The American Indian Wars Were Not Genocide

Photo credit – By Carptrash (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

In some of my reading on the laws of war, military honor, and the American Indian wars, I chanced upon Guenter Lewy’s article in Commentary, September 2004 entitled, “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?” In a logical step-by-step approach, Lewy lays out why the tragic displacement of the American Indian was not genocide. Fundamentally, the term “genocide” is a modern legal concept that was not enshrined in law during the time the American Indians were being attacked and dispossessed of their traditional homelands. It led Lewy to Gordon Leff’s quote,

[history] must always be contextual: it is no more reprehensible for an age to have lacked our values than to have lacked our forks.1

Which reminded me of the Clausewitz quote I used in my dissertation,

…[E]very age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions. Each period, therefore, would have held to its own theory of war, even if the urge had always and universally existed to work things out on scientific principles. It follows that the events of every age must be judged in the light of its own peculiarities. One cannot, therefore, understand and appreciate the commanders of the past until one has placed oneself in the situation of their times, not so much by a painstaking study of all of its details as by an accurate appreciation of its major determining features.2

If we do apply modern legal, moral, ethical, and cultural concepts to past events, do we not need to do it across all cultural entities? Would it not apply to the destruction of the Erie and Neutral by the Iroquois? The Crow, Arikara, and Pawnee at the hands of the Sioux? The total annihilation of the “Red-Haired people” in the Great Basin by the Paiute?

If so, how far do we go back? Are we limited by those who kept plausible records of their deeds or would archaeological evidence count?

I am eternally thankful for being born in an age where genocide has been legally defined and applied to the laws of war, but I do not for a minute think we can apply it retroactively with any degree of justice.

1No reference made in the Lewy article, but I think it is from – Leff, Gordon. 1969. History and Social Theory. University, Ala: University of Alabama Press.

2p. 593, Clausewitz, Carl von, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret. 1976. On War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


  1. Chuckles

    TJ: I applaud your courage for taking this issue on in public. I need to point out that genocide, though legally enshrined only recently, is always and everywhere wrong. It is a crime against humanity because it violates the humanity of others. Notwithstanding what Hegel and his followers might say, it doesn’t matter whether or not values are modern if the source of the values is timeless.

    • tjlinzy

      I agree that trying to “exterminate” a class of people was considered morally wrong in most western cultures in the last 800-1,000 years and international law often only follows previous custom, as I have written about in relation to the long history of military honor as a prelude to the laws of war and not the other way around. The article I quote by Lewy also goes into detail why the massacres and displacement were not genocide even if the modern legal definition was applied. However, my main point is that if the modern legal standard (which includes not only the definition, but the sanction) is applied retro-actively, it cannot stop at its latest, but not its only, perpetrator, so we cannot apply that standard.

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