(12 April 2004)
Which Holocaust should Americans be most concerned about: the WWII Holocaust of European Jewry, the American Back Slavery Holocaust, or the North American Indian Holocaust? Interestingly, about 6 million people were consumed in each, though the time spans were 12, 200 and 400 years, respectively. The answer depends on your outlook as to whether you prefer the imperialism of a Fortress America, championed today by the Bush administration, or whether you prefer a socially transformed America, as described variously in the presidential candidate speeches of John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader.
Holocausts A, B and C
Consider this data, and estimates from it, on our selected Holocausts (M = million, k = thousand, yr = year):
Western Hemisphere Native Americans
1492: 72M to 113M, a good estimate is 75M (15% of the world population).
1980: 28M, (minimum occurred around 1900, growth since).
Native Americans north of Mexico (Rio Grande)
1492: 1M to 18M, modern estimates cluster at 4M to 7M, a good estimate is 6M (portion for USA: 5M).
1900: 400,000, (the minimum, population has grown since, portion for USA: 250,000).
1860 (15 southern states): 4.4M (US population is 31.4M, 14% are Black slaves; slave trade begins in 1620s, importation outlawed in 1807).
1900: 8.8M (US population is 76M, 12% is Black).
Jewish Holocaust 1933-1945: -6M in 12 years, -500 k/yr (most from 1942 at a higher rate). (1)
Now, some estimates:
Estimates of Western Hemisphere Native American population loss 1500-1900: -50M to -60M in 400 years, average rate: -125 k/yr to -150 k/yr.
Estimates of North American Native population loss 1500-1900: -6M at -15 k/yr (-5M at 12.5 k/yr in the USA).
The 250,000 USA Native Americans of 1900 are comparable in number to the Israeli settlers in Palestinian territory today.
The North American Native population in 1980 was at one quarter to one half of what is was in 1492.
Number of Africans imported to North America between 1619 and 1807: an estimate is 2.4M, unknown factors being losses at sea and growth of the captive population; an estimated importation rate is up to +12 k/yr (2.4M imported over 200 years). (2)
A summary of Holocaust estimates:
Native Americans, Hemispherically: -130 k/yr at 400 years equals -52M (perhaps -90% in 1900, about -70% today).
North American Natives: -15 k/yr at 400 years equals -6M (probably beyond -90% in 1900, about -66% today).
African Americans: +12 k/yr at 200 years equals +2.4M enslaved; total slave population is 4.4M in 1860, 14% of the US population.
European Jews: -500 k/yr at 12 years equals -6M.
Comparable Magnitudes, Different Rates, and Memory
Notice that the removal rate of Native Americans (-15 k/yr) was comparable to the accrual rate of Black slaves (+22 k/yr), and that the magnitudes of the eliminated (6M) and accumulated (4.4M) populations is also comparable. The Native American Holocaust lasted 400 years, the Afro-American Holocaust about 200. These Holocausts were largely prosecuted during the pre-industrial era, though they did extend into the late 19th century (1850 to 1900).
The Nazi Holocaust on European Jewry was prosecuted with the much greater industrial power and technology of the first half of the 20th century. The Nazi’s processing rate was at least 50 times that of the Native American removal or the Black slave accrual rates. A sad achievement, to be sure. It is the industrialized acceleration of the human removal rate that gives the Nazi-driven Holocaust its ferocious psychological shock. Rounding out all the figures — rather broadly — we can put it simply this way: 6M North American Indians done away with in 400 years and by 100 years ago could be psychologically accommodated by people living during the process — and now. Similarly, under 6M Blacks enslaved or born into slavery in the USA over 200 years and by 100 years ago could also be accommodated by most people then and now. However, the elimination of 6M Jews (and others) during 12 years of still living memory is too close to be entirely brushed away as “history,” of which we, our nations and our institutions can be entirely absolved of responsibility. Even so, most people find it easy to let the Jewish Holocaust slip into the “memory hole” along with American Black slavery and the “Indian Removal.”
Holocaust Echoes and Revivals
In fact, all these Holocausts still require expiation in our time. That is the key point that proponents of atonement for each is trying to convey. We cannot undo the past, but we can face up to our historical precedents, and then use this now overt knowledge to ensure we act societally in such a way as to quench repetition of past prejudices and actions, which are fundamental to prosecuting Holocausts. For example: lebensraum in Palestine is just as evil as it was in Poland. The de facto slavery in China, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Third World, solely to satisfy the needs of American profiteers for “offshoring” jobs, and of a feckless American public for “rock-bottom” prices at Wal-Mart, is still just as evil as was the slavery of Mark Twain’s youth. “We don’t own slaves, how can we be responsible?” people will say. Yet, who sewed your clothes, made your shoes, assembled the SUV you drive? If ignorance is bliss, then America is paradise.
