Lindsey Kingston. Journal of Human Rights. Volume 14, Issue 1. January-March 2015.
International law defines genocide in terms of violence committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” yet this approach fails to acknowledge the full impacts of cultural destruction. There is insufficient international discussion of “cultural genocide,” which is a particular threat to the world’s indigenous minorities. Despite the recent adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which acknowledges the rights to culture, diversity, and self-determination, claims of cultural genocide are often derided, and their indicators dismissed as benign effects of modernity and indigenous cultural diffusion. This article considers the destruction of indigenous cultures and the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples through the analytical lens of genocide. Two case studies—the federally unrecognized Winnemem Wintu tribe in northern California and the Inuit of northern Canada—are highlighted as illustrative examples of groups facing these challenges. Ultimately, this article seeks to prompt serious discussion of cultural rights violations, which often do not involve direct physical killing or violence, and consideration of the concept “cultural genocide” as a tool for human rights promotion and protection.
It is not news that the American Indian has been victimized since 1492 by encroaching Euro-American society. What may be surprising is that the most tragic depredations on the American Indians, their property, and their way of life did not occur centuries ago. The most outrageous attacks occurred within living memory, immediately following World War II, and are still in progress. Those events, moreover, were and are more destructive of the unique values we romanticize under the label “Indian” than those of earlier eras, for they strike at the Indian way of life. (Nielson: x)
Within North America and around the world, indigenous nations continue to face systemic, widespread threats to their fundamental human rights to culture. These identity groups are increasingly conceptualizing such rights violations as “cultural genocide,” despite the fact that this term is not currently recognized under international law or within existing human rights frameworks. Cultural genocide is defined as “the purposeful weakening and ultimate destruction of cultural values and practices of feared out-groups” (Davidson 2012: 18-19). International law, however, limits its definition of genocide to violence committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (United Nations General Assembly 1948a: Article 2). Many advocates of indigenous rights argue that this narrow approach fails to acknowledge the full impacts of cultural destruction, and that there is insufficient international discussion of the particular cultural threats to the world’s indigenous minorities. Despite the recent adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—which acknowledges the rights to culture, diversity, and self-determination (United Nations, 2007)—claims of cultural genocide are often derided, and their indicators dismissed as benign effects of modernity and indigenous cultural diffusion.
International human rights frameworks only modestly address the issue of cultural rights, and these rights are frequently overlooked as the international community focuses on violations of civil and political rights. Article 27 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (United Nations General Assembly, 1948b). Article 15 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights refers to the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress, and to benefit from the protections of scientific, literary, or artistic works (United Nations General Assembly, 1966). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity outlines the benefits of cultural diversity for international development and asserts that human rights standards protect the right to culture. Article 4 contends that the defense of cultural diversity “is an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity” (UNESCO, 2001). However, some critics contend that cultural rights are too difficult to implement, and that compared to civil and political rights—such as due process and freedom of speech—they are perhaps not worthy of human rights status at all (Donnelly 2006: 25-26). Similar to criticisms of related economic and social rights, critics argue that such rights are too vague and that they create obligations most states cannot reasonably fulfill (DeLaet 2006: 116). Culture is often viewed as a residual category of human rights that has not been credited with much importance within the international community, and the full implications of cultural rights as human rights requires further exploration (Stavenhagen 2008: 27).
This article considers the destruction of indigenous cultures and the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples through the analytical lens of genocide. First, a historical review reveals that culture was a central factor in early definitions of genocide, but that cultural genocide has held ambiguous legal status since it was left out of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Despite its absence from international law, cultural genocide is increasingly being adopted as a way of conceptualizing the indigenous experience and as a tool for human rights advocacy. Second, two North American case studies —the federally unrecognized Winnemem Wintu tribe in northern California and the Inuit of northern Canada—are highlighted as examples of nations currently facing challenges associated with cultural genocide. Although discussions of cultural genocide are frequently framed in historical terms, these issues are ongoing and widespread among indigenous peoples today. Third, this article ends with three recommendations for confronting the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. International recognition of cultural genocide—possibly through International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutions, new treaties, or amendments to existing human rights frameworks—is vital for recognizing this unique wrong. Cultural genocide also offers a powerful issue frame for conceptualizing extreme violations of cultural rights, thereby offering opportunities to build and mobilize a broad supporter base for rights protection. Actions for preventing and prosecuting crimes of cultural genocide must additionally be paired with actions aimed at healing and empowering indigenous communities. Ultimately, this article seeks to prompt serious discussion of cultural rights violations, which often do not involve direct physical killing or violence, and consideration of the concept “cultural genocide” as a tool for human rights promotion and protection.
Although cultural genocide is presently missing from international law, the harms associated with cultural destruction are inherently connected to our understanding of genocide as a mass-atrocity crime. George E. Tinker writes that “cultural genocide can be defined as the effective destruction of a people by systematically or systemically (intentionally or unintentionally in order to achieve other goals) destroying, eroding, or undermining the integrity of the culture and system of values that defines a people and gives them life” (1993: 6). This formulation helps us conceptualize threats faced by indigenous communities around the world as they attempt to protect their human rights to culture and self-determination.
At a more fundamental level, “culture” itself is a complex and often contested concept. This term should not be equated simply with “high culture” such as literature or art, nor should it refute the possibility of survival and adaptation. Indigenous peoples, for example, may adapt their culture to changing times and still retain their unique cultural and group identities (see Moses 2009: 16-17). For the purposes of this article, “culture” refers to the wider institutions that are central to group identity. These include (but are not limited to) language, religious practices and objects, traditional practices and ways, and forms of expression (Nersessian 2005). For many indigenous peoples, markers of culture also include territory, modes of governance, and relationships to the natural environment, including plants and wildlife (Woolford 2009: 88).
