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James I granted the Virginia Company of London its first Royal Charter (of April 1606) for a colony south of the Potomac. It operated with the consent of Parliament, under both royal and private control, although the King (under this initial Charter) “possessed ultimate supervisory control.” He appointed the members of the King’s Council of Virginia who directed the corporation’s and who were in turn charged with nominating each colony’s governing council. James I declared that he intended, in creating this entity, to convert and civilize the Indigenous inhabitants of North America. Several months later, he enjoined prospective settlers to “use all good meanes to draw the salvages and heathen people … to the true service and knowledge of God” and to use “all just, kind and charitable courses” in encouraging Indians to “conforme themselves to … sociable traffique whereby they may the sooner be drawne to the true knowledge of God and the obedience of us.” The Virginia Company was, nevertheless, also a profit-oriented enterprise – a joint-stock company which sold shares and was organized to bring profit to its shareholders. It has been described as “an instrument for the accomplishment of national purposes” and a “national corporation for Christian imperialism and mercantile benefits.” As one historian observes, “Mammon and God could be served simultaneously without qualms of incompatibility” during the seventeenth century. Indeed, service to God was thought to be rewarded by gifts from Mammon. Samuel Purchase, whose extensive contributions to popular travel stories of the time spurred colonization, wrote: “All the rich endowments of Virginia are wages for all this worke: God in wisedome having enriched the Savage Countries, that those riches might be attractives for Christian suters, which there may sowe spirituals and reape temporals.”
Before examining the Beothuk and Powhatan cases, we outline those parts of the Conventional account of genocide that can most usefully be applied to such historical cases. The treaty details the crime of genocide, and, with the exception of state liability for genocide, the cases construing the treaty are criminal. However, we do not propose to establish criminality with respect to centuries-old conduct; nor need we. We do this to illustrate how the conventional concept of genocide applies to the historical cases of the Beothuk Nation and the Powhatan Tsenacommacah and neighboring nations.
Two signal events occurred in 2014 – one in Canada and one in the United States – that bring home why it is worth attempting to determine whether the crime known today as genocide occurred in North America over the course of its colonization. On the face of it, they have little in common: one is the opening of a new museum north of the Canada–U.S. border, the other is an anniversary to the south. Yet they both speak eloquently not only to the role of power in shaping how history is told and how it acquires the status of knowledge, but also to how memory, and the vigilant refusal to forget, can challenge – and resist – this process. As a recent book exploring the phenomenon of hidden genocides observes “[t]he blood of the victims whose deaths do not matter to the living is just blood in the sand … The blood of those who matter to the living will be remembered.”
The fate of the Beothuk Nation provides a paradigm case of the devastation of a people as the result of colonization of their lands and resources by a settler population heavily engaged in the establishment and success of commercial markets. The story begins in apparent amity between small numbers of newcomers and the Indigenous residents of Newfoundland. It proceeds through mounting tensions as the former increased in number, moving from a subsistence fishing, hunting, and trapping economy to one driven by commercial market forces, where the settlers increasingly compromised and eroded Beothuk conditions of life. Settlers forced them to abandon traditional food sources, subjected them to repeated and intensifying violence, and confined them to smaller, less desirable portions of their homelands. Inadequate shelter, lack of proper nutrition, starvation, and mounting physical and mental stresses combined to weaken their resistance to disease and ability to reproduce. Those in Great Britain who were ultimately responsible for colonial policy and settler oversight knew of these developments but failed to act until it was too late. The story ends, it would seem, in the demise of the Beothuk as a distinct cultural and physical entity. But is it also a story of genocide?
[S]ettler colonialism cannot be relegated to the past as something with only residual effects; rather, we need to understand it as an ongoing structure of oppression in which settlers actively maintain their rights to occupy indigenous territories in the present. … [T]his oppressive relationship, as with other forms of colonialism, becomes justified via racialization …
This book takes seriously the issue of North American Indigenous genocides. Focusing on the earliest stages of British colonization, we draw on the established legal definition of genocide – presented initially in the United Nations Genocide Convention – to determine whether the term genocide might appropriately be ascribed to historical events which marked the onset of settler colonialism. Our reflections will be confined to two cases that unfolded on Indigenous lands within what would later be known as Canada and the United States. The first relates the experiences of the Beothuk Nation from 1500–1830 on the island that became Newfoundland; the second follows the Powhatan Tsenacommacah from 1607 to 1677 in their struggle with British colonists over the tidewater and piedmont regions of what was called the Virginia Colony. We then assess and critique that account of genocide, suggesting how it might evolve beyond its current limitations, and determining what its general implications might be for the forcible transfer of Indigenous children to residential and boarding schools in Canada and the United States. We conclude by briefly considering the merits of some recent socio-historical contributions to genocide studies that promise to enhance our understanding of genocide in significant ways.
