We shouldn’t remove the shades of gray from Alaska’s history

Charles Wohlforth’s recent column (“Native memory: Rewriting Alaska history with the word ‘genocide’”) explains the growing popularity of the notion that the history of Alaska, particularly the treatment of Native Alaskans, is best defined as an inexcusable crime against humanity, as genocide. The permanent exhibit in the new Alaska State Museum endorses this idea. Curator Steve Henrikson told Wohlforth that because of the historical treatment of Native Americans, “people talk about how Alaska Natives who fought in World War II were really traitors.” According to Henrikson, “People universally refer to it (treatment of Alaska Natives) as genocide. But we have gotten pushback on that term from historians.” I guess this response is part of the pushback.

To accuse any World War II veteran of treason for fighting fascism is a page from Crackpot History 101. Summing up Alaskan history as genocide is almost as preposterous.

"Genocide yes or genocide no?" is both the wrong question and the wrong answer. The word genocide itself is part of the problem, as it automatically evokes an analogy with the Nazi regime and implies that the core of Alaska history is as murderous as Adolf Hitler's extermination of the Jews, the ultimate, unforgivable evil of the modern imagination.

Whether or not the Holocaust was unique is a perpetual debate about the nature of evil, between those who fear Nazi analogies minimize the events of 1933-1945, and those who think the gas chambers were just another episode of human cruelty, perpetuated mostly by Europeans and their descendants. To cram Alaska's history into this frame is just as simplistic as the unsophisticated pioneer worship it is supposed to correct and poses a serious dilemma for anyone who cares about the future. It is also a problem about the limits of language, and the dangers of trying to shape the past into a two-tone fairy tale, with none of the millions of shades of gray that complicate all human affairs.

The term genocide cannot be separated from its origin as the crime of the Nazis. It was invented in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer and refugee, who had escaped to the United States from the Nazis. He combined "the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)" in order "to denote an old practice in its modern development." As the father of the word, Lemkin took the right of its definition. And as an attorney, he defined the crime of the "destruction of a nation" as broadly as possible, in a book of more than 500 pages, to include "every action infringing upon the life, liberty, health, corporal integrity, economic existence and the honor of the inhabitants" of national, religious, social or racial groups. From mass murder to the encouragement of interracial marriages, disrespecting elders, ignoring traditions, and the use of alcohol and pornography, all are Lemkin's examples of German acts of genocide.

In the parlance of our time, this infinite catalog of crimes against honor has become known as "cultural genocide," an amorphous sin as encompassing and indefensible as George Orwell's "thought crime." Like every term that can mean anything, it means nothing. Those who want to tear down Confederate monuments, for example, and those who want to preserve them, can both rightfully accuse their opponents of cultural genocide.

Despite his impossibly broad definition, Lemkin recognized the differences between Nazi Germany and the U.S., a distinction apparently not clear to everyone. For 50 years, a few activists and academics have been making the charge that the United States is essentially the Fourth Reich, a morally bankrupt and vile criminal enterprise.

The poster child for this point of view is Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado tenured professor fired in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for ridiculing the murdered workers in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns," who deserved to die for being the "technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire." (Ostensibly the university fired Churchill for academic fraud, though in reality it is clear he was terminated for the Eichmann episode and the realization he had no evidence for his repeated claim to be 1/16th Cherokee.) Churchill had been making the Americans equal Nazis comparison for decades, including his 1997 book, "A little matter of genocide: holocaust and denial in the Americas, 1492 to the present."

Make no mistake: Like slavery, the historical treatment of Native Americans by the United States was an inescapable contradiction to the promises of the Declaration of Independence. The United States crossed the continent by the often brutal and savage conquest of many hundreds of different indigenous tribes, as millions of desperate immigrants fleeing repression, starvation and poverty in Europe, who wanted a better life for their children, fought to the death with Native Americans, who wanted the same thing.

By the time the Americans arrived in force in Alaska by the late 19th century, however, the shooting had mostly stopped. The Americans as always assumed the land was theirs by right of possession and hunger for profit, but there were no Indian Wars in Alaska, no mass executions or massacres, no Trails of Tears, no forced exile onto reservations, and except for a few exceptions, no reservations whatsoever. There were no treaties, so there were no broken treaties. And because Congress took more than a century to settle the Alaska Native land claims in 1971, the negotiated terms were better than those offered at any time to any indigenous group in world history.

None of this is to say that the treatment of Native Alaskans by the U.S. government is a record of honor. By present standards, everyone in the 19th century was a bigot of one kind or another, though some were far worse than others. Many disreputable decisions since 1867 borne out of ignorance, indifference and inertia litter our historical landscape. The lack of imagination that led to the suppression of Native languages and traditions in a misguided belief that erasing local cultures would ease the path toward assimilation rather than what appeared to be inevitable extermination, set the stage for the blatant racism and inequality that persisted until the 1960s.

But none of this comes close to justifying the claim that Alaska Natives were somehow treated like the Jews of Nazi Germany. It should go without saying, but apparently some need to be told: nothing like an Alaskan Auschwitz was conceived or attempted, ever. There were no death camps in Alaska, ever. Some officials, military officers, missionaries and teachers in our history may have been closed-minded or incompetent, but I have never seen evidence that a single one was a war criminal, not even the littlest of Eichmanns.

No one is well served by pretending that shouting slogans and demonizing opponents is a substitute for thinking and the careful and balanced study of the past. Nothing about human history is ever as simple as it appears. Every story has shadows, except dogmatic fairy tales that imagine all villainy comes from without. Reducing Alaska's history to the word genocide is a grave disservice to all of us among the living and the dead.

Terrence Cole is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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