Postwar Conceptions of Genocide
Cultural genocide has held ambiguous legal status since it was left out of the UN Genocide Convention in 1948. At the time, many state representatives viewed cultural genocide as something analytically distinct from physical genocide and were uncomfortable putting it in the same category as genocide akin to the Holocaust (Davidson 2012: 127-128). Such experiences from World War II, as well as debates about what constituted a group and its destruction, created further complexities. Political factors were also at play; the Soviet Union opposed the inclusion of political groups, while the United States was against criteria of cultural genocide given its historical relationships with indigenous peoples and African Americans. “The wording of the Convention was shaped by the desire of its framers not to criminalize their own behavior,” writes Christopher Powell (2007: 532). “Important as the Convention is in its own right, it expresses political forces…and belongs to the genealogical history of contested versions of ‘genocide'” (Powell 2007: 532).
The international community limited the legal definition of genocide in the 1948 Convention to intentional forms of physical destruction. It defines genocide as any of the following acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (United Nations General Assembly 1948a).
Despite its ultimate emphasis on physical genocide, earlier drafts of the Convention included cultural genocide and identified it as a serious human rights violation. The Convention’s first draft, prepared by the UN Secretariat in May 1947, included an entire section on cultural genocide: “destroying the specific characteristics of the group.” This form of genocide included acts such as the forcible transfer of children to other groups, forced and systematic exile of members of a cultural group, prohibition of the use of a national language, systematic destruction of books printed in the national language or of religious works, prohibition of new publications, and the systematic destruction or dispersion of cultural objects (United Nations Secretariat 1947). From this perspective, the cultural dimensions of genocide were serious enough to be considered a standalone crime punishable as genocide, provided that the purpose was destroying a group (in whole or in part) or of preventing its preservation or development (Short 2010: 840).
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” and played a key role in the adoption of the 1948 Convention, was a strong advocate for the legal recognition of cultural genocide. He envisaged the crime of genocide as consisting of the deliberate destruction of a nation in one of two ways: immediately through mass killings or through coordinated actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of group life (Powell 2007: 534). Lemkin defined genocide in terms of the violation of a nation’s right to its collective existence, or the destruction of a nation, and his unpublished notes show that he viewed physical and cultural genocide as part of “one process that could be accomplished through a variety of means” (Short 2010: 838). He also believed that culture was as necessary for human group life as basic needs were for individual physical well-being; culture constituted a basic need for human existence, and therefore the destruction of cultural symbols was a form of genocide (Moses 2009: 12). “Whether politically sovereign or not, the national group for Lemkin had an inherent right to life equivalent to that of the sovereign individual, and such groups provided the essential basis of human culture as a whole. The concept of ‘genocide’ was designed specifically to protect that life” (Powell 2007: 534).
Lemkin eventually abandoned his commitment to including cultural genocide in the Convention due to a lack of political support (Short 2010: 839), but the dimensions of genocide remain contested within today’s international human rights regime. In debates about how to define genocide, positions tend to fall into one of two categories: First, some scholars conceive of genocide as the intended actions of a coherent action, so that events count as genocide if the perpetrators demonstrate a will to do so and emphasize physical harm. Second, others conceive of genocide as a structural process that does not require any intending agent; they more readily recognize genocide as those events that destroy a social collectivity, even if evidence of coherent intent is not available (Moses 2002: 19). Lemkin, who emphasized both the physical and cultural dimensions of genocide, creates something of a puzzle for genocide scholars (Powell 2007: 532). Cultural destruction has gradually gained status as a marker of intent to commit genocide—for example, within the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia—and cultural rights are recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and in regional agreements such as the Charter of the European Union. However, cultural genocide is not currently recognized by international law, and political will to acknowledge this concept remains lacking (Davidson 2012: 128).
Indigenous Groups and Cultural Genocide
Despite its ambiguous legal status, cultural genocide is increasingly being adopted as way of conceptualizing the indigenous experience and as a tool for human rights advocacy. Within North America, indigenous nations have historically faced physical violence that would today meet the legal standards of genocide—that is, physical acts with the intent to destroy the group—in addition to a wide range of threats to their cultural traditions and self-determination. Tinker (1993) writes that cultural genocide destroys the cultural structures of existence that give indigenous people a sense of holistic, communal integrity. It limits freedom to practice cultural traditions and to live out their lives in culturally appropriate patterns, and it effectively destroys a people by eroding both their self-esteem and the relationships that bind them together as a community (Tinker 1993: 6).
The cultural genocide of indigenous peoples often reflects the intentional destruction of a nation’s values and practices. Indian policies sought to push indigenous people toward assimilation, while little meaningful integration was possible given the prevalence of poverty, limited education, and racism (Harris, Sachs, and Morris 2011: 54). This was certainly the case throughout North America’s history of colonial expansion and coordinated attempts to eliminate “savage” cultures. Consider the 1887 US General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) that required indigenous people to separate themselves from their tribes before they could qualify as land-owning Americans, for instance, or boarding school policies in the United States and Canada that forcibly removed children from their families so they could be raised and educated as whites. The rapid erosion of traditional indigenous culture by immersing students in an all-English boarding-school environment often led to cultural disintegration, rather than cultural replacement, and was specifically aimed at destroying Indian tribal life while ridding governments of their trust and treaty responsibilities (Reyhner and Eder 2004: 4-5). These schools, like public schools in general, had the dual goals of teaching marketable skills and transforming students into loyal state citizens—an inherently assimilationist task. These forms of settler colonialism are premised on the elimination of native societies with the aim not necessarily of exploiting indigenous cultures but rather replacing them (Wolfe 1999: 2, 163). Notably, cultural genocide was often the direct result of physical genocide; faced with repeated waves of military pressure, conquest, relocation, and other forms of violence, Indian nations were frequently divided in their attempts to simply survive (Harris et al. 2011: 54).
At times, however, cultural genocide occurs because of systematic, structural practices that are not always consciously focused on the destruction of culture. “What I call cultural genocide functions at times as conscious intent, but at other times at such a systemic level that it may be largely subliminal,” writes Tinker (1993: 5). “In such cases, the good intent of some may be so mired in unrecognized systemic structures that they even remain unaware of the destruction that results from those good intentions” (1993: 5). He contends that Christian missionaries, despite some of their best intentions, were partners in genocide. Christian complicity in the destruction of Indian cultures and tribal social structures led to devastating impoverishment and often the death of indigenous converts (Tinker 1993: 4). By the 1880s, public criticism of government violence against indigenous groups led to educational “reforms” for native children (Adams 1995: 8-9). Scholarships for indigenous students led to higher matriculation rates at US universities beginning in the 1930s, but white-dominated educational approaches (including the expectation that indigenous students would leave their tribal cultures at home) perpetuated the assimilationist education model and resulted in low graduation rates (Brayboy et al. 2012: 8). In public schools today, most states refuse to accept that they are participating in linguistic and cultural genocide; many are offended by the claim and argue it belittles “real” genocide. While many school authorities, teachers, and parents are well intentioned, David Hough and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas contend that education’s new, more subtle forms of cultural genocide are “more harmful to indigenous and minority children than overt attempts at extinguishing the language and culture” (2005: 110).
