In America: Imagine the World Without Her, self-styled historian Dinesh D’Souza, who has a bachelor’s in English, argues that the American Indian genocide did not happen and that the taking of Indian lands was justified because that’s how it goes when one group of people meets another—and besides, Indian tribes had taken land from other tribes and therefore it didn’t belong to them anyway.
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Such outrageous statements from a right-wing extremist wouldn’t much matter, except that D’Souza’s work has received wide and vociferous acclaim and a state senator in Florida has introduced legislation that would make teachers show this pseudo-documentary to every 8th and 11th grader in the state.
D’Souza blames what he calls the “shaming of America” on leftist intellectuals Howard Zinn, Saul Alinsky and Noam Chomsky. He proposes a conspiracy, in which President Barack Obama is a participant, to destroy the American way of life, capitalism and the entrepreneurial spirit. Specifically, D’Souza sets out to answer allegations that America was built on the genocide of American Indians, the theft of half of Mexico and the backs of African American slaves.
D’Souza answers the charge of genocide this way: “In the two centuries after Columbus, the Native American population declined by 80 percent. But it wasn’t due to warfare. Rather, as historian William McNeil points out, they contracted diseases—measles, typhus, smallpox, cholera and malaria, to which they had no immunities. Now this is tragedy on a grand scale, but it’s not genocide because genocide implies an intention to wipe out a people.”
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ICTMN asked three university professors to respond. Dr. James Riding In, Pawnee, associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, says:
“D’Souza does not understand what genocide is. There is a UN convention that was adopted in 1948 that defines genocide. What the declaration on genocide says is that it’s the killing of members of a group… or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group…[or] inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part… [or] imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children to another group.
“All of these things happened to Indians. Yes, a lot of Indians died of disease and the population of the Americas declined over 90 percent after the arrival of Europeans. A big part of that population decline is attributed to disease, but there were survivors.
“Those survivors were trying to hold on to their culture, their beliefs, their way of life, their philosophies about life that had been developed in the distant past and were supposed to continue on indefinitely. What United States colonialism did was disrupt the future of Indigenous Peoples.”
Riding In notes, “U.S. policy was genocide. It was designed, to use the jargon of the time, to kill the savage and save the man. Well, there was a lot of killing of the man along the way. And women. And children.”
Forced sterilization of American Indian women, Riding In says, was federal policy from the 1960s probably into the 1990s. “Thousands of Indian women went through that process of sterilization,” he says.
Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Three Affiliated Tribes, professor of sociology and director of Indigenous Tribal Studies at North Dakota State University, says of D’Souza: “I don’t consider him to be much of a scholar. There’s a lot of stuff he doesn’t even understand about history. People like him are given the podium to talk about issues as complex and as important as this and they do a lot of damage.
“It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t understand the United Nations convention on genocide. A number of those sections defining genocide are exactly what happened to indigenous people here. It says that genocide is taking children from one group and forcibly removing them and putting them in another group like they did to Indian children in boarding schools.”
Yellow Bird argues, “The convention was an agreement that the U.S. finally signed in 1988. So they’re in agreement that what they did was genocide. When they agreed to sign on to the convention, they in fact agreed they committed genocide.”
Riding In says about the taking of Indian land, “Forced removal of people from their lands is ethnic cleansing… [American Indians were taken away from] the land of their birth, the land of their sacred sites, the lands where their ancestors are buried. And they were forcibly removed without adequate provisions, oftentimes during the dead of winter and, if the people resisted, under military force, to new lands where they were supposed to start over again.”
Reservations became dying grounds for Indians, Riding In says.
Dr. K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Mvskoke/Creek Nation, professor of Justice & Social Inquiry and Distinguished Scholar of Indigenous Education at Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education, School of Social Transformation, looks at the overall message of the film: “The film speaks to a profound American anxiety that is articulated by the actor portraying young Abraham Lincoln: that ‘America’ can only be threatened from within. That anxiety arises from a soil of inequity and injustice that cannot be ignored, even/especially by those peoples and classes who have most benefited.
“The defensive posture that informs every frame of the film predetermines the argument: any critique, any ‘indictment’ of the ‘American dream’ can only be read as a call for total destruction. No possibility of dialogue, no validity of multiple perspectives, no room (no need) for reform, no space to move from inequity to equity, from denigration of others to mutual respect.”
She continues, “D’Souza concludes that ‘The wealth of America isn’t stolen, it’s created.’ So is his history. It’s created from his imagination, of a shallow, homogenized, immature, defensive, and immensely entitled ‘America:’ a fantasy nation so insecure that facing historical and contemporary truths—that includes looking Native people in the eye as fellow citizens and as citizens of Native nations, not as mascots or wards—can only result in national suicide. What a sad vision. In whose imagination is this documentary inspirational?”
Florida State Sen. Alan Hays, who introduced bill S 0096 in the Florida State Legislature in December 2014 mandating the showing of this film to schoolchildren from Pre-K to grade 12, has not responded to repeated requests for an interview at press time. The bill was referred to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.