Stolen children and abandoned justice
In the 1949 film “Le Silence de la Mer,” there is a chilling scene where the main character, Werner von Ebrennac, an idealistic German lieutenant stationed in France during the Nazi occupation in World War II, visits an old college friend in Paris. Werner comes to find his friend now works for the SS and from there, through detailed documents, he learns of the death camps and gas chambers of Nazi Germany. “The work at Treblinka is done,” Werner’s friend enthusiastically tells him. “No one is left there to judge.”
Reflecting on this scene in relation to the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at boarding schools across North America, in his weekly “Counterpunch” column, Jeffrey St. Clair wrote, “That’s the malignant hubris of genocide: to believe that your crimes will be so absolute in nature that they will never be exposed.”
As more graves continue to be unearthed, as we wait in suspense of such sites being uncovered at the Old Fort Boarding School, my mind keeps going back to the necessity of judgement and accountability, and how that shapes the path toward healing and liberation. Maybe such thoughts occur in order to distract a heavy heart that wants to break through my ribcage. But these are issues long overdue in addressing, and when it comes to being held accountable, the United States has historically obfuscated such actions, especially when it comes to Indigenous communities.
How our society has managed to walk by and look away from the deaths of Native children for centuries is a matter worth revisiting. And it has everything to do with avoiding judgement.
As the carnage of World War II was coming to an end, Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin managed to survive and escape, and with the help of an American friend, he eventually found refuge in the United States. To help articulate the magnitude of death and suffering imposed on victims of the Nazi Holocaust, not to mention the many similar pogroms throughout history, in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin coined the term “genocide,” giving it a thorough legal definition that became foundational to the Nuremberg Trials. Concurrently, in 1951, Lemkin’s definition became codified into international law with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.
And yet, a sordid controversy ensued behind the scenes as this concept was being drafted. The governments of Canada and the United States were in an uproar over the bold language being implemented.
The point of contention was Lemkin’s adamant inclusion of “cultural genocide” as a category within the broader definition of genocide. To paraphrase, “cultural genocide” was defined as “the destruction of specific characteristics of a group.” Among other acts, this includes the prohibition of using one’s language/cultural practices while being assimilated into another language/culture. The “forced transfer of children to another human group” was also acknowledged as an act that constitutes cultural genocide. All of this amounts to, as Lemkin stated, “the rapid and complete disappearance of the cultural, moral and religious life of a group of human beings.”
In her rich and ardently researched book Suffer the Little Children, First Nations scholar Tamara Starblanket copiously documents the contentious debates over “cultural genocide,” especially the Canadian government’s stubborn resistance to the definition. Due to relentless pressure from the US and Canada, in the final draft of the Genocide Convention, the United Nations gutted the category of “cultural genocide,” though fragments of it still remained – the prohibition against the forced transfer of children being one of the very few.
When the Canadian government finally signed onto the Genocide Convention in 1952, it did so while quietly omitting a few more policies that would risk criminalizing the state. Specifically excluded were the prohibitions against inflicting serious bodily or mental harm to members of a targeted group and the forced transfer of their children to another human group. And as Starblanket notes, years later the Canadian government would make more revisions to the law, removing the prohibition against “measures intended to prevent births within the group.”
Before signing onto the Genocide Convention, throughout the 1950s the United States government was also engaged in similar combative debates over the legislation. In his book, The United States and the Genocide Convention, legal scholar Lawrence LeBlanc documents these eye-opening discussions. One area of concern was Article II, which condemns acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” LeBlanc notes that “critics argued that the phrase would make the Convention applicable to racially motivated lynchings, thus perhaps opening the way for it to become an important tool in the civil rights struggle.”
Also of alarming concern to the U.S. government was the Convention’s prohibition against “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” Opponents, LeBlanc points out, “argued that the words ‘mental harm’ might be used, especially by civil rights groups, to denounce segregation laws in the United States.” These concerns inevitably came to light in 1951 when, in an act of protest, the Civil Rights Congress presented a petition to the United Nations titled, “We Charge Genocide.” In its righteous rage, the document listed the numerous abuses and horrors endured by Black folks in the Uniate States, all of which they justly insisted constitutes genocide.
In 1986, nearly 40 years after Lemkin brought forth the Genocide Convention to the world, the United States finally signed onto the resolution. Yet, similar to Canada, the ratification came with stipulations. Added to the ratification was an amendment known as the “Sovereignty Package,” which basically gave the supreme ability to pick and choose which areas of the Convention to acknowledge, as well as redefine. Similar to Canada, they took exception to much of the Convention, resulting in a watered-down ratification that is merely symbolic and hollow.
During these debates, Indian boarding schools were still in operation around the country. By 1941, about 14,000 Native children were still consigned to these facilities. Parallel to these events, the United States also passed a series of federal policies further stripping Indigenous people from their culture and communities. One example is the Termination Policy of 1953, which resulted in the dissolution of more than a hundred Indigenous nations, wherein their sovereign status was removed along with access to land and resources.
The iconoclastic scholar Noam Chomsky once stated, “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-World War II American president would have been hanged.” The shameful record of persistently avoiding any serious accountability for their actions only speaks to the fact that the settler states of North America are well aware of their genocidal crimes. Rather than make amends with the Indigenous nations they have historically destroyed, they choose to continue to exploit and inflict suffering on those same peoples.
In the end, the deferment of justice and judgement significantly contributes to the numerous deaths of Native children in boarding schools, as well as the cover up of their unmarked graves. When Indigenous folks speak of decolonization and taking the land back, the statements are more than just slogans. More than before, the path toward radical healing and liberation for all is dependent upon these demands. And by doing so, we can truly honor and lay to rest the spirits of these stolen Native children.
– Kirbie Bennett