Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we remember the terrible events memorialized on the day the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated. We don’t similarly memorialize the terrible acts that inspired Hitler to build those camps, because the country that did that was ours.
There was a country that carried out a highly successful process of genocide, efficiently exterminating a sub-population of inhabitants who were regarded as undesirable by the ruling class, the United States.
The idea of a prison camp – specifically Auschwitz, in Oświęcim, Poland – where Hitler’s soldiers could shoot, hang, poison, mutilate and starve men, women and children en mass was not an idea Hitler, the bigot, came up with on his own. In fact, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer John Toland wrote that Hitler was inspired in part by the Indian reservation system – a creation of the United States.
“Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history,” Toland wrote in his book, Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography. “He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.”
Good ol’ Yankee ingenuity. We practically invented ethnic cleansing and concentration camps.
While attending the annual Garifuna Film Festival held here in Los Angeles, we watched films about indigenous cultures, and saw the 1985 Academy Award-winning documentary Broken Rainbow, directed by Victoria Mudd, which discusses the history of injustice towards the Native American people. The film talked about The Long Walk of the Navajo, which was the 1864 deportation and attempted ethnic cleansing of the Navajo people by the U.S. government. 8,000 Navajos were forced to walk more than 300 miles at gunpoint from their ancestral homelands in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to an internment camp in Bosque Redondo, which was a desolate tract on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. Many died along the way. From 1863 to 1868, the U.S. Military persecuted and imprisoned 9,500 Navajo (the Diné) and 500 Mescalero Apache (the N’de). Living under armed guards, in holes in the ground, with extremely scarce rations, it is no wonder that more than 3,500 Navajo and Mescalero Apache men, women, and children died while in the concentration camp.
During the film I learned about something that shook me to my core that I had not heard before. I learned that the genocidal mentality and actions of the U.S. policy makers would find similar expression years later when the Nazis, under Hitler, studied the plans of Bosque Redondo to design the concentration camps for Jews.
I was thinking this just yesterday as I walked across campus. UMM has banners up on the lightposts marking our history as an American Indian boarding school, which make me very uncomfortable. There was an aspect of American policy that was more benign than murdering Indians…we just did our best to destroy their culture. I’m glad we’re not sweeping it all under the rug, but on the other hand, I don’t know that people see these banners as symbols of something for which we must atone.