Defining settler colonialism between crimes: Margaret D. Jacobs, ‘Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing? Are These Our Only Choices?’, The Western Historical Quarterly, 2016

27Jul16

Excerpt: Gary Clayton Anderson has boldly instigated a conversation on the nature of Indian-white conflict in the American West—in a nutshell he asks, was it genocide or ethnic cleansing? Anderson answers this emphatically: ethnic cleansing, which he defines as “forced dislocation with the intent to take away lands of a particular ethnic, religious, or cultural group.” He argues that we should not label what happened in the West in the late nineteenth century as genocide because relatively low numbers of Indians were killed and there was no official intent to eliminate Indians. His most intriguing argument is that government officials engaged in one crime against humanity—ethnic cleansing through forced deportation and confinement to reservations—to actually prevent the more heinous crime of genocide.

Anderson’s formulation of Indian-white conflict in the West as an either/or choice strikes me as an oversimplification of what is actually a both/and phenomenon. Scholars such as Brendan C. Lindsay and Benjamin Madley have shown—pretty incontrovertibly—that it is entirely appropriate to use the term genocide to represent what happened in California in the late nineteenth century.1 Anderson has shown that ethnic cleansing may be a more accurate term for what transpired in other instances.2 In this brief commentary, I intend to critique both genocide and ethnic cleansing as limiting concepts and discuss alternative means of understanding a broader history of Indian-white conflict that puts women and children at the center rather than at the periphery of our historical inquiry.



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