside cholera, measles, the plague and typhus, and smallpox were the most common causes of death. An epidemic of smallpox was deliberately spread to annihilate the indigenous population. This is proven by an order that Commander Lord Jeffrey Amherst gave to his officers in 1763: „You will Do well to try to Inoculate the Indians [with small pox] by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to extirpate this Execrable Race.“[4]

The European settlers also deliberately destroyed the country’s flora and fauna to take the native population’s livelihood and to break their spirit, since the Native American tribes felt (and still feel today) very strongly connected to the earth and the environment.

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Another cause of death was a myriad of genocide-like massacres, such as the Pequot war 1636/37 what is now Connecticut. These were the first warlike conflicts between the English settlers and the American native population. The war ended with the almost complete destruction of the so-called Pequot Indians and marks the beginning of the Indian Wars.[5] Another massacre that gained notoriety was the 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado in which hundreds of unarmed natives were ambushed. Under the command of Colonel John Milton Chivington, the 3rd Colorado Cavalry killed indigenous men, women and children and mutilated their bodies.[6]

“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 heaven to kill Indians. […] kill and scalp all, little and big; that nits made lice.“[7] – Colonel John Milton Chivington

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Moreover, a war of extermination commenced against the Yuki people of Northern California. This was one of the deadliest wars and was nothing short of a genocide. The then acting US-government took control of California and the Yuki land in 1847. As a result of the gold rush, countless ranchers, farmers and gold prospectors spilled across the area and committed terrible crimes against the native population. Peter Burnett, the first Governor of California even ordered the destruction of the Yuki Indians in 1851: „[…] war of extermination until the Indian race becomes extinct“. [8] Consequently, the settlers stole the indigenous population’s land and livelihood, killed the men, took the women as mistresses and made the children their servants. At the beginning of the 1840s, there were 20,000 Yuki Indians in Northern California; in 1854 there were 3,500, and only 168 of them were left by 1880. [9]

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#Forced assimilation

Those who didn’t die as a result of land theft, disease or pure violence, were forced to relocate to reserves. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chikasaw and Seminole tribes had to leave their sacred land in 1830 due to the Indian Removal Act. Under force of arms, they were forced to walk hundreds of miles to their new reserves. This violent eviction can be compared to a death march, since there weren’t enough clothes or blankets, water, food or means of transport. Approximately a quarter of the Choctaw[10] and around 14,000 of the Cherokee Indians died during their relocation to Oklahoma. Those who survived the journey very frequently died of malnutrition or diseases. At the beginning, the reserves served as a sort of prison camps. [11]

The children were forced to go to so-called boarding schools. The majority of these schools were run by Christian missions and were supposed to civilise the indigenous population by converting them to the Christian faith. The plan was for the children to forget their roots, their culture and their communities. The use of their native languages was prohibited and tribe-typical names were replaced with Christian ones. Many of the children starved, died of disease, were systematically tortured, sexually exploited or psychologically abused. According to the Boarding School Healing Coalition’s estimate, roughly 500 of those ‘schools’ existed. Those who were forced into assimilation as children still suffer  today from alcoholism, drug abuse and high suicide rates.[12]

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#Bartrop, P.R. (2007) “Episodes from the Genocide of the Native Americans: A Review Essay” in Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal. Volume 2, Issue 2, Article 7 pp. 182 – 190. Available at: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/gsp/vol2/iss2/7 (22.11.2017)

# Brown, D. (2001) “War Comes to the Cheyenne”. Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. Macmillan.

# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.

# Rensink, B. (2011) “Genocide of Native Americans: Historical Facts and Historiographic Debates” in Genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review. Vol. 8 von Totten, S und Hitchcock, R.K. (Hrsg.) University of Nebraska. pp. 15-36

[1]www.usa.usembassy.de (2008)

[2]Jones, A. (2010) S. 111

[3]Jones, A. (2010) S. 111, 114

[4]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 114

[5]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 114

[6]Rensink B. (2011) pp. 19 / Jones, A. (2010) pp. 115

[7]Brown, D. (2001) pp. 86 – 87.

[8]Rensink B. (2011) pp. 19 / Jones, A. (2010) pp. 115

[9]Rensink B. (2011) pp. 19 / Jones, A. (2010) pp. 115

[10]Bartrop, P.R. (2007) pp. 184

[11]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 114

[12]Jones, A. (2010) pp. 117 – 118

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