7 facts to justify the genocide of Native Americans: cowboy’s opinion

Kyrylo Danylchenko

In 2010, the U.S. Congress apologized to Native Americans for ill-conceived policies, violence, and plunder. But let's hear the cowboys' opinion.

Children’s books and popular movies portray Native Americans as wise men with proud eagle profiles. They pass around a ceremonial pipe, communicate with spirits, apologize to the animals they have killed, and suffer from the meanness of white colonizers. This is not the whole truth.

1. Barbaric resource exploitation

North American tribes used to burn forests for agriculture and hunting. Some needed land to grow the ‘three sisters’, namely beans, pumpkins, and corn. Others hunted bison that way, luring the animals into the undergrowth and driving them out with fire to the archers.

We are talking about thousands of square kilometers of scorched land. Any pueblo village was surrounded by 10 kilometers of corn fields. The scorched forest disappeared along with the birds, small animals, and all the mythical ‘tree spirits.’

Navajo cornfield on the ashes of burned trees, Arizona, 1889. Photo: F. A. Ames / National Archives and Records Administration
Native Americans block the river during spawning, 1923. Photo: Edward S. Curtis / Library of Congress

2. Torture

Most Native American tribes practiced torture for revenge and emotional release after a battle. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the north cut off pieces of flesh and burned their captives with fire. The Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche) in the south left them tied up in the desert after cutting off their eyelids. Enemies were castrated and scalped alive.

The aim of torture was not always the death of the victim. In some tribes, people who held up well during torture at the stake were supposed to replace the killed warriors in their families. Torture a future relative? Why not?

Torture of Colonel William Crawford. Illustration: Seneca County Museum in Tiffin, Ohio, U.S. / Wikipedia

3. Gender issues

The Comanche and the Kainai were polygamists: their leaders had up to two dozen wives. One of them was in charge of the household, and it was not a shame to hand over the others for food or weapons. If a man caught his wife in infidelity, he could kill her on the spot or cut off her nose.

In the Iroquois confederation, on the contrary, many issues were managed by the council of clan mothers. They sent warriors on plundering raids a thousand kilometers away from the tribe’s longhouses, indulged in orgies, and imposed tribute on their neighbors.

Kitikiti'sh (Wichita) girls, 1870. Photo: William S. Soule / University of Oklahoma

4. Cruelty of rituals

Native American funeral rites would hardly appeal to human rights activists. The Comanche left the old and sick alone before death, being afraid of evil spirits that had taken over their bodies. Relatives of the deceased from the Chinook tribe would cut pieces of meat from their own bodies with flint knives. The Shoshone of the Rocky Mountains forced widows to mutilate their faces as a sign of mourning every time they passed by their husband’s grave. Apaches burned all the property of the dead and forced their relatives to leave.

The burial of a Sioux on a platform between trees, 1880s. Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

5. Methods of warfare

Long before the arrival of the whites, Native American tribes were engaged in wars of destruction. A common tactic was to slaughter women and children in the village, throw torches at huts, and shoot those who came to help from the ambush. The Iroquois military traditions required total elimination of the enemy; the Beaver Wars where they participated in the 17th century are considered genocide. The highlight was the winter attacks, when the enemy tribe died of starvation, deprived of food supplies.

The Wenro tribe was defeated for the sake of a source of oil, which was then used in medicinal ointments. In the Erie villages, according to the records of Jesuit missionaries, blood reached the knees of adult men. The Susquehanna people disappeared.

'The Prisoner', illustration from the American Harper's Weekly magazine, 1886

6. False spirituality

The Native American practice of communicating with spirits was far from poetic descriptions. It began with a fast. Often the fast was dry and accompanied by an overnight stay in a tree. Then the Sun Dance took place: a person was fastened to the ‘tree of life’ with bone hooks on straps. The task of the one who spoke to the spirits was to pull the hooks out of the incisions on the back along with the skin and meat. Due to blood loss, pain and dehydration, people began to ‘see’ the afterlife and ‘communicate’ with its inhabitants.

The Sun Dance ritual, 1908. Photo: Edward S. Curtis / Library of Congress

7. Cannibalism

Cannibalism was widespread among all Native Americans in the northeast. The cases have been documented in dozens of tribes: Néhiyaw (Cree), Wyandot (Huron), Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Báxoje (Iowa), Neshnabé (Potawatomi), Jiwére (Otoe), Odawa, etc. The name Mohawks, given to the largest Iroquois tribe Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, means ‘flesh eaters.’ Often it was a part of a ritual, sometimes an escape from hunger, sometimes a pleasure.

A vivid episode of cannibalism was described by missionaries in the late 17th century. During the visit of a Sioux chief to Odawa, the latter cooked and ate the guest and his family. The enraged Sioux took the Odawa chief prisoner and roasted him for hours at the stake, forcing him to eat his own flesh.

The Quakiutl Indian dries the mummy of a relative for ritual purposes or prepares the body of an enemy over a fire for cannibalism. This tribe ate human flesh. Photo: Edward S. Curtis / Library of Congress

Cover photo: Edward S. Curtis / Wellcome Library, London / CC BY 4.0