In the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s announcement to formally recognize Armenian genocide from 1915, two pieces of media went viral. The first was an Independent article from 2019 about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “threatening” to recognize Native American genocide perpetrated by European settlers. The second was a clip of former Republican Senator for Pennsylvania and CNN commentator Rick Santorum saying, “ We birthed a nation from nothing.” Each sparked conversations on the legitimacy of the US issuing statements about genocide across the pond when it has not yet reckoned with its own history of Native American genocide.
Pamunkey descendant Kiros Auld tweeted the Independent article from 2019 — which was titled “Erdogan threatens to recognise killings of Native Americans as genocide in response to Armenia resolution” — and added, “2019. We remembered. His move now.” It has currently been quote-tweeted 1,138 times, mostly by users urging Erdogan to make good on his threat. Because, while many argue that America has indeed recognized its genocide of Native Americans, that’s just not true. We are given watered-down lessons in school touching on “displacement” or an emphasis on how Natives engaged in warfare against settlers in self-defense to justify wholesale genocide. All too often, US policy is absolved by blaming disease and other factors for the decline in Indigenous populations.
“War, slavery and displacement also contributed to the decline of indigenous populations,” wrote Vincent Wood in his article. There’s another word to describe all of that: Genocide. Without recognizing it, the US government’s credibility on international policy will be subject to disingenuous “whataboutism” and Native genocide will be exploited against the US. Struggles are often co-opted in bad faith, but can’t be argued against because they’re legitimate issues.
Media Matters researcher Jason Campbell posted that video clip of CNN commentator Rick Santorum making the aforementioned remarks at a conservative conference. In it, the GOP political commentator says, “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.” Aside from being completely false, Santorum was glorifying a dangerous ideology.
“Manifest Destiny” was the belief that European settlers were ordained by God to set up their empire across the North American continent. It was a religious, white supremacist movement that encouraged expansion. Several atrocities were committed against Indigenous people as a result. This included boarding schools where Natives were forced to attend in order to “kill the Indian, and save the man,” an infamous quote from the founder of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, General Richard H. Pratt. Native children were forced to cut their hair and convert to Christianity. They were given “Christian” names and forced to speak only English.
Santorum was speaking at a function for Catholic high school and college students titled Standing Up For Faith & Freedom. Ironically enough, his comments were part of an agenda being taught to young people under the topic “The Fight For Religious Freedom”. To be clear, perpetuating the lie that nothing existed before settlers colonized what is now America is genocide denial.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was located in Rick Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania. The barracks still exist today as part of the US Army War College. This willful ignorance from someone who served in the Senate doesn’t stop at one former politician: Natives are often given the footnote treatment in the rewriting of American history. The genocidal legacy of US policy was passed down through generations and the effects are ongoing.
The United States formally recognizing Armenian genocide is a good thing. It demonstrates that the government is capable of evolving on issues. But in order for America to maintain credibility on issues of human rights or past atrocities, it must also recognize its own history and work towards rectifying it.
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