The Canary Effect: the Story of a Genocide
When I was teaching about the History and Philosophy of pedagogy to one of the DI teams, I decided to teach this course within the angle of the evolution of the Western schooling system. Through my research to compose this course, I learnt about the existence of the terrifying Indian boarding schools and how they were used to “Americanize” the Natives through brainwashing, physical and psychological torture and depriving the young natives from their culture.
Months later, I read about the discussions whether we should remove Christopher Columbus National Day from the dates to celebrate, because it is about celebrating the beginning of a genocide.
Indeed, a whole generation of young people, mainly of Native origin, is more and more showing their political stand against the mistreatments which are being done to their fellow people, especially since the “victory” for standing against the Dakota pipeline. From that, talking about date, I thought: “Why not removing Thanksgiving from the National days?” There we are also celebrating the American Indian genocide and, by extension, colonialism.
But, I forgot! Colonialism is one of the backbones of capitalism. So, if every people come to question the whole foundation of capitalism… Anyway… To come back to the topic; it seemed that many results from my recent researches about education led to the topic of the American Indians. One day, I found a documentary released in 2006, called the Canary Effect.
The Canary Effect is a documentary which tells about the origins and mechanisms of the genocide of the American Indian population. The title was very intriguing to me. What is the connection between a canary and the American Indian population?
Actually, the canary effect is a metaphor which relates to the use of sentinel animals in the coal mines of the late 19th – early 20th century for the minors to avoid an imminent danger. Caged canaries were used to detect the presence of carbon monoxide, which is a toxic odorless and colorless gaz. As they were more sensitive to this gas, they got sick or died long before any human could “feel” its presence (by “feel”, I mean getting headaches, dizziness and coughing , which are the specific “early” signs of intoxication by carbon monoxide).
I think that this metaphor is used as a title for the film because the enslavement and mass killing of the Natives preceded the one of people from African descent, as if it was a trial period before the United States imported slaves from Africa within the framework of the Triangular Trade. What this documentary wants to show us is that the extermination of this population didn’t stop even after the importation of African slaves but kept going.
There are even proofs of its institutionalization which most recent date are from even after the word “Genocide” was recognized as a crime against humanity in the International Convention of Human Rights in 1948. This is quite hypocrite when we think that the same country was also part of judging the Nazi top leaders during the Nuremberg Trials (1946).
The other part of the title is Kill the Indian, save the man. This part is a reference to the quote from Captain Richard H. Pratt, the initiator of the Indian boarding school program. Through this program, young Natives, as old as three years of age, were forcibly taken from their parents and sent in a boarding school, were they were converted into Christians and were forced to adopt Western culture and customs. They had to change their names into English names.
They were forced to speak English, else they would be beaten. It is estimated that between 1880 and 1925, 25% of the Indian population died in these schools due to mistreatments, disease and suicide. In the documentary, they were giving many shocking figures to prove that indeed, it was a mass killing which was happening in these schools.
They talked about the concept of Indigenous pain. It is the idea that the atrocity experienced by the Natives since their enslavement by the Whites was transmitted from generation to generation; not genetically but it is environmentally-induced. If we look at Natives from my generation (between 20-30 years of age), 25% are considered to be alcoholic.
Many others are dependent on other drugs because of lack of employment (in 1990, it had an 85% rate and it is increasing) and depression. As the majority of them live in reservations (i.e big areas of land created by the government for the Indians to live and keep their traditions intact), we even talk about a wall of discrimination. And I only talk about Indians from my generation… Why is it like that? Within the framework of the Indian Removal Policy, their forefathers were forced to walk at least 1500 miles away from the Atlantic coast, where the “Whites” lived, without proper food and accommodation and were secluded in reservations – like a kind of early Apartheid.
They could keep their traditions but if Whites officials thought that they had an hostile attitude, they could be killed through military raids. If the Whites needed their land for settlement, they were forced to leave (To understand the purpose of the Indian Removal Policy, try to imagine how Israel expanded at the expense of the Palestinians). Their great-grand parents and grandparents were secluded in a boarding school where they were forced to live like Americans or Europeans. As a result, they didn’t fit neither in the Western standards because of their different background nor to their original culture because they weren’t taught or forgot about it.
Rejected by both sides, many were homeless and jobless. Considered troubled people, they were more under the surveillance of social services and were at risk to lose the custody of their kids. In fact, many were sent in “care homes” because of the so-called lack of parenting skills of their parents. Their parents lived in an era where federal funds were used to attempt to sterilize them without their consent (42% of American Indians victims) because the belief in the 1960s-1970s, was that they were not good parents. As they also faced rejection and unemployment, many suffered from depression and drug dependence. This is Indigenous Pain, and this is not okay.
In 1996, after the Rwandan genocide, the president of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton, presented a paper entitled “The Eight Stages of Genocide” in an attempt to prevent and act against genocidal acts. In the United States and international courts, Stanton paper is used as a reference.
The eight stages are: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and denial. Interestingly, the country where the United Nations was born seems to be at the stage of denial concerning the genocide of the American Indians. As a measure of retaliation against a state in denial of genocide, Stanton paper advocates the “punishment by international tribunal or national courts”. If it happens, many of our actual politicians would be sentenced; it is the case for Ex-Presidents G. Bush Sr, G. Bush Jr and B. Clinton, for instance. The questions are: will it happen? When will it happen and how?