By Alexis Herr



 Chief Seattle


Growing up in Seattle afforded me excellent opportunities to learn about Native American culture and history. The city’s name honors Chief Seattle (Seathl), who played a significant role in preventing radical warfare between European settlers and indigenous people in Puget Sound in the 1850s. I benefited from having a mother who dragged my sister and I to museums showcasing native artwork and culture. My parents instilled in me a great appreciation and respect for the original owners of the land we lived on, however, not everyone had the same experience. Again, the Native community demonstrated their outstanding leadership and lobbied for a law that passed in 2005 that encouraged Washington school districts to share the rich culture of Washington tribes with their students. Local tribes (there are 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington state) partnered with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to create tribal sovereignty curriculum for teachers. The curriculum educates young learners about tribal sovereignty and laws enacted to help protect tribal identity and autonomy.

I scanned the State’s 2013 Social Studies Learning Standards Handbook for K-12 Students by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn to see how the issue of tribal genocide is addressed. The handbook discusses native genocides in a section that aims to increase understanding of the “multiple perspectives and interpretations of historical events” (52). Students learn the varying approaches to historical events in the US and examine “different accounts of the colonization era, including colonists’ perspective of settlement and indigenous people’s perspective of genocide” (52). The wording of this was clearly given great thought by its author, as it does not promote a side in the genocide-colonization debate surrounding the annihilation of hundreds of native tribes by European settlers.

I am inclined to argue that by not taking a side, a side is nonetheless taken. This viewpoint, however, may be too drastic for some. The challenge confronting the question of genocide in the case of Native Americans centers on the struggle to provide evidence of the settlers’ “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Proving a perpetrator’s intent is the linchpin to defining an event as genocide. There is no question that European colonists destroyed hundreds of native tribes, but unearthing their motivations for such violence is no easy task.

American Historian David E. Stannard is one scholar up for the challenge. His book American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World has done much to stress the importance of studying the genocides of Native Americans.  “We must do what we can to recapture and to try to understand, in human terms, what it was that was crushed, what it was that was butchered,” he explains. “It is not enough merely to acknowledge that much was lost. So close to total was the human incineration and carnage in the post-Columbian Americas, however, that of the tens of millions who were killed, few individual lives left sufficient traces for subsequent biographical representation” (xi). I have always favored this quote because it gets to the heart of the Native American genocide debate. Yes, scholars face many challenges in adducing evidence of the colonizers’ “intent to destroy” native tribes. But, they also encounter great obstacles unearthing information on native populations eradicated by settlers. European colonizers were so successful in taking over Native American land that in many cases, little to no trace exists of a tribe’s culture, language, and lineage.  What can students learn from all of this? I guess it becomes the teachers’ responsibility to present the full scale of the debate to their students and even more so, the full impact of European colonization on indigenous populations.


  1. As someone of Celtic and American Indian ancestry, I find this genocide debate to be pathetic. Anybody ever heard of smallpox? Turning micro histories into “one size fits all” macro history is an insult to even below average intelligence.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree that a “one size fits all” approach to the history of the Native population can be problematic. Therefore I am of the opinion that we look at each tribe and its interaction with colonizers as separate cases. In so doing we can speak of genocides of the Native Americans and not of one all encompassing genocide.

      Indeed, the fact that smallpox obliterated native Americans does not unilaterally mean genocide. Only when scholars can adduce proof that colonizers intentionally infected certain tribes to annihilate them can we consider whether or not there was an intention to “annihilate in whole or in part” that tribe. In some cases, we do have such evidence thanks to diaries and other primary source documents. In others, that is just not the case.

  2. As a teacher in WA state currently teaching parts of the tribal sovereignty curriculum, I find myself very much in the middle of this debate. Textbooks are very much still catching up while several tribal members have put together texts and DVDs representing the rich tribal oral history. The oral history frequently contrasts and contradicts dominant written accounts. For any teacher in the greater Puget Sound area, I would highly recommend a book called “The Bitter Waters of Mendecine Creek.” The book documents the persecution of the Nisqually tribe by the US government and the unjust killing of of their leader, Chief Leschi. The book is especially interesting because a symbolic court, led by the chief justice of the Washington Supreme court just overturned Chief Leschi’s verdict.

  3. Among many issues this article raises, one is the difficulty of presenting a balanced account of historical events when much of the material portraying those events is unavailable. While this is a difficult issue for historians to grapple with, it’s even more complicated for a conscientious classroom teacher.

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