When, how and why might the term genocide appropriately be ascribed to the experience of North American Indigenous Nations? This chapter examines the propriety of using the modern concept of genocide to evaluate centuries-old conduct. There are those who argue that moral or legal concepts cannot properly apply to an earlier era, that we cannot evaluate the actions of an earlier time by reference to moral or legal principles not then accepted or even in existence. This latter notion is deployed not simply to undermine any moral judgment of the past; it suggests that we now reside on a formally level playing field and that modern society cannot (or should not) redress past wrongs. Furthermore, there are those, mentioned in Chapter 1, who argue that what happened to Indigenous Nations in North America, was not genocide. Such arguments often proceed from a variety of mistaken notions about genocide. Some have argued that genocide must be limited to the Holocaust or Holocaust-like events. Others deny that the mental element of genocidal intent can be met. Still others argue that genocide cannot occur unless there is a specific governmental policy behind the atrocities, while others blame germs, or other factors for the demographic collapse of Indigenous North Americans. We argue throughout this book that these claims are false; if we are to move toward justice in the present and future, judgments about past wrongs can and must be made.
It may well be that the inadequacies riddling the Conventional account of genocide prove insurmountable – including the failure to prohibit stand-alone cultural genocide which, we have argued in the preceding chapter, so profoundly undermines the treaty’s purpose and object of protecting human group viability. Our own view is that while we must rely upon the Conventional account of genocide for some of the things it is able to do, such as to hold génocidaires, at least in some instances, criminally responsible for the atrocities they enact, and to chip away at certain genocide denials in other cases, this cannot help but fall markedly short of what is required if we are to effectively address and prevent human rights violations of this magnitude. This would be true even if the expansive interpretation of the Conventional account were to entrench itself more deeply and ultimately displace the restrictive interpretation of genocide. The reason is that the Conventional account of genocide is a legal tool, designed for specific legal ends which were themselves constrained by the politics of power that prevailed among the post-war community of states charged with the Convention’s drafting.
To this point, we have used the Conventional account of genocide to establish that Indigenous Nations did experience genocides during the British settler colonial conquest of North America, and that as a general matter this fact should no longer be up for debate, and certainly not the denial that (as Chapter 1 attests) has prevailed for far too long with respect to Indigenous Nations. The number, duration, and extent of these genocides is, of course, another issue; we have attempted to provide a workable and accessible methodology to aid in making such determinations effective and convincing. That methodology draws upon the definition of genocide formulated within the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGC or Genocide Convention) and subsequently enhanced by diverse international legal fora, including the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and for the Former Yugoslavia, the various hybrid tribunals, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court as well as evolving customary international law. Despite the procedural elaborations afforded by its application in these diverse venues, this account of genocide (which we have referred to as the Conventional account) is widely regarded (especially by historians and sociologists, as well as genocide studies and Indigenous studies scholars) as narrow, restrictive, conservative or formalistic. However, since it already has secured broad international currency and support, it can help us sidestep the confusing welter of inconsistent definitions in which genocide scholarship outside of legal contexts often finds itself mired.
When and how might the term genocide appropriately be ascribed to the experience of North American Indigenous nations under settler colonialism? Laurelyn Whitt and Alan W. Clarke contend that, if certain events which occurred during the colonization of North America were to take place today, they could be prosecuted as genocide. The legal methodology that the authors develop to establish this draws upon the definition of genocide as presented in the United Nations Genocide Convention and enhanced by subsequent decisions in international legal fora. Focusing on early British colonization, the authors apply this methodology to two historical cases: that of the Beothuk Nation from 1500–1830, and of the Powhatan Tsenacommacah from 1607–77. North American Genocides concludes with a critique of the Conventional account of genocide, suggesting how it might evolve beyond its limitations to embrace the role of cultural destruction in undermining the viability of human groups.