Owning Our History (Atonement and Healing)
Such “recognition” (the Quakers can probably speak with much greater authority on this point) would then see issues of “restitution” and “reservations” and “Indian lands” in a historical context, rather than as impediments to the current impatience to commercialize “assets” such as “real estate,” “mining rights,” “fishing rights” and the like. Similarly, issues like “affirmative action” and “reparations” would be seen in a historical context informing a societal decision to make pathways for the positive development for segments of the population that have been forced to deal with centuries of unfair barriers. I don’t think a few thousand dollars of instant cash in the hands of every Black (and American Indian) youth is the point, but a historical (i.e., over a long time) commitment to the development of the Black (and American Indian) population. I would imagine such a program would primarily concentrate on universal health care, early child development, education through college, and professional development especially for girls and women — populations do better when their women are educated.
While the Jewish Holocaust was the most intense (highest rate of removal), its survivors have one significant advantage over the American Indians and the Afro-Americans: they retained their culture. Once their Holocaust was over, the European Jews could return to reassembling their lives, societies, careers, and profit-making ventures (everybody wants these). The terrible crime inflicted on the victims of the American Holocausts (aside from the deprivation of life and liberty) was the deprivation of culture: native languages and cultural ways were stripped from the victim populations, and American-English-based substitutes (like lugubrious American Christianity) installed, primarily as a control device.
The stories of Black and Indian America since the Conquest are primarily about devising and rediscovering their own unique cultures after their native ones had been assaulted and largely removed. So, American Indians and Blacks have had to reinvent, in about one century, what human evolution would have provided organically over the course of millennia. Only then, once they had ‘their language’ could these populations begin to build up their communities within a larger sea of a hostile culture. The Jews had this the day the concentration camp gates swung open. The deprivation of native culture is a historical crime that will take a historical period of time to repair. Had there been a willingness to do so after Reconstruction (from 1877), I think that American Blacks and Indians would have much healthier populations today. Instead, they faced the awful repression of the segregation century (1877-1965).
After the Segregation Century
We have only delayed the healing process required after the Black and Indian Holocausts of the 19th century. The acceleration of the healing process dates from the victories of the Civil Rights years, the 1950s-1960s. A valuable national goal would be to overtly make the historical commitment I described — to allow for the full development of unique Indian and Black culture within the larger context of an American culture — so that 100 years after the Voting Rights Act, or by 2065 (two hundred years after the end of the Civil War) that “preferential” treatment of Blacks and Indians has ended by the simple fact that these communities are indistinguishable from any other in America with regards to health, opportunity, and social equity. It really doesn’t need to take that much time, or cost that much money, unless you view such social choices as universal health care, universal day-care and preschool, universal paid public education through college as “expensive” (obviously, we will have cut the military about 40%, dumped NAFTA, the WTO, and a host of corporate welfare).
In doing this we would be choosing the vision of a humane world-engaged America, rather than an Imperial “Fort Apache” America at war over resources with an outer teeming world of hostile destitute tribes, as if we were some gigantic analog to Fortress Israel plowing its metal wall across Palestine to swallow it up. This is the subtext to arguments over which Holocaust is more important.
Such shrill pissing-matches over whose Holocaust is worse, and deserving of more attention (and money) fail to advance anyone’s development. To their purveyors: Stop being a victim, let all acts be judged by the same standards. To all of us: Never again, start now.
Notes and Resources
1. “Statistics of Native American Populations in the Western Hemisphere,” http://nativenet.uthscsa.edu/archive/nl/91c/0122.html (as of March 4, 2004).
Russell Thornton, “Population: Precontact to the Present,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians – http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_030500_precontactto.htm (as of March 4, 2004).
“African American Migration,” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/hyman/hyman_migration1.html (as of March 4, 2004).
2. Katerina Stenou, “Struggles Against Slavery, 2004 International Year To Commemorate The Struggle Against Slavery And Its Abolition (Brochure),” UNESCO, 2004, 24 page report available as pdf file at
http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php@URL_ID=15006&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html – (as of 23 March 2004).
Which Holocaust Matter?
12 April 2004