Proof of intent should not be used as a litmus test for determining whether cultural genocide has taken place (or is in progress). The destruction of culture is often the result of both physical as well as structural violence, and its negative consequences are severe regardless of the degree of direct intention. Patrick Wolfe offers the concept of the “logic of elimination,” which he argues represents “the essential characteristic of the settler-colonial project” and posits colonialism as an ongoing structure with both positive and negative aspects (2009: 102). He also advocates for use of the term “structural genocide,” which avoids the questions of degree (and therefore avoids creating a hierarchy among victims of genocide) while retaining settler colonialism’s structural induration (Wolfe 2009: 121). From this perspective, cultural genocide occurs along a historical continuum and includes both physical violence as well as structural inequality, as reflected by government policies and other social indicators. In his analysis of settler colonialism in Australia, for instance, Wolfe (1999) writes that indigenous populations first faced an initial confrontation (or invasion), followed by a carceration period that entailed segregation and reservation. Finally, an assimilation period aims at integrating indigenous populations into the settler majority. Wolfe contends that these three periods exist on a cultural continuum, and seemingly benign (or even charitable) activities occurring during the assimilation period are directly continuous with the homicidal activities of the confrontation stage (Wolfe 1999: 168-169). In a similar analysis of Canadian Aboriginal peoples, Andrew Woolford argues that this sort of “hybridic assault” on indigenous populations is no less severe than other social strategies of elimination, such as physical destruction of a group, and that current understandings of genocide allow colonizing states to avoid responsibility for cultural destruction (2009: 91).
Notably, the motives for genocide are similar whether its acts are mass killing or cultural destruction, and genocide can be viewed as a singular process of multiple harms. The primary motive for the elimination of indigenous nations has primarily been territoriality. To get in the way of settler colonization, “all the native has to do is stay home” (Wolfe 2006: 388). As settler colonialism progressed in the West, “the lure of territory always took precedence over the problems of assailed people” (Evans 2009: 140). Wolfe argues that “whatever settlers may say…the primary motive for elimination is not race (or religion, ethnicity, grade of civilization, etc.) but access to territory” (2006: 388). Agriculture is central to settler colonialism, and agricultural populations can be expanded by continuing immigration at the expense of native lands and livelihoods (Wolfe 2009: 112). Yet access to land and resources is not limited to acts of cultural genocide; indeed, the Nazi “Hunger Plan” aimed to starve Soviet citizens while using rich farmlands to sustain the German population and its expanding empire (Snyder 2010: 162-163). As Lemkin noted, cultural and physical destruction are interrelated, interdependent elements of a singular process. Rather than taking a snapshot view of an identity group, divorced from past context and experience, Short notes that most indigenous peoples have suffered forms of violent physical destruction at some point in the history of their colonization and current cultural destruction is one part of a broader continuum (2010: 840). Mark Levene adds that modern cases of genocide must be seen and understood “within the broadest terms of world-historical reference,” and that genocides in their totality suggest a “series of massive destabilizations of human communities and their historic relationships to one another” (2009: 184).
Ultimately, the existing literature on genocide and indigenous rights reflects the “now familiar lack of fit between the United Nations genocide definition of 1948 and analysis of the disastrous process of indigenous dispossession occasioned by settler colonialism” (Evans 2009: 134). Responses to this lack of fit differ widely; Ward Churchill adopts a combative stance and argues that the American holocaust of indigenous peoples “was and remains unparalleled” (1997: 4), while other scholars call for an end to competitive, hierarchical ways of viewing these processes. Evans recommends that rather than researching intentions, it is more helpful to examine and debate degrees of responsibility. “Western settler colonialism was both advantageous and malign, but it was neither an immutable nor an inexorable force,” he writes. “Rather it was one adopted and pursued by choice, premeditation, and acquisitive will (2009: 139-140). Rather than assuming that the impacts of settler colonialism were predetermined outcomes of modernization, addressing issues of responsibility allows scholars to learn lessons from past mistakes and possibly to reframe our assumptions related to current human rights protection. Indigenous scholar Taiaiake Alfred writes that native peoples have inherited “relationships founded on hatred and violence and a culture founded on lies to assuage the guilt or shame of it all,” and that victims and perpetrators alike continue to deny their shared past and the corresponding moral implications (2004: 90). From this perspective, adopting the lens of cultural genocide may help to analyze responsibility for historical and ongoing injustices with the intention of moving forward and achieving equality.
Discussions of cultural genocide are frequently framed in historical terms, yet these issues are ongoing and widespread among indigenous peoples. Genocide in North America cannot simply be limited to initial colonial expansion but rather must include recognition of the pervasive threats faced by native communities in countries such as the United States and Canada. Importantly, the indigenous rights movement has made strides toward broader recognition of cultural rights. Building from frameworks such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, indigenous activists have sought international recognition of their specific minority rights. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes an extensive range of cultural rights, including the human right to pursue one’s own economic, social, and cultural development (Article 3), the right to self-government (Article 4), the right to maintain and strengthen indigenous institutions while also enjoying the right to participate in various aspects of State life (Article 5), freedom from forced assimilation and cultural destruction (Article 8), the right to belong to an indigenous community or nation (Article 9), the right to practice and revitalize cultural traditions (Article 10) and spiritual/religious practices (Article 12), the right to use and transmit cultural goods such as languages and philosophies (Article 13), and the right to establish and control educational systems (Article 14). Despite the United Nation’s adoption of this nonbinding declaration, however, cultural genocide is not yet recognized under international law or even acknowledged explicitly in human rights frameworks.
