Our current president has a habit of insulting Native America, not only by calling Senator Warren “Pocahontas,” but by installing a portrait of Andrew Jackson, architect of Indian Removal and of genocide, in the Oval Office in the place of honor before bringing in Native Code Talkers to honor them for their contribution to the war effort in World War II. The worst, however, is when he says, “our ancestors tamed a continent,” and “we are not going to apologize for America,” referring to the destruction of millions of Native lives.
“Our ancestors tamed a continent,” of course, refers to the idea of the North American continent as an empty wilderness, devoid of human life, a place ripe for the taking. Of course, our current president is not famous for his intelligence or his knowledge, but this concept of the “Virgin Soil” has had plenty of play among academics, as well.
This kind of misguided and, in some cases, deliberately dishonest, information is why I always caution my students in workshops and classes I teach on writing about other cultures to regard the works of outside academics as questionable and to give greater weight to first-person narratives from people within that culture or diaries, letters, writings, such as poetry or fiction, from people within that culture. The paragraph below is in every talk I give on this subject and every lesson in any online class that I teach and speaks directly to that issue.
“As a part of this second danger, one thing you must remember about doing research on other cultures in books, libraries, on the internet, is that much of it is wrong, accidentally or willfully. Accidentally, because journalists, anthropologists, other scholars, and explorers may have misinterpreted what they saw or heard or because—and this was common—their informants deliberately misinformed them to protect their people or to protect their own source of whatever the white man was providing them. Consequently, even primary sources from past times can be contaminated if they are “as told to” or are translated. Willfully, because a lot of that research was done by people, usually white men, who had an agenda that placed wealthy white male Europeans at the pinnacle of creation and everyone and everything else downhill from that, which led to eugenics and a lot of other horrid, stupid things. So there's your second caveat: You can do your research and still get it wrong in some way.”
This idea that there was no Native genocide because disease alone killed all the Indigenous peoples on the continent, leaving it conveniently vacant for Europeans is a race-based “intuitive” theory from the 1970s that has been refuted since the end of the 20thcentury by scholars actually working with primary documents and other evidence. The “virgin soil thesis,” based on the belief that Natives’ lack of immunities and their inept healers were responsible for their downfall, was propounded by Alfred Crosby in 1976. This theory was quite popular for a time early in the last half of the 20th century because it placed all the responsibility for the massive death counts among Indigenous peoples after European arrival on the Indigenous people themselves because they were genetically weak, lacking in acquired immunity, and lacking in competent medical care, rather than on the violence waged against them by Europeans from the very beginning of contact and continuing into the early 20th century.
As David S. Jones points out in “Virgin Soils Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly(October 2003), “Perhaps the idea that Indian depopulation can be explained by the Indians' lack of immunity took hold because it served an ideological purpose. White physicians in South Africa, for instance, used virgin soil theory to explain the prevalence of tuberculosis among African mine workers. … theories of immunological determinism can still assuage Euroamerican guilt over American Indian depopulation, whether in the conscious motives of historians or in the semiconscious desires of their readers. … the epidemics among American Indians, despite their unusual severity, were caused by the same forces of poverty, social stress, and environmental vulnerability that cause epidemics in all other times and places.”
David Stannard argued in American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York, 1992) that "by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent."
Paul Kelton, author of Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight Against Smallpox, 1518-1824 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015) and "Avoiding the Smallpox Spirits: Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival," Ethnohistory, 50 (Fall 2003), is yet another of the many scholars who have gone to actual primary documents and other evidence to examine this thesis as it pertained to the Cherokee Nation and found that many epidemics were not as severe as had been claimed or assumed and that the Cherokee healers and spiritual beliefs were as effective as the primitive medicines of the Europeans in dealing with smallpox. He also discusses the part that the overwhelming violence—the bitter wars that decimated population, the actions of the white settler armies in destroying towns, homes, farms, and stored harvests in an attempt to starve the Cherokee, the forced surrender of huge swathes of territory necessary for a hunting-gathering existence—played in rendering the surviving remnant of Cherokees susceptible to smallpox and other illnesses.
As far as the idea that the Europeans thought the continents were empty, there is such abundance of evidence of the contrary that the idea that academics would put that forth as fact in university classrooms and scholarly publications is ludicrous. The history of the United States is filled with statesmen lamenting the fact that American Indians own the land they want and with their plans and chicanery to force them to sell or give it or to just force them off the land. That relentless push westward that came to be called Manifest Destiny in the 1840s continued from the first landings of Europeans on the Atlantic Seaboard through the war with Tecumseh, the Indian Removal Act and many Trails of Tears (killing tens of thousands—one would think that alone would qualify for designation as ethnic cleansing or genocide), to the Indian Wars of the 19th century, while in California, the Spanish mission system devastated the Native population, and when the Americans took over, they offered official government bounties on Indian heads. Not exactly the acts of people who thought the continent was vacant.
As far as various academics’ statements that the destruction of the native population could not be genocide because it was not “deliberate or on purpose,” I offer a tiny sampling of the quotations from speeches, letters, newspaper articles, and other documents to be easily found in a search through American history. The researcher will easily find many, many more quotations from Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, and many other Founding Fathers and presidents, as well as governors and other civic leaders, all speaking of the need to wipe out the Indigenous population of the continent.
“The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” – General Phil Sheridan
“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! Scalps are what we are after… I long to be wading in gore!” – Rev. John M. Chivington, co-founder of the University of Denver and leader of the Sand Creek Massacre
"Civilization or death to all American savages." – Major James Norris
“Discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest.” – Chief Justice John Marshall
“The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.” – General George Washington, orders to troops, 1779 [Those captured prisoners of every age and sex were then sold as slaves to the West Indies.]
This erasure of the destruction of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is a pervasive problem in this country. Witness the proponents of the virgin soil thesis of the past century, who were the modern versions of the Puritans rejoicing, after one massacre, that they hadn’t had to commit another due to disease and starvation, thanks to the mighty hand of God. The history of this country is a history of broken treaties with Indian nations, a history of massacres and forced removals that killed many thousands, a history of continuous greed for the land and other possessions of the Indigenous people and violence and wars to obtain what was so desired. The history of this country is a history of theft and slavery, a history of prisoner of war camps called reservations (that Hitler studied and used as models for his concentration camps—he admired the efficiency of the U.S. genocide of its Native population and emulated it in his own Final Solution), a history of official bounties on Indian heads, skins, and scalps. The history of this country is a history of kidnapping children and imprisoning them in boarding “schools,” rife with physical and emotional abuse—“Kill the Indian to save the man!”—a history of forced sterilization and medical experimentation without consent. If you look at it openly, it adds up to something that can hardly be called anything but ethnic cleansing and genocide.
So, of course, as a country, we don’t look at it openly—and when someone forces us to face it, we cry, “Not true! Get over it! Victim studies! PC,” anything we can to make the awful truth go away and be buried once again. Still, it happened, and the results of it remain with us, especially embedded in Native communities and lives. American popular culture is still in the grip of Manifest Destiny and “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” with the enshrinement of the Hollywood Western as one of our great art forms. I would hope for better from academia, however, where the truth is supposed to have value above belief in American exceptionalism, but I am often disappointed.
This situation is a perfect example of why we need ethnic studies classes—and why they should be part of the required core of classes and not electives that only a few students will take. Our citizens need to know our history, to know what we’ve done as a country, to know how we got here today, to know the truth and not the photoshopped Hollywood version of who we really are. Without that knowledge, we will continue to make the same mistakes, doomed to repeat the past we choose not to know.