Scouts Boarding School
“Boy Scout Troop No. 81: US Indian Training School, Pipestone (ca. 1930)
Source: Chester E. Sogn. “Pipestone Indian Training School Boy Scout Troop.” Pipestone County Historical Society.

“Kill the Armenian/Indian; Save the Turk/Man: Carceral Humanitarianism, the Transfer of Children and a Comparative History of Indigenous Genocide”

New article explores violence against children and the comparative study of genocide

Quick Summary

  • Boarding Schools and the Transfer of Children is at the Center of the Historical Experience of Indigenous Genocide

On a warm Fall afternoon in 1915 in Syria, a Protestant missionary lifted a five-year-old Armenian boy, Karnig Panian (1910-1989), onto a train headed to Beirut. From there he was taken to a small village called Antoura, where a boarding school had been established to transform Armenian and Kurdish children into Turks. Panian’s family had been murdered over the previous months as part of the World War One-era genocide of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. He and a cousin were all that was left of his family, who had called Central the cherry orchards and wheat fields of Central Anatolia home for millennia.

A Spring morning some 20 years later witness the forced removal of five-year-old Adam Fortunate Eagle (Chippewa) following the death of his white father, and several of his brothers and sisters from their Native American mother’s home on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota and taken by car to the Pipestone Indian Training School where government authorities would strip them of their cultural identity and forcibly assimilate them to the dominant American culture.

What happened to these boys was not a coincidence – it was genocide, even as they physically survived.  I explore their shared experiences in a recent article, “Kill the Armenian/Indian; Save the Turk/Man: Carceral Humanitarianism, the Transfer of Children and a Comparative History of Indigenous Genocide” for the Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies.

Below is a short selection:

...Generations-long campaigns of violent resistance to colonialism by indigenous people in ways that have few parallels in the Holocaust or other acknowledged genocides has justified warfare against indigenous civilians, making indigenous genocide seem less like genocide and more like a state protecting its own frontier civilian populations.  Social and institutional elements of indigenous genocide — as each revolves around questions of state modernization and centralization, culture and religion, land and settlement, and integration with city life and capitalist economies—seem at odds with what constitutes genocide as both a historical phenomenon and legal construct and reinforce the probability of exclusion. By the same token colonizers and dominant groups have arrogated to themselves the right to define out of existence and “in-authenticate” indigenous groups’ indigeneity, denying the basic human right to identity—be it through the mechanisms of settler-colonialism, Apartheid, language and cultural policies of assimilation, pseudo-science, and of course, genocide, itself. 

To confront this history of exclusion, build a framework for historical and theoretical inclusion, and imagine restorative possibilities through intersectional solidarity, this article draws the genocide of ethnic Armenians into the comparative study of late-19th and early 20th-century indigenous genocide. Using a Human Rights Studies approach, it focuses on a core element of genocide, the transfer of children by state authorities through their incarceration in institutions of humanitarian “care” — boarding schools, orphanages and similar carceral forms — to argue that the ideology and practices of modern humanitarianism are a shared element of indigenous genocide and can serve as a vital analytical tool of comparative study. Common experiences of genocide denial and cultural erasure invite added comparison and intersectional solidarity. Beyond imagining ways to bring this elemental feature of genocide into a comparative frame, I have written this article to engage Native American and Armenian Studies scholars together and to elaborate a working vocabulary for future collaborative research and action to address lacunae in the theory and practice of genocide prevention, justice, and reparation. At the outset, filling that lacuna requires the recognition that the genocide Convention excluded from the category of genocide the practices of empires and states towards indigenous communities and peoples, placing indigenous (and other colonized) peoples in a state of exception from the growing corpus of post-World War II humanitarian legal doctrine.

Linked to the processes of exclusion and exception is that “indigenous,” and “indigeneity” as concepts in the study of genocide and mass violence against civilians can be made “contested” terms.  Referring to Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Indios, or Maori as “indigenous peoples,” has become commonplace—certainly these communities fit the popular and international human rights law understanding of the category.  When Palestinians, Kurds, Sámi, or Armenians are labeled “indigenous,” such an attribution drives speculation that the term is being used polemically, in part because it indicates that countries within which these communities exist are colonial-settler states wherein citizenship, full access to rights, and civic belonging are affected negatively by systemic racism or similar violations of human rights.

Non-acknowledgement of indigenous genocide tends to be policy in settler-colonial states, especially as calls for reparations and restoration become louder. With the overwhelming role of the Holocaust in the popular imagination of genocide in mind, acknowledgment of responsibility for genocide by those states is an issue in the conceptualization of dominant national identities, with the potential to align a state and its citizens with the architects of genocide rather than with wilderness-taming pioneers or death camp liberators. Self-acknowledgement of responsibility for genocide can transform the heroic national origin story the dominant group has told itself for generations to one in which they and the core ideologies of the state are instead responsible for genocide and generations of displaced and refugee peoples.

Additional link to article.


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