Although this article focuses on North American case studies, it is important to note that cultural genocide is a global issue facing indigenous populations around the world. Cultural Survival, a nongovernmental organization, notes that indigenous groups face continued economic and social challenges to their basic cultural rights. More than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to disappear in the next 90 years—and the vast majority of threatened languages are indigenous—while biodiverse indigenous territories are routinely exploited for minerals, timber, farmland, oil, and other natural resources (Cultural Survival n.d.). Mayan populations in Central America and Maasai groups in Kenya, for example, face forced evictions and are denied access to ancestral territories. Because many indigenous religions and traditional practices are inextricably tied to the land, these actions are devastating for cultural reasons as well as economic and political ones (First Peoples Worldwide n.d.).
The Winnemem Wintu
The Winnemem Wintu is one of nine bands of Wintu that once lived in northern California, and it constitutes one of the few Wintu bands remaining today. The Winnemem population numbered 14,000 people before contact with Europeans, but the tribe currently numbers only 123 members (Dallman et al. 2013: 36). Their traditional territory stretched 77 miles down the McCloud River to modern-day Redding, but much of those lands were lost to ranchers and gold miners in the mid-1800s, as well as the construction of the Shasta Dam in the 1940s. Today, the only tribal ceremonial sites the Winnemem can access are owned by the government (Dadigan 2011). Led by their chief and spiritual leader Caleen Sisk, the tribe faces serious threats to their cultural rights due to a lack of US federal recognition and California water policy.
The Winnemem Wintu is a “ghost tribe” that lacks official recognition from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The tribe shares its limbo status with at least half of California’s 150,000 indigenous peoples, and only one California tribe (Death Valley’s Timbisha Shoshone Band in 1983) has ever been recognized through the BIA’s laborious petitioning process. The tribe lost its federal recognition in 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the creation of the Office of Federal Acknowledgement. The Winnemem Wintu were not included in an initial list of recognized tribes (many assert this was the result of a technical error) despite their previous standing as a recognized tribe. Like many California tribes, however, the Winnemem Wintu maintained their eligibility for various federal benefits through BIA-certified paperwork attesting to their heritage. In 1986, the US Supreme Court changed that by ruling that American Indians must belong to a federally recognized tribe to qualify for benefits. Today, about 120 California tribes are federally recognized while another 75 ghost tribes are petitioning for recognition. Tribe members and scholars argue that the BIA’s requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” for more than a century is unrealistic, given the government’s history of interference with indigenous peoples. “These people went through massacres, dislocations, and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community,'” said Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “It’s absurd” (Field, as cited in Dadigan 2012b: para. 39). Some unrecognized tribes say this process has created a kind of caste system among American Indians, especially after US President Barack Obama endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 but excluded unrecognized tribes in the administration’s position paper. Critics say this move was an effort to reduce financial commitments to indigenous peoples. “It’s termination by accountant,” said Bruce Granville Miller, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It’s easy for nations to find ways to disqualify [tribes], to make them simply disappear” (Dadigan 2011: para. 20). He further contends that failure to acknowledge tribes, or the revocation of official recognition, reduces indigenous communities and promotes “state economic and political control” (Miller 2003: 7).
Lack of government recognition has negative cultural ramifications for the Winnemem Wintu. Members of unrecognized tribes cannot legally possess eagle feathers, for example, which are vital to American Indian spiritual beliefs. Sisk’s 25-year-old feather permit was revoked in March 2011 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Without recognition, tribes also have fewer options for keeping native children with their tribes under the Indian Child Welfare Act. Recently, a child from the nearby 180-member Tsnungwe tribe was put up for adoption and, despite the tribe’s opposition, was adopted by a non-Indian family and moved away from tribal lands (Dadigan 2012b). Lack of recognition also impacts the Winnemem Wintu’s ability to hold puberty ceremonies that recognize the “coming of age” of Winnemem girls. In 2006 and 2010, puberty ceremonies were disrupted by recreational boaters on Shasta Lake after the US Forest Service refused to implement a mandatory closure of the area (Dallman et al. 2013: 40). The 2008 Farm Bill allows for public land closures for tribal ceremonies but only applies to federally recognized tribes. Ignoring voluntary closures of the area, boaters motored through the puberty ceremony site—now a Forest Service campground—some drinking beer and shouting racial slurs such as “Fat Indians!” In 2006, a drunken woman flashed the tribe with her naked breasts, and, in 2010, a boater dumped cremations in the river shortly before Winnemem girls began their ceremonial swim in the waters (Dadigan 2012a). “Every time those boaters come through, I feel like the message that is being sent is that we should assimilate—like the government and the public doesn’t want our religion here,” said Michael Preston, a Winnemem dancer (Preston, as cited in Dadigan 2012b: para. 49). Sisk adds: “When the boats come through, it’s a huge disruption, like someone walking through the middle of a christening … Whether recognized or not, we have the right to teach our culture to the future generations” (Sisk, as cited in Dadigan 2012a: paras. 16 and 32).
The obstacles created by the Winnemem Wintu’s lack of federal recognition are compounded by California’s water policies, including the construction and proposed expansion of the Shasta Dam. The Winnemem Wintu have traditionally relied heavily on fishing for Chinook salmon, and their villages once spanned hundreds of thousands of acres within the McCloud River watershed. Their sacred spaces encompass specific places and objects of worship that hold aspects of nature—specific rocks, medicinal plants grown along the river, and animals. Unfortunately, increasing water demands to supply urban populations and to irrigate agricultural production has led to threats to the Winnemem Wintu’s ancestral homelands and cultural practices. Suzanne Dallman et al. write that “the struggle is not simply about loss of fishing rights or other environmental resources, but about how environmental change has impacted the fundamental practices, emotional experiences, and identity of a culture” (2013: 36). When construction of the Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, its reservoir flooded more than 90 percent of Winnemem territory and approximately 250 sacred sites and villages along the McCloud River. Many tribe members were forced to relocate, and the Winnemem lost access to a majority of their cultural sites, including burial grounds, prayer rocks, ceremonial sites, ancestral villages, and hunting and fishing grounds. The dam ended the Chinook salmon migration in the area, and 183 Winnemem corpses had to be exhumed from doomed burial sites. In the 1990s, the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation began an in-depth investigation to raise the Shasta Dam an additional 6.5 to 18.5 feet, increasing the total surface water storage and submerging more Winnemem land. If implemented, the enlarged reservoir will permanently submerge currently preserved sacred and ceremonial sites, including Puberty Rock, the ceremonial site for puberty ceremonies noted above, which is already under water for most of the year (Dallman et al. 2013: 38).
Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe have equated the proposed Shasta Dam raise to cultural genocide, and they continue to fight government efforts to expand the reservoir. The dam raise has been called “a final step in the ongoing extermination” of the Winnemem culture (Dallman et al. 2013: 41), and the tribe has performed the Hu’p Chonas—a ritual “war dance” that includes fasting—to call attention to the issue and to help tribal members “face the enemy” (D. E. Murphy 2004). Mark Franco argues that the proposed dam raise is “not a physical genocide like you see in Rwanda and Darfur, but a cultural genocide [that is] just as devastating because it destroys the will of the people to live. It gives them no place to go, no solace, no way to find a connection to the Creator” (Dallman et al. 2013: 38). Chief Sisk argues that “without our sacred places, without our ceremonies, we could no longer be Winnemem” (Sisk, as cited in Dadigan 2011: para. 39).
The Inuit of Northern Canada
For more than 5,000 years, the Inuit have inhabited the Arctic territories of what is now modern-day Canada. According to the 2006 national census, almost 4 percent of the country’s self-identified Aboriginal people (50,485) reported themselves as Inuit. The majority of Canadian Inuit live in the area stretching from Labrador to the Northwest Territories, known as Nunaat—”Inuit homeland” in Inuktitut—which is comprised of four regions marked by considerable linguistic and geographic diversity. The largest of these four regions is Nunavut, formed from the eastern part of the Northwest Territories in 1999 according to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, and contains nearly half (49 percent) of Canada’s Inuit population. Approximately 19 percent of Canadian Inuit live in Nunavik (in northern Quebec), about 6 percent live in the Inuvialuit region (Northwest Territories), and approximately 4 percent live in Nunatsiavut (northern coast of Labrador). Some Inuit live in urban centers such as Ottawa-Gatineau, Yellowknife, Edmonton, Montreal, and Winnipeg (Gionet n.d.).
Relations between the Inuit and Qallunaat (white people, also referred to as “Southerners”) have been marked by controversies related to the widespread killing of sled dogs during the 1950s through 1970s, as well as the management of wildlife resources. In 1999, Inuit elders alleged that dogs were systematically destroyed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in an attempt to prevent the Inuit from living off the land, thereby forcing them into permanent settlements (Tyrrell 2008: 327-328). A federal investigation was launched in 2005, and a final RCMP report in 2006 did not uncover any evidence to support the allegations of an organized mass dog slaughter by RCMP members in Nunavik and Nunavut. Federal investigators claimed that some dogs were killed for public health and safety reasons in accordance with the law and sometimes at the request of the dogs’ owners. They attributed a “startling drop” in Inuit sled dog populations to devastating canine epidemics, the collapse of the fur trade, the introduction of the snowmobile, the migration of the Inuit people into settlements, and participation in the market economy rather than living on the land (Royal Canadian Mounted Police 2006: 7). Despite the RCMP findings, a 2011 agreement allotted $3 million in compensation to the Inuit of Quebec for the harm caused to their way of life by slaughtering 1,000 sled dogs in 14 Nunavik communities. Jean Charest, premier of Quebec, signed the agreement to acknowledge that “killing the Inuit’s primary means of transportation stripped them of their ability to hunt, trap and fish, and thus had lasting, detrimental effects on their way of life” (Indian Country Today 2011: para. 2).
The killing of sled dogs remains a controversial topic throughout the Canadian North and is cited by many Inuit as a case of cultural imperialism and the negative consequences of colonialism. Interviews with Inuit elders highlight the social harms committed by the killing of sled dogs, with some Inuit equating the killings with genocidal attempts to “annihilate us” and to attack the Inuit community as a whole (Laugrand and Oosten 2002: 89). The Qikiqtani Truth Commission (QTC), an Inuit-led initiative formed in 2007 to investigate colonial history in the Baffin region, notes that dogs (qimmit) played an integral role in Inuit life and survival. Not only were dogs used for practical purposes such as transportation and hunting, but they were also fully integrated into Inuit cultural life. A QTC report found that at least 1,200 dogs were killed in the Baffin Region from 1950 to 1975 with more than 500 deaths occurring in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung between 1966 and 1967. Although the QTC’s data do not differ dramatically from the RCMP’s data, its approach stresses the cultural harms resulting from Canadian colonization of Inuit lands. For instance, the QTC acknowledges that many dogs were killed as the result of contagious diseases but also notes that severe epidemics of canine distemper between 1957 and 1966 may possibly be attributed to increased levels of contact between Inuit and Qallunaat. Increased contact also led to the spread of human diseases, including tuberculosis, which ravaged Inuit populations during the twentieth century. Many Inuit dog teams disappeared or were killed when their owners were sent south for health care; when an Inuk returned home from treatment, he was often unable to re-establish his dog team and hunt again (QTC n.d.).
