In 1988, the Somali government attacked villages in northern Somalia [now Somaliland] to destroy members of the Isaaq clan, a clan blamed for rebellious actions against the state. The government justified these acts as state security, similar to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people, mostly Isaaqs, died during the 1980s, most of them between 1988 and early 1990. Civilians were targeted along with suspected insurgents, and both massacres and extrajudicial executions occurred. Camel and goat-keeping pastoral nomads were victimized by the Somali government because they were perceived as providing economic support to the insurgents.


From the book Genocide In The 20th Century: Critical Essays And Eyewitness Accounts

  • Authors: Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons, Israel W. Charny
  • Print Book, English, 1994
  • Edition: First
  • Publisher: Garland, New York, 1994

Full contents:

  • Introduction / Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons
  • Ch. 1. Genocide of the Hereros: Eyewitness Accounts /Jon Bridgman and Leslie J. Worley
  • Ch. 2. The Armenian Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts / Rouben P. Adalian
  • Ch. 3. Soviet Man-Made Famine in Ukraine: Eyewitness Accounts / James E. Mace
  • Ch. 4. Soviet Deportation of Whole Nations: A Genocidal Process: Eyewitness Accounts / Lyman H. Legters
  • Ch. 5. Holocaust: The Genocide of the Jews: Eyewitness Accounts / Donald L. Niewyk
  • Ch. 6. Holocaust: The Gypsies: Eyewitness Accounts / Sybil Milton
  • Ch. 7. Holocaust: The Genocide of Disabled Peoples: Eyewitness Accounts / Hugh Gregory Gallagher
  • Ch. 8. The Indonesian Massacres: Eyewitness Accounts / Robert Cribb
  • Ch. 9. Genocide in East Timor: Eyewitness Accounts / James Dunn
  • Ch. 10. Genocide in Bangladesh: Eyewitness Accounts / Rounaq Jahan
  • Ch. 11. The Burundi Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts / Rene Lemarchand.
  • Ch. 12. The Cambodian Genocide – 1975-1979: Eyewitness Accounts / Ben Kiernan
  • Ch. 13. Physical and Cultural Genocide of Various Indigenous Peoples: Eyewitness Accounts / Robert K. Hitchcock and Tara M. Twedt
  • Afterword: Which Genocide Matters More? Learning to Care about Humanity / Israel W. Charny.

Chapter 13: Physical and Cultural Genocide of Indigenous Peoples

Robert K.Hitchcock and Tara M.Twedt


The Indigenous peoples in the world today have been described as “victims of progress” (Bodley, 1990) and who as people have had to face “colonization, genocide, and a constant struggle for cultural and physical survival” (Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, 1987, p. xi). Indigenous peoples are small-scale societies that frequently have been dealt with harshly by the governments and citizens in the states in which they live. Some see them as being particularly vulnerable to genocidal acts because of their small group sizes, cultural distinctiveness, occupation of remote areas, and relative technological and organizational simplicity (Kuper, 1985, p. 301; Burger, 1987, p. 38; and, Amnesty International, 1992a, pp. 6162).

Sometimes called aboriginals, native peoples, tribal peoples, Fourth World peoples, or “first nations,” these populations have suffered from mistreatment, discrimination, and lack of equal opportunity in employment for centuries. This was especially true from the time of colonial expansion into Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the New World (International Labour Office, 1953; Wolf, 1982). As Burger (1987) notes, “When the indigenous population did not encounter direct genocide, they faced instead enslavement, forced labor, and menial work” (p. 38). Over the past 500 years, literally millions of indigenous peoples have had to cope with the destruction of their lifeways and habitats, disease, dispossession, and exploitation (Bodley, 1990).


Substantial numbers of indigenous peoples have been the victims of gross violations of human rights. These violations have ranged from genocide to large-scale massacres of entire groups and from extrajudicial executions of individuals and torture to intentional starvation. According to one nongovernment organization concerned with indigenous rights, a conservative estimate of the annual deaths of indigenous peoples by violent means is around 30,000 (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 1988, p. 1). In many cases worldwide, these deaths are attributable directly to state actions and to the unwillingness of non-indigenous agencies and individuals to assess the impacts of their policies on indigenous societies. A critical problem is that although international human rights standards pertaining to indigenous peoples exist, these standards frequently are ignored.

Several major factors have been responsible for the threats to the lives and well-being of indigenous peoples in the twentieth century. The first is competition for resources, the second is that a number of indigenous groups have sought self-determination in the face of efforts on the part of governments to assimilate them, and the third is the opposition on the part of some indigenous groups to the plans and policies of political elites and development agencies. Genocides of indigenous peoples occur, as Kuper (1985) notes, “in the process of struggles by ethnic or racial or religious groups for power or secession, greater autonomy, or more equality” (p. 155). Many indigenous groups have suffered from the depredations of governments, private companies, and individuals bent on taking their land and resources forcibly or through quasilegal means such as treaties and agreements (DeLoria, 1969, 1985; World Bank, 1982; Burger, 1987, 1990; Bodley, 1990; Durning, 1992, pp. 21-23; Amnesty International, 1992a, pp. 34-41).

Indigenous populations frequently have been denied the right to practice their own religions and customs and to speak their own languages by nation-states, a process described as “cultural genocide” or “ethnocide” (Kuper, 1981, pp. 31, 41; Burger, 1987, p. 31; Heinz, 1988, p. 75; Bodley, 1990, p. 40; and, Chalk and Jonnasohn, 1990, pp. 9, 23). For purposes of this chapter, ethnocide will be distinguished from genocide as it refers to the destruction of cultures rather than people per se. Ethnocide ultimately may have a significant impact on the well-being of indigenous societies since it sometimes results in people becoming so dispirited as to lack the desire to survive.

