Genocide & American Indian History

Instructor: Emily Cummins

Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

Genocide refers to the deliberate killing of a large number of people in a population. In this lesson, we'll talk about Native Americans and genocide following the arrival of European settlers in the U.S.

Native American Genocide

When we think about Native Americans in this country, we may picture the pilgrims and Indians meeting and sharing food at the first Thanksgiving; however, far from these pleasant images of new encounters between different cultures, there is a much darker side to the story. In this lesson, we'll talk about the brutal clashes between European settlers and Native Americans, which resulted in an extreme number of deaths in the native population.

Painting depicting popular ideas about the First Thanksgiving between Pilgrims and Indians
native americans

First, we should talk about some definitions. Genocide is a deliberate attempt to kill or destroy a national, ethnic, or racial group. It's an effort to eradicate an entire group from a place. Throughout history the world has experienced a number of different genocides. The atrocities in Nazi Germany during World War II generally come to mind when we think about the unspeakable acts that constitute genocide. More recent examples include the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s. In this lesson, we'll talk about the history of Native Americans in the United States and the arguments around whether or not this group experienced genocide at the hands of European settlers.


A familiar story of North America is the draw of open, free land that inspired many Europeans to make the journey to what we now know as the United States. But, these newcomers didn't really discover a new land. There was an existing society here: the Native Americans. European settlers soon realized that in order to expand their new colony they would need to acquire more land. Anthropologists have argued that this quest for resources is what we might call settler colonialism, or a type of colonialism where outsiders come to take over a territory. Native Americans were not going to willingly give up their land or move off of it to facilitate European expansion. This necessitated violence by colonizers to forcibly take land. Scholars argue that settler colonialism was an inherently violent process with costs to the Native population land and life.

While scholars generally agree that what happened to Native Americans at the hands of European colonizers was extremely violent, there is some debate as to whether or not this constituted genocide. Let's take a look at the different sides of this debate.


Genocide actually came to be used as a term after the Holocaust. The United Nations recognized genocide as a crime against humanity officially in 1948. In the Native American context, scholars have pointed out that there was a huge population reduction among Native Americans during the period of colonization. While some definitions of genocide define it as direct killing by authorities, other definitions emphasize broader considerations. For example, the overall social conditions and social forces of settler colonialism were devastating to Native Americans and this should be considered genocide. Native people lost land, their cultural heritage, and things like their language and religious practices were deeply threatened by colonial encounters. So, these factors combined with massive loss of life, constitute genocide in this perspective.

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