The QTC investigation also found that changes in cultural practices—including Inuit movement into settlements and a decline in hunting—and Canadian animal control laws such as the Ordinance Respecting Dogs resulted in the killing of sled dogs. Some contend that Inuit communities were forcibly resettled into permanent communities in order to strengthen Canadian sovereignty—for instance, the resettlement of northern Quebec Inuit to the High Arctic in the 1950s—although the government argues that the Inuit were voluntarily relocated for humanitarian reasons (Tyrrell 2008: 328). Although the reasons for Inuit migration and relocation remain contested, most agree that settlement living meant fewer full-time hunters and the need for fewer sled teams. Canadian laws also impacted dogs and their owners; the Ordinance instituted standards for dog ownership and made it possible for officers to fine owners and to seize and/or destroy dogs for offenses perceived (primarily by Qallunaat) to be a nuisance or a danger. In many cases, “shooting dogs was simply easier than chasing and capturing them” (QTC n.d.: para 5) and numerous cases of officers shooting Inuit dogs have been documented. Perhaps most significant, the QTC reported that threats and actions to kill Inuit dogs as “individual acts of intimidation by RCMP officers” (n.d.: para 7) were commonplace. “The RCMP had a limited number of options available to control Inuit or punish individuals breaking laws or Qallunaat cultural expectations,” reported the QTC (n.d.: para 7). “Threatening to kill dogs was a particularly easy method to get Inuit to comply with orders…Inuit valued their dogs more than any other possession” (QTC n.d.: para 7). The QTC stressed that the broad language of the Ordinance was used to justify killing dogs, and the closed justice system during that time provided no independent method of complaint or appeal against unreasonable police tactics. “Almost every Inuk witness who testified before the Commission spoke about the importance of sled dogs to Inuit identity, culture and survival,” noted the QTC (n.d.: para 8). In sum, “Inuit believe that the government was aware of the impact of the loss of dogs on Inuit culture, health and well-being, but that it did nothing to ease the situation” (QTC n.d.: para. 8). Frank James Tester similarly contends that ordinances intended to prevent dog attacks also represented “a tool in the totalizing agenda of a Canadian State committed to assimilating Inuit to Canadian norms, values, assumptions, rule of law, and settlement living” (2010: 129).
Inuit experiences with Canadian colonialism—including the perceived wrongs of the dog slaughter—continue to negatively impact relations between Inuit and Qallunaat, particularly when it comes to the management of wildlife resources. The polar bear, for example, has pitted the Inuit against conservation and animal welfare groups that view the animal as an icon in fights against climate change and for biodiversity. Many of these groups want to see an international ban on the trade of bear pelts and parts, which is already heavily restricted. Such a ban was recently rejected at a 2013 meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok, thanks in part to heated protests by the Inuit community (Eilperin 2013). Led by the United States, the proposed change would have switched the polar bear from Appendix II of the convention to Appendix I, which would ban trade in all but exceptional circumstances (Economist 2013). Canada, which is home to two thirds of the world’s 20,000 to 25,000 wild polar bears, is the only country to allow sports hunting of the animal; it exports at least 300 polar bears for sale each year (Eilperin 2013). The Inuit see the polar bear as a cultural symbol and a valuable source of food and money; they trade bear parts and sell some of their annual quota to Qallunaat trophy hunters, who boost local economies by employing guides and buying supplies. Critics argue that trade bans do not address the real problem of climate change, and they also contend that debates about the future of the polar bear lack reliable data: Only 8 of the 19 known polar bear groups have been surveyed since 2000, and four have never been surveyed. A controversial 2007 forecast by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which suggests that declining sea ice will lead to the destruction of two thirds of the world’s polar bears by 2050, has been criticized for its lack of evidence (Economist 2013). “For the world to suggest that we’ll save the polar bears and forget the people, that’s a little backwards,” said Terry Audla (as cited in K. Murphy 2012: para 11), president of the organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents about 55,000 Inuit across Canada. Like most Canadian game management officials, he argues that Canada’s polar bear quotas are set well within sustainable levels. “The Inuit have always hunted the polar bear. It’s in our best interest to ensure the population is healthy. But people have to have faith in us and work with us—to base things on facts, and not listen to these animal rights activists who are bending the truth” (Audla, as cited in K. Murphy 2012: para 11).
The management of wildlife resources, including the polar bear and the beluga whale, is often situated within Inuit narratives of cultural imperialism. Martina Tyrrell notes that, in general, “the conservation of wildlife resources has been a contentious issue in the Arctic where management of resources has been viewed, variously, as essential to the maintenance of robust stocks of northern wildlife, as a threat to the cultural integrity of indigenous peoples and as a form of cultural and ideological imperialism” (2008: 322). One of the most contentious wildlife management issues concerns beluga whales in the waters off Nunavik in northern Quebec, where government regulations have had “adverse economic, nutritional, social, and cultural impacts” on the Inuit and have led to a “creeping criminalization” of the hunt. As in the case of the polar bear, the Inuit remain distrustful of federal government policies and are critical of scant research data (Tyrrell 2008: 323). A blanket quota covers both the Western Hudson Bay belugas (the largest population in the world, at 57,000 whales) and the Eastern population (consisting of a mere 3,100 whales); Inuit hunters claim that the two populations are distinguishable and that local knowledge was ignored in the formulation of government policy. As a result of federal management plans, several hunters have faced poaching charges and there have been marked local social and cultural changes, including changes to hunting and sharing practices, declining enculturation and enskilment of young people, and increased dependence on store-bought foods (Tyrrell 2008: 325). Most Inuit believe they are being punished for exercising their right to hunt belugas in culturally appropriate ways, and that quotas are reactionary rather than based on reliable scientific findings. Inuit anger is tied to “a deepening sense of disillusionment as hunters feel their voices are muted” and their in-depth knowledge of beluga behavior is ignored (Tyrrell 2008: 327). Meeka Mike, a well-respected Inuk hunter and activist, notes that it is “astonishing” that government policies are based on limited scientific findings from outside researchers, and local experts are rarely consulted in scientific studies. As debates rage on, some Inuit “have to go without food, and have their sole providers jailed for subsistence hunting” (Personal communicaton, M. Mike, August 2, 2013). The management of belugas is embedded within a broader narrative of Canadian colonialism, and many Inuit are critical of policies that privilege animals over the cultural survival of the Inuit people. One Inuit man commented: “They talk about whales becoming endangered, but what about Inuit? I think we will become endangered. We will be white people in Inuit bodies. I think that’s what they want—that we all become vegetarians, wear synthetic clothing” (Tyrrell 2008: 329).
Recommendations and Conclusions
The Winnemem Wintu of northern California and the Inuit of northern Canada represent two case studies of indigenous nations facing threats of cultural genocide. Their experiences with settler colonialism reflect a continuum of physical and structural violence, and today’s political challenges, ranging from federal recognition to limits on hunting rights, highlight their continuing struggles to protect their indigenous cultures. Around the world, other groups of indigenous peoples also face severe violations of their basic cultural rights; their group identity and their right to exist as a distinct group are at risk. Although each indigenous community faces distinct challenges, common features associated with historical colonialism and current-day cultural genocide link these nations and fuel the need for a serious discussion of forced assimilation and violations of cultural rights. In particular, three issues require further consideration: (1) International recognition of cultural genocide, (2) framing and advocacy approaches, and (3) renewing indigenous self-determination.