This essay centers on issues relating to the physical and cultural genocide of various indigenous peoples. We deal first with the question of the characteristics of indigenous peoples. Next, we focus on the issue of the definition of genocide as it relates to indigenous populations, and we examine the various typologies that have been presented which incorporate indigenous peoples as victim groups. We follow with a discussion of the contexts in which genocides of indigenous groups occur, and we conclude with some recommendations for ways in which to protect indigenous peoples from the horrors of genocide.

Who Are Indigenous Peoples?

No single agreed-upon definition of the term “indigenous peoples” exists. According to the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues (1987), four elements are included in the definition: (1) pre-existence, (2) non-dominance, (3) cultural difference, and (4) self-identification as indigenous (p. 6). The term “indigenous peoples” is usually used in reference to those individuals and groups who are descendants of the original populations residing in a country. In the majority of cases, they are ethnic minorities. In some cases, the term “indigenous” applies to non-European groups residing in regions that were colonized by Europeans. The term “indigenous peoples” is also used to apply to local populations who lived in a place before a state system incorporated them (Perry, 1996, p. 8).

There are different approaches among analysts to the issue of terminology regarding indigenous peoples. The International Labour Organization (1953) uses the phrase “tribal and indigenous peoples” (pp. 3–5), while the World Bank and the United Nations prefer “indigenous peoples” (Martinez Cobo, 1987; World Bank, 2005a). As the World Bank’s (2005a) Operational Directive 4–10 on Indigenous Peoples notes, no single definition is appropriate to cover the diversity present in these populations (p. 1).

Indigenous peoples generally possess ethnic, economic, religious, or linguistic characteristics that are different from the dominant groups in the societies where they exist. In many cases, they tend to have a strong sense of cultural identity and social solidarity, which many group members attempt to maintain (Niezen, 2003). Most indigenous peoples prefer to reserve for themselves the right to determine who are and are not members of their groups (Ewen, 1994; Anaya, 1996; Perry, 1996).

Nearly forty percent of the world’s countries (72 of 191) contain peoples defined as indigenous. Estimates of the numbers of indigenous peoples vary widely but generally range between 350,000,000 and 700,000,000 (Soefestad, 1995; Maybury-Lewis 1997; Stidsen, 2007a, p. 10). Together, indigenous peoples comprise about 6–10 percent of the world’s total population, depending on the way figures are calculated (Hitchcock and Koperski, 2008). Table 1 contains an estimate of the numbers of indigenous peoples around the world. Some of these groups live on borders and as such are essentially transboundary in nature, which is seen as a threat by some states concerned with border security. The approximately 100,000 San, for example, are found in six countries of southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) (Suzman, 1991), while the 60,000–100,000 Saami are found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia (Lehtola, 2004). Indigenous peoples usually are minorities, but in some states, they make up the majority of the population, as is the case in Papua New Guinea (87 percent), Bolivia (77 percent), and Guatemala (55 percent). Indigenous peoples represent some 10 percent of Latin America’s population and are the largest disadvantaged group on the continent.

TABLE 13.1 Estimated Numbers of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with Examples of Some Indigenous Groups and Their Population Sizes
Region Number of Groups Overall Population
North America (2 Countries) 250 328,667,927
Indians (Canada) (613 bands) 1,000,000
Indians (United States) (515 Tribes) 2,851,000
Inuit (Canada) 47,000
Central America (8 Countries) 370 147,338,108
Kuna 58,000
Miskito (Nicaragua) 170,000
Zapotec (Mexico) 545,000
South America (14 Countries) 561 371,274,004
Ache (Paraguay) 1,800
Arhuaco (Colombia) 9,000
Mapuche (Argentina, Chile) 1,710,000
Quechua (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru) 8,889,298
Shipibo (Peru) 25,000
Yanomamo (Brazil, Venezuela) 24,700
Yora (Peru) 850
Russia 105 143,420,309
Khanty (3 Tribes) 21,500
Saami 1,775
Tribes of Siberia (30 Tribes) 199,900
Udege 1,920
Eastern Asia (7 Countries) 82 1,538,099,417
Ainu (Japan) 25,000
Bouyei (China) 3,157,700
Thao (Taiwan) 400
Melanesia (5 Countries) 1,000 7,398,902
Papuans (312 Tribes) 2,209,000
South-East Asia (10 countries) 1,400 571,337,070
Dayak (Borneo, Indonesia) 3,000,000
Orang Asli (Malaysia) 133,000
Hill Tribes (Thailand) 923,257
Penan (Malaysia) 12,000
South-Central Asia (14 Countries) 820 1,594,572,436
Adivasis (India) 89,500,000
Chakma (Bangladesh) 260,000
Australia and New Zealand 210 4,127,726
Aboriginals (Australia) 517,000
Maori (New Zealand) 310,000
Africa (54 Countries) 2.000 887,223,445
Batwa (Pygmies) (8 Countries) 400,000
Bushmen (San) (6 Countries) 107,100
Hadza (Tanzania) 1,350
Maasai (Kenya, Tanzania) 1,359,000
Tuareg (6 Countries) 3,500,000
Grand Total 6,798 6.5 billion people
Indigenous peoples 650,000,000,000
Note: This table contains estimates of the numbers of ethnolinguistic groups, as presented in Ethnologue ( Estimates of population sizes of indigenous peoples