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09 August 2004

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES DAY: 

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''I think it's the proverbial elephant in the living room that nobody's willing to talk about, pretending it's not there. It is there, and we're coming to that time where we have to talk about it."

Genocide It Is

Marty Logan


MONTREAL, Aug 9 (IPS) - When the Belgian Defence Ministry earlier this year blamed North America for the world's worst ever genocide over its killing of millions of indigenous peoples, outrage at the claim spotlighted a topic that rarely enters the public realm but has long been accepted by many native Americans and their supporters.

When the Belgian Defence Ministry earlier this year blamed North America for the world's worst ever genocide over its killing of millions of indigenous peoples, outrage at the claim spotlighted a topic that rarely enters the public realm but has long been accepted by many native Americans and their supporters.

The assertion was made as part of a display on Belgian peacekeeping worldwide, to mark the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda that killed at least 500,000 people. It claimed that 15 million native peoples have been murdered on this continent since Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, and suggested that the extermination continues today.

Although the numbers cited in the display are questionable, there is evidence, however, of a deliberate attempt to obliterate the continent's native peoples

This dispels established theories, such as: the death from disease of many, if not most, of those killed was an unfortunate by-product of ''contact'' between cultures; or that the boarding school system that literally beat the "Indianness" out of children was a misguided attempt at acculturation.

''We're doing a lot of research for our cultural centre and it's becoming more and more apparent that it was all very calculated to get the resources on Haida Gwaii,'' says Andy Wilson, a member of the Haida Repatriation Committee on what most maps still label the Queen Charlotte Islands, 100 kilometers off Canada's Pacific Ocean coast.

The archipelago, sometimes called ''Canada's Galapagos,'' now counts about 4,000 residents, but at one time Haida Gwaii's population might have reached well over 10,000 before it plummeted to 588 in 1915, after European contact.

Wilson's committee has spent the past eight years travelling to museums in Canada and the United States collecting the remains of 400 Haida ancestors taken from the islands after dying from smallpox and other European diseases, in what Wilson calls deliberate ''germ warfare.''

''As we read into the archives in the museums about the captains and the (other) people that were on the boats, who wrote in their logs, they knew exactly what they were doing to gain access to Haida Gwaii,'' adds Wilson in an interview.

Many other activists and scholars have repeated that claim in relation to other slaughters of native North Americans.

Residential schools were another weapon against native peoples and their cultures, in Canada and its southern neighbour, the United States.

''As early as November, 1907, the Canadian press was acknowledging that the death rate within Indian residential schools exceeded 50 percent,'' says the report 'Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust'.

''And yet the reality of such a massacre has been wiped clean from public record and consciousness in Canada over the past decades. Small wonder; for that hidden history reveals a system whose aim was to destroy most native people by disease, relocation and outright murder, while 'assimilating' a minority of collaborators who were trained to serve the genocidal system," continues the report by a group called 'The Truth Commission Into Genocide in Canada'.

In the past two decades, survivors of that system, which operated until the 1960s, have sued the Canadian government and the churches that operated the schools. In 1998, Ottawa apologised for the physical and sexual abuse and loss of culture suffered by native children in those schools.

But as of Aug. 3, more than 12,400 of 90,000 survivors of the system had filed claims against the federal government, and settlements had been reached with more than 1,250 of them, at a cost of 71 million dollars, according to Ottawa's Indian Residential Schools Resolution department.

In the United States, survivors of the boarding schools and their families are now drafting a resolution they aim to have introduced in Congress that would demand compensation for the roughly 100,000 native children taken from their homes in the 18th and 19th centuries with the goal of assimilating them into white society.

Working within the Boarding Schools Healing Project, activists argue that Washington is liable under international law for any continuing effects of that system, including the loss of aboriginal languages and the widespread violence in many native communities.

A proposed apology from the U.S. government to American Indians is now making its way through the U.S. Congress. It reads in part, ''This nation should address the broken treaties and many of the more ill-conceived federal policies that followed, such as extermination, termination, forced removal and relocation, the outlawing of traditional religions and the destruction of sacred places.''

While the Belgian peacekeeping display rated North America as the worst example of genocide in history, it also pointed at other regions that targeted their indigenous peoples.

South America, it said, is responsible for the deaths of 14 million native people to date.

As early as 1992, indigenous peoples meeting at the Kari-oca Conference in Brazil wrote in the 'Indigenous Peoples Earth Charter' that changes should be made to the United Nations Convention Against Genocide, so it would recognise ''many examples of genocide against indigenous peoples.''

Monday is the U.N.-designated International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

In July, Juan Mendez, the new U.N. special rapporteur on the prevention of genocide, told IPS that the international definition of genocide ''obviously covers indigenous peoples when they are subject to some kind of extermination by one way or the other.''

But, added Mendez, ''there is no such thing recognised in international law as cultural genocide or economic genocide. That doesn't mean of course that I'm not going to be open to interpretations of the Genocide Convention that are a little innovative or outside the mainstream interpretations.''

Mendez should have no lack of opportunities, as claims of genocide against indigenous peoples worldwide are growing as the U.N. system opens its doors to them. For example, at a meeting of the body's human rights commission in Geneva on Apr. 8, a representative of native peoples living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh accused the central government of genocide against the Jumma people.

From 1979 to 1983, the government moved half a million settlers into the region to overwhelm the Jumma, said Sanchay Charkma of the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network. Authorities had also set the tribal people against one another and intensified the policy of Islamicisation, he told the commission.

Article 7 of the Draft U.N. Declaration on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples says they have the ''collective and individual right not to be subject to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including the prevention of and redress for:

a. Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or identities; b. Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources; c. Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights; d. Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or other measures.''

Although the declaration appears doomed to fail after 10 years of negotiations between indigenous peoples and governments, Wilson believes dominant cultures will soon admit how they treated aboriginal peoples.

''I think it's the proverbial elephant in the living room that nobody's willing to talk about, pretending it's not there. It is there, and we're coming to that time where we have to talk about it,'' he says. "I work with the public every day and it does come up in conversations ... people always want to know what happened on Haida Gwaii; how the population went from over 10,000 down to 500 and how that all came about. They know that's something wrong there, that something happened (because) our people just disappeared like that."

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