The Role of Race and Eugenics in American Indigenous Genocide

Michael Odegaard
July 20, 2023

The Anglo-American assimilative concept of race has been an important component of the genocide of this land’s First Nations. The “white race” was invented by English Colonial American law in 1680 after Bacon’s Rebellion was used to facilitate the enforcement of slavery in Virginia using skin color criteria. This is similar to how the institution of “sangre azul” succeeded during the Reconquista of Iberia. The idea spread rapidly. The 1681 Servant Act in Jamaica, which was later copied for use in South Carolina, began to describe the privileged class as “whites” and not as “Christians.” As secular England designed the legal enslavement of blacks by whites in the eastern United States colonies, the Spaniards, likewise, enslaved indigenous elsewhere on the North American continent.

“Race” is a central Enlightenment component in the colonialist eugenic imagination and the white nationalist American Experiment. The eugenics movement, which had begun in England and rapidly spread in the United States, insisted that human progress depended on promoting reproduction by the best people in the best combinations, and preventing the unworthy from having children. The US Declaration of Independence savaged indigenous Americans for this purpose, as well as to justify its genocidal wars. Pseudoscientific eugenic science contributed to the design of structural racism in health care and both explicit and implicit racial bias among generations of physicians and other health professionals. Eugenic racism reached beyond medicine into friendships and marriage, the composition of classrooms, lives of the mentally ill and educationally handicapped, as well as provision of essential and mandatory public resources.

American advocates of “racial hygiene”, such as Jefferson and Garvey, promoted the idea of hypodescent (the “one-drop rule”), segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws to ensure the “purity” of both “white” and “black” races. Racist American colonial immigration policies in the early 20th century gradually expanded the definition of “white” from its original Anglo-Saxon ethnicity to initially include Nordic ethnicities, then Southern and Eastern European ethnicities, and now many race scientists include all Middle Eastern descendants of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As a result, indigenous ethnicities such as the Five Civilized Indian Nations that were Christianized, yet exiled on the infamous Trail of Tears, were reduced to American Indian “race” and forced to attend Residential Schools that charged its students to “let everything that is Indian in you die,” including their unique and ancient languages, so that they could participate as subjects of the American Experiment, according to the new ethnic terms and ideals of their colonizers.

Land confiscations and ethnocidal educational policies for American First Nations continued throughout the 20th century, but finally, in 1990, the Native American Languages Act revealed the role that linguicide continues to play in the American Genocide, declaring that it is now the policy of the United States to preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages. 

When Murray & Bernstein’s book The Bell Curve appeared in 1994, Du Bois’s assertion that racial categories were not biologically grounded was already widely accepted. Nevertheless, the controversial book founded upon scientific error served as a useful fiction to perpetuate assimilative American racial hygiene at the end of the 20th century. Its function was to increase the isolation of America’s cognitive elite and to merge this group with the affluent, in order to produce a caste society, restructuring its rules so that it became increasingly difficult for its highest echelons to sacrifice any amount of their privilege.

Today, assimilated Native Americans are making peace with their ancestors by revitalizing their languages. Having set the theoretical stage for indigenous language revitalization efforts over the last year, future editions of this column will feature bilingual articles reflecting excellent examples of our local indigenous linguistic diversity.