International Recognition of Cultural Genocide
Cultural genocide plays a “subsidiary role” in our present understandings of genocide and group destruction and is therefore not completely absent from current discussions and approaches. Cultural destruction has been used to establish the specific intent to destroy an identity group, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, and cultural characteristics have been used to define the contours of the UN Genocide Convention (Nersessian 2005). In Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstić, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) acknowledged that genocide encompassed the destruction of a group as a distinct social identity, and that group destruction through purposeful eradication of culture and identity was conceivable (Hon 2013: 373). Evidence against Krstić, a former Bosnian commander charged with crimes including complicity to commit genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity, included the deliberate destruction of mosques and houses belonging to Bosnian Muslims (Hon 2013: 372, 374). The chamber recognized that physical attacks are often accompanied by destruction of cultural property and symbols; such acts of cultural destruction may be considered as proof of the specific intent to physically destroy an identity group (Hon 2013: 374). Cultural characteristics are also used to define the contours of protected groups, since there are no universally accepted definitions of racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups protected by the Genocide Convention. Cultural considerations, including a group’s social, historical, and linguistic characteristics, help to determine whether a given group is protected under the Convention (Nersessian 2005).
Although cultural genocide is not recognized as a distinct crime under international law, a new feature in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) offers the potential to “inject a cultural perspective into the proceedings” (Hon 2013: 363). Cultural genocide is not specifically included in the Statute, but it does contain a provision that allows victims to participate in a legal capacity from the investigation stage to the trial itself. This new and rather revolutionary provision was justified by the belief that victims are in a prime position to help the ICC achieve its truth-finding goals, and that their participation ensures that the ICC will address their needs for both accountability and justice (Hon 2013: 381-382). Kristina Hon (2013) argues that cultural genocide deserves to be recognized, and that ICC prosecutors and legal representatives of the victims should pay special attention to the impacts of a more “culturally-nuanced” approach to the prosecution of genocide and war crimes. By establishing a precedent for the inclusion of the cultural background of a conflict and a mechanism for addressing cultural harms, the ICC could provide a new avenue for addressing the issue of cultural genocide (Hon 2013: 363). For instance, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir—the only person thus far to be indicted by the ICC for charges of genocide, although he remains at large—will presumably be confronted with evidence of cultural destruction to establish specific intent to commit genocide, just as in Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstić. Yet, Hon (2013) advocates for an additional, more subtle way to include cultural destruction into ICC proceedings: by the certification of both individual human beings and cultural institutions as official victims of the conflict situations under the ICC’s purview. “The ICC would be well served by letting the victims carve a niche for themselves by presenting to the court the cultural context of the conflicts and crimes,” she argues (Hon 2013: 381). Despite its potential, however, this approach represents a “second best” solution that recognizes cultural genocide only in relation to crimes of physical genocide. The ICC’s consideration of cultural destruction could mark an important step toward the international recognition of cultural genocide, but this approach is a positive step in the right direction rather than an end-goal.
Cultural genocide is a “unique wrong” that warrants independent recognition by the international community and should not be limited to a subsidiary role in cases of physical genocide. Existing human rights jurisprudence lacks sufficient flexibility to address cultural genocide, and narrow legal definitions of genocide fail to address the intentional and systematic eradication of a group’s cultural existence. “By limiting genocide to its physical and biological manifestations, a group can be kept physically and biologically intact even as its collective identity suffers in a fundamental and irremediable manner,” argues David Nersessian (2005: para. 12). “Put another way, the present understanding of genocide preserves the body of the group but allows its very soul to be destroyed” (para. 12). He further contends that cultural genocide is often “far more sinister” than physical attacks (para. 11), yet existing human rights law fails to recognize and account for the specific harms of cultural destruction. Cultural genocide therefore rises to a level meriting individual criminal responsibility and requires a new international treaty dealing specifically with cultural elimination (Nersessian 2005). Another approach would be to amend existing frameworks, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to include provisions for cultural genocide and minority rights. Johannes Morsink argues that the omission of an article on the rights of minority group members is “the greatest defect of this pivotal document” and believes an amendment would keep with the spirit of communitarianism inherent to the UDHR (1999: 1057). Although the distinct recognition of cultural genocide—either via a separate international treaty or through the amendment of existing frameworks such as the UDHR—does not currently have widespread political support within the international community, it should nevertheless remain a goal that is actively, perhaps incrementally, pursued by human rights advocates.
Framing and Advocacy Approaches
The concept of cultural genocide provides an issue frame for conceptualizing extreme violations of cultural rights, thereby offering opportunities to build and mobilize a broad supporter base for rights protection. This is particularly important for indigenous rights advocacy, which has often been overlooked by scholars. Leanne Simpson notes that Western-based theories have played important roles in “diagnosing, revealing, and even interrogating colonialism” but have provided little concrete guidance for organizers (2011: 31). The process of issue “framing” is outlined within social movement and transnational advocacy literatures, providing a way for indigenous rights advocates to present their issues to a broader public. Framing, or the process of assigning meaning to an issue and interpreting a cause, may lead to the mobilization of potential adherents and constituents, the achievement of bystander support, and the demobilization of antagonists (Snow and Benford 1988: 198). Framing is often strengthened by the process of “frame alignment,” when an issue is linked with existing social movement orientations, such as the formulated interests, values, beliefs, goals, and ideologies that are congruent and complementary to the new issue (Snow et al. 1986: 464). Cultural genocide easily connects with preexisting legal norms related to cultural rights and genocide, as well as established social movements focused on minority and indigenous rights. The framing process is particularly important due to the recent proliferation of human rights nongovernmental organizations and causes worldwide, combined with limited resources such as funding opportunities and public attention. This competition means that an issue’s ability to be framed and marketed in order to attract attention and funding may play an important role in issue emergence and success (Bob 2005: 27).
The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) is one example of an organization that has adopted cultural genocide as an analytical framework for assessing cultural rights violations. Rather than simply referencing existing (albeit weak and vague) connections to cultural rights in international law and human rights frameworks, the ICT makes a stronger claim by equating Chinese repression with genocide. The organization claims Chinese Communist rule in Tibet has exhibited a pattern of repression aimed at deliberately stifling the self-determination of Tibetan culture. These efforts are designed to “fundamentally alter Tibetan culture in a way that robs it of its essence and denies Tibetans the right to control their own cultural destiny” (International Campaign for Tibet 2012: 3). In particular, the Chinese government has focused on repressing core areas of Tibetan identity: language and education, cultural values, patterns of livelihood, cultural expression, and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism (International Campaign for Tibet [ICT] 2012: 129). Following Lemkin’s rationale after World War II, the ICT identifies a “genocide continuum” and argues that cultural genocide does not exist in isolation; it is frequently linked to cases of physical genocide and may be viewed as a risk factor for coming violence (ICT 2012: 131). The organization clearly argues that Chinese repression has increased since 2008, and that policies show a consistent disregard for the rights of Tibetans as a group, rather than individuals (ICT 2012: 136).
By framing human rights violations in Tibet as cultural genocide, the ICT increases the issue’s resonance and strengthens its calls for international attention and responsibility. Although the organization acknowledges that the Chinese state bears ultimate responsibility for cultural destruction within its borders, the ICT also notes that cultural genocide has global implications. The ICT argues that the international community’s interests in Tibet include “ensuring respect for international norms and legal standards, including prevention of genocide and the protection of threatened minorities,” as well as managing various challenges created by China’s aspirations of a great power status (2012: 136). The frame of cultural genocide, therefore, provides a way for human rights advocates to conceptualize certain violations in terms that are accessible to the public and the wider international community. By utilizing the term “genocide,” this frame also emphasizes the magnitude of destruction facing a variety of identity groups.
Renewing Indigenous Self-Determination
For many indigenous peoples, the need to recognize and prevent cultural genocide is paired with the desire to heal—and thrive in spite of—past trauma. Within North America, repeated waves of “military pressure, conquest, relocation, and other aspects of physical genocide” have corresponded with various forms of cultural destruction (Harris et al. 2011: 54). As briefly illustrated above, native communities in Canada and the United States continue to face challenges associated with cultural self-determination. In addition to pursuing the recognition of cultural genocide as a distinct crime and framing some indigenous rights issues within this context, indigenous communities must also seek positive solutions for moving forward from past atrocities. Although this is no easy task, Harris et al. (2011) outline three broad approaches for further consideration: (1) Nation sovereignty and economic development, (2) appropriate Indian education, and (3) healing historical trauma and grief.
First, “adequate and appropriate economic development is a necessity if American Indian nations are to attain a high level of sovereignty and self-sufficiency in order to govern themselves and be equal participants in American federalism” (Harris et al. 2011: 282). Despite a prevalence of outside advice and programming to alleviate poverty and unemployment on reservations, experience shows that economic development needs to be controlled by tribes and their members—albeit often with appropriate outside expert advice and technical assistance. Imposed programs that lack indigenous input and decision making frequently fail, while those that are undertaken by indigenous peoples themselves or in full partnership with others are largely successful (Harris et al. 2011: 282-286). A central challenge of this process is how to grow indigenous economies in ways that increase independence of native communities and overcome the dependence created by colonialism (Harris et al. 2011: 287).
Second, appropriate indigenous education is necessary to battle the long-term effects of colonization and to develop a “new language of and for indigenous history” (Harris et al. 2011: 326). The long-term effects of colonization of American Indians include a host of “collective and individual malaise,” including the disintegration of traditional communities, economies, and languages. At the individual level, there has been a loss of self-respect and identity; these negative processes have been described as “historical trauma,” “internalized colonization,” and “ethno-stress” (Harris et al. 2011: 325). In response to these concerns, indigenous educational cultural studies combine theory and practice to improve pedagogy related to the following: (1) creating a new language; (2) transcending Western academic boundaries; (3) decentering the consciousness and assimilative power of colonialism; (4) rewriting the institutional and discursive story of indigenous people; and (5) applying the essence of democracy as a tool for reasserting indigenous rights (Harris et al. 2011: 326). Alfred (2004) advocates “warrior scholarship” that resists imperial power and renews indigenous education. This scholarly ethic requires that students and educators honor knowledge from indigenous traditional cultures, fight for political independence in the face of state sovereignty, and denounce and confront false claims of authority and legitimacy that have co-opted indigenous scholars (Alfred 2004: 95-96).
Third, the restoration of indigenous communities requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the collective wounds created by cultural and physical genocide (Harris et al. 2011: 378). Existing scholarship addresses a variety of approaches for postgenocide reconciliation, healing, and recovery (for example, see Staub 2006; Cobban 2007), particularly following cases of physical genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. These approaches must be considered in relation to the specific histories and ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples. Simpson (2011), for instance, asserts that reconciliation must be grounded in self-determination and must support the regeneration of indigenous languages, oral cultures, and traditions of governance. Culturally responsive methods that acknowledge the effects of colonialism—also known as the “American Indian holocaust” in North America—are necessary to heal wounds at the personal, family, and community levels. These efforts are occurring on and off of the reservation, and many programs are being designed and implemented to heal the impacts of unresolved historical grief (Harris et al. 2011: 378-379).
These recommendations offer three vital starting points for responding to the global problem of cultural genocide against indigenous populations. Using the analytical lens of genocide, this article considers the cultural destruction and forced assimilation of indigenous peoples and seeks to prompt serious discussion of oft-neglected violations of cultural rights. Although cultural genocide has held ambiguous legal status since being left out of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, systemic threats to culture are inherently connected to the mass-atrocity crime of genocide and are increasingly being framed in those terms by advocates of indigenous rights. The Winnemem Wintu and the Canadian Inuit highlight the challenges associated with cultural genocide in North America, including the devastating effects of current policy decisions. International recognition of cultural genocide, framing for increased support and advocacy, and approaches for empowering indigenous communities are all necessary steps for confronting the impacts of cultural destruction. Although issues such as forced assimilation often do not involve direct physical killing, the concept of cultural genocide represents an important tool for human rights promotion and protection.