Is a Nation Founded on Genocide Worth Celebrating?


I think it would be fair to say that many Americans are not particularly fond of thinking about some of the darker chapters in our nation's history. And who can blame them? It can be unpleasant to be reminded of our mistakes, especially the ones that happened long before we were born. Then again, denying these mistakes is not an acceptable solution, especially when some of them have lingering effects that continue to impact our neighbors today. Denial solves nothing, leads to inaccurate views of our history, and prevents healing. As nice as it might be not to have to face up to some of our history, it seems clear that we must.

The title of this post was intended to be provocative, but this is a question I sometimes find myself asking this time of year and again around Columbus Day. I believe that the manner in which early Americans treated those who were here before us is one of the most appalling chapters in our nation's history. I'd put it right up there with slavery, something else that was widely justified by Christianity. And much like slavery, we've done a poor job of confronting it.

Instead of re-hashing this uncomfortable history, I'd like to expand a bit on what I said above about "lingering effects" by mentioning one example. I grew up watching old Westerns on TV that were made before I was born (mostly during the 1950s and 1960s). Cowboys vs. Indians was one of the most common themes, and it was common for the Native Americans to be described as "savages." To be clear, the people describing them this way were not the villains in the films but the "good guys." In fact, the Native Americans were often the villains, and depicting them as bloodthirsty non-Christian savages served to justify how they were treated. What was actually genocide was shown as something much closer to self-defense.

My point in mentioning this is that while the historical slaughter of Native Americans and efforts to destroy their culture happened long before these films were made, this disturbing view of native peoples stuck around long enough afterward that it was reflected in some of these films. Imagine watching these films as a Native American child! Even the ones that didn't thoroughly villainze the natives often depicted native cultures in absurd ways that would have offended modern sensibilities (and rightly so). Our historical treatment of Native Americans was bad enough, but it seemed that we kept much of it up until relatively recently. Now we just look the other way, blame them for any problems we hear about, and refuse to rename our sportsball teams while trumpeting our success in removing a few Confederate monuments.

Is a nation founded on genocide (or slavery) worth celebrating? Maybe. It could be, but I think it depends on whether we are willing to confront this part of our history and do whatever we can to make up for it. What discourages me is that I haven't seen much progress in this area. July 4 and most other America-oriented holidays seem to be an excuse to celebrate a handful of things we are proud of while pushing whatever we are ashamed of our of our collective consciousness. Part of the tradition around many of these holidays now includes expressing anger toward anyone who dares to remind us of our many failings (e.g., "Nobody gave me a casino!"). This sort of thing does not make me feel much like celebrating.