We preferred our own way of living. We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone.
I have spoken.
—dying words of Crazy Horse
Hot war between the tribes and the US was never going to end well for the tribes, and never did. Even the greatest military coalition-builder of all the Native nations, a Shawnee named Tecumseh, born in the middle of the so-called French and Indian War, in 1768, was weaned on the advantages of coalition, since his tribe was in league with the French against the English. Tecumseh took the concept instead to all the Native nations he could, arguing that their primary identity was not tribal, but Native. He had watched as the English betrayed their solemn words of peace and killed his father, Puckeshinwa, as well as his hero and mentor, the war chief Cornstalk. He was eventually a holdout from amongst Native leaders, many of whom signed peace treaties after defeat in battle. Tecumseh refused and warriors of many tribes eventually flocked to him as the Revolutionary War years altered the treaty relationships on the one hand, but kept the armed forces of England and the colonists busy elsewhere on the other. Tecumseh and his spiritual charismatic brother Tenskwatawa recruited warriors from as far away as Minnesota and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. (Josephy: 157) It was, by far, the greatest Native coalition ever. Nonetheless, in the end, the sheer firepower and overwhelming numbers of EuroAmericans overran all Native lands. Tecumseh had many warriors from many tribes but his numbers and arsenals were puny alongside what whites had with cities full of recruits and boatloads of European immigrants arriving constantly.
One can only speculate on the likelihood of doing better through negotiation, and that speculation is more logical when one does examine the results of the tribes who did negotiate and never went to war. Those tribes did better in the end and still suffered, but didn’t lose as many of their people to war.
Genocide or ethnic cleansing?
There is an easy contrast of images that illustrates the difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide. Both happened to Native Americans, either as a whole people or as nations, as tribes, as bands and as villages, in their nested identities.
Ethnic cleansing image: All of you Jews, out of the room right now.
Genocide image: Soldiers, lock the doors and begin firing at all the Jews.
Of course, the one can shade into the other as behavior degenerates. Certainly, as armed conflict continues, behavior worsens on all sides, generally. From wishing the inconvenient tribes would go west, or north, or up into the mountains, the European invaders who experienced armed resistance from justifiably outraged tribal members began to fear Native Americans so much that the expression, the only good Indian is a dead Indian began to replace a much more nuanced view of tribes and tribal members. Like the shift in Kosovo in 1999 by the dominant Serb oppressors, prejudice turned to ethnic cleansing of some Native American tribespeople in the US, which then turned to genocide at various points.
This is very hard for dominant culture US historians to admit, because even retroactively, genocide is a much more serious international crime against humanity than is ethnic cleansing. The term is avoided unless rationale for invasion is being sought, even in the face of obvious genocide, as in Rwanda in 1994, for example, or, as in the rape, mass murder and torture committed by Bosnian Serbs against Muslims while George H.W. Bush was president. (Power: 288) If the language implies obligation, it is studiously avoided until it coincides with national interest, all too often.
Identity conflict praxis: traditions revisited
Conflict experts tend to lean toward specific theories in attempts to understand and explain group behavior. My bias is toward the complexity models, which make generalizations more problematic, but which account for more elements of good thinking by scholars and practitioners who perceive themselves in disagreement. Indeed, those who prefer single causative theories of conflict hold a measure of the truth, just as those who adhere to a single method of conflict resolution also possess a part of the picture.
More specifically, there are those who classify Native American-dominant culture conflict as ethnic. Some hold that these are largely class conflicts and others point to resource capture and subsequent conflict as the true source. In addition, there are those who define such struggles as race-based. Coming from the interdiscipline, the field, of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, I would assert that each analysis offers a legitimate piece of the whole, and that no one can presume to tell us exactly how to classify the wide range of Native American struggles, campaigns, movements, insurgencies, reform efforts, local leadership battles, treaty rights contests and sovereignty claims. Race, class, ethnicity, resource scarcity, and perhaps most importantly, face (dignity, respect, group self-esteem and standing), are all valid components of the conflict picture, and of the process that continuously evokes and changes the perception of each element. Latin Studies professor Amalia Pallares, a Native Ecuadorian, writes of this praxis in her study of the evolution of grassroots assertion of basic rights in her country:
In contrast to previous analyses that see indigenous struggle as either a class or an ethnic struggle, or see it as both a class and an ethnic struggle, my thesis is that class, race, and ethnicity are remade by the activists in the process of political struggle. (Pallares: 34)
This is the principle of understanding that a system operates in relationship to itself and invariably causes changes throughout the system for each change in a subsystem. When my discussions about nonviolence proceeded with Anishinabe leader Walter Bresette, I changed his perceptions of the power of nonviolence and he changed my views on, and understanding of, warrior cultures. Our co-evolution joined with that of many others and produced systemic changes in the struggle to reaffirm treaty rights—even as that co-evolution wrought changes, however small, in several other struggles for social liberation, environmental protection or peace.
Is identity helpful or harmful? Both. Each tiny element, from the scalplock to the earlock, from the body piercings to the flesh excising, creates another level of identity, of separateness. (Isaacs: 50) And that can create an unthinking group xenophobia, or it can also create unity in the face of oppression. Most would agree that Native Americans have been dramatically oppressed; the tribal identities are generally, then, a point of strength and perseverance, a social good. Nonviolent Native American activists have used that identity in many innovative, positive ways. To the extent that each identity is properly acknowledged and validated, better communication is facilitated. Tribal people almost always get that context clear and correct, generally making intertribal communication and cooperation much better. Non-natives frequently miss the cues and questions that might help them work in better support of tribal people, but those who learn good nonviolent communication skills overcome that deficit quickly.
Isaacs, Harold R., Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change. NYC: Harper Colophon Books, 1975.
Josephy Jr., Alvin M., The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance. 1958. Reprint, NYC: Penguin, 1976.
Pallares, Amalia, From Peasant Struggles to Indian Resistance: The Ecuadorian Andes in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Power, Samantha, “A Problem from Hell” America and the Age of Genocide. NYC: Basic Books, 2002.