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Thursday, October 22, 2015

What's in a name? Exploring How We Define Genocide from Lemkin to International Law

How does the Native American experience line up with legal and other definitions of genocide?  This was the question at the heart of the presentation of Joe Eggers, an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Studies student who presented his work at the September 30, workshop on Holocaust, Genocide and Mass Violence Studies (HGMV).

Eggers explained the forced assimilation of Native Americans through the American Indian Boarding schools, outlining the various American policies institutionalizing this forced assimilation in the United States, such as the 1882 Code of Indian Offenses and the 1887 Dawes Act.  This sort of legislation and policy often resulted in forcible conversions to Christianity, which was seen as a more “cost-effective” measure than forced deportation or mass executions.  In 1819, the first boarding schools in Minnesota were established in Pipestone and Morris, which have been documented to include physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse toward the Native children. Part of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’s criteria finds the forcible transfer of children from one group to another to be genocide.  However, interest in codifying protection against cultural forms of genocide was largely suppressed by the United States delegation in the creation of the convention.  As a result, this definition fails to capture the mass force assimilation characterizing the colonisation of the Americas. Eggers asserts that this framework does not effectively account for the abuse in the boarding schools, instead citing Lemkin’s definition and the 1994 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People as more inclusive and appropriate in addressing such moments in history.

Eggers concluded his presentation by bringing to light the Canadian experience of First Nation peoples.  Canada also instituted a boarding school policy, and in 2008 the government issued the first formal apology, which has resulted in the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During this process, the commission discussed the cultural genocide that occurred in these schools, yet this sort of rhetoric has not been employed in the American context.  To conclude Eggers, finds that by extending the definition of genocide to incorporate Lemkin’s cultural dimension, American actions in these boarding schools would constitute genocide.  In his future research, Eggers may explore the disparities between the Canadian and the American approach and try to examine the potential consequences of amending this definition for the various actors involved in the practical arena.