When Genocide Lost a Debate

Resolutions condemning the genocide of Jewish, Armenian, and Sudanese peoples sailed through the Colorado legislature with overwhelming support, but lawmakers on April 20 didn’t accord the near-annihilation of American Indians quite the same status.

State Sen. Suzanne Williams (D-District 28), a member of the Comanche Nation who spearheaded the joint resolution on Native genocide, said in an interview before the vote that she expected a “positive reception” from the current legislature, an expectation not fully realized. She acknowledged the measure might “hit too close to home.”

“Every year the Senate and House legislators acknowledge the holocaust and genocide of Jewish people and we also acknowledge the genocide of Armenian people,” she said. “But it’s important to acknowledge the first genocide on our own land—the genocide of American Indians.”

What happened to Native people was, instead of genocide, first termed a “tragedy” and then an “atrocity” by legislators, who submitted amendment after amendment over the precise language to be used in the resolution, with “atrocity” the final choice to replace “genocide.”

Sen. Suzanne Williams (D-Aurora), Comanche, conferred with other legislators, including Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) about a resolution in the Colorado Assembly recognizing Native American genocide. (Carol Berry)

Sen. Suzanne Williams (D-Aurora), Comanche, conferred with other legislators, including Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) about a resolution in the Colorado Assembly recognizing Native American genocide. (Carol Berry)

The squabble over language reflected an underlying disagreement about what legislators considered to be an acceptable account of the Native experience on the North American continent, while Williams said the resolution was to “look at history from the Indian point of view.”

Some legislators objected to the term “genocide” because, they said, it meant total annihilation and, after all, some Native people remain today. Williams responded that despite the Jewish holocaust and Armenian genocide some Jewish and Armenian people also remain.

In a back-and-forth exchange about legislators’ objections, Williams noted that there were an estimated 18 million Natives in what is now North America at the end of the 15th century, compared to about 1.7 million enumerated in the 2010 U.S. census.

A delegation of Native students and others stood at the rear of the General Assembly as legislators argued over terms. They held fast to the designation “genocide” and said that without it the resolution was no longer the resolution they had supported.

Although the resolution finally passed (24 in favor, nine against, and two excused), largely along party lines, legislators objected to its focus on the past, its “negative” nature, and the way in which, they charged, it seemed to blame the U.S. government although the government apparently lacked a Hitler-type leader to instigate a policy of widespread massacre.

Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-District 6), who said she has worked as an attorney for the Navajo Nation and Colorado’s two Ute tribal nations, asserted that, “There may be those who don’t see a brighter future, but I live and work with those who do.” Hitler was intent on the extinction of an entire peoples and “this is entirely different,” she said.

The resolution would treat the tribal nations “as if they are extinct, but they are not,” and are “very much present,” Roberts said.

Williams said there had been an extermination plan, executed in the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, and Native exile to barren lands. She said the resolution described “a history of what happened in North America” and was a “rebuke of the past” that does not purport to give “both sides.”

Williams recited the words of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, “the American Indian has justified his own extermination.”

Sen. Ted Harvey (R-District 30) said, “there is a difference between relocation and annihilation.” While Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-District 15) said there were “many wrongs” against the nation’s first people, but also “many blessings.”

Sen. Irene Aguilar (D-District 32) said, “Many of us are embarrassed about what happened.” But genocide would require a Hitler-like leader that wasn’t the case, she said, suggesting it was instead a “tragedy,” a term supported by Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-District 23).

Mitchell said the term “genocide” could be construed as a rebuke to the current regime because it still has denied wrongdoing. But the government has instituted positive measures including the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, he said, adding that “tragedy” is neutral, while “genocide” places responsibility for evil acts on the U.S. government.

Aguilar said she had spoken with the Native students and others in the room who “felt strongly” that it was a genocide, so she suggested that “atrocity” better described Natives’ history than did “tragedy,” so “atrocity” was the term adopted in the resolution, which was cosponsored by Rep. John Kefalas (D-District 52).

The joint resolution also included Colorado’s support for designating November as First Nation Appreciation month in the state.

Williams is termed out of both the House and Senate after serving a total of 16 years, and said in an interview, “This is a nice way to go out—I felt I needed to do this in my last year.”

The measure that passed April 20 was similar to non-binding joint resolutions the state legislature passed in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, nearly half the Senate voted against the measure out of concern that it constituted a blanket condemnation of all settlers.

This year the resolution added the parenthetical phrase: “settlers on many (but not all) occasions treated the indigenous population of North America with cruelty and inhumanity.” It also cited broken treaties, the demonization of Native Americans and other depredations, and it called on the General Assembly to recognize the millions of Native deaths that resulted from the European invasion.