There has been a debate over the last quarter century about the fate of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans who came to the American continent and displaced them. An extreme position is that the Europeans engaged in “genocide,” systematically seeking to wipe-them out. There were some instances in which this clearly took place—Small Pox infected blankets, various massacres, and other atrocities come to mind—but United States policy was far from such an approach.
No question, for nearly four centuries a technologically superior European civilization constantly pressed the native population either to conform to a new hegemony or to withdraw from it, conquering the various first peoples and destroying their population in the process. By the close of the nineteenth century the native population had dwindled, ravaged by war and disease and starvation, to the extent that some began to characterize it as a “vanishing race.” In 1900 the Native American population in the United States reached a nadir at 237,196, a seven-fold decline from what it had been estimated in 1492. But was it genocide?
Historian Gary Clayton Anderson does not believe so. Extermination was never the intention of Euro-Americans. Instead, he uses the term “ethnic cleasing” to characterize how Europeans and their descendants dealt with the native population. The objective of acquiring land and other resources from the native population motivated every aspect of Euro-American engagement with them. In that sense, according to Anderson, the “ethnic cleansing” term is more appropriate than genocide to describe what happened to Native Americans. The term, of course, gained fame in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and suggested the same concept of purging some groups from land wanted by other groups.
One may debate this characterization and there are other books that argue for Native American genocide. An argument about genocide may be found in Alex Alvarez, Native America and the Question of Genocide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, eds., Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America (Duke University Press, 2014). The bulk of Anderson’s book is devoted to making his case for “ethnic cleansing,” followed by a set of case studies explicating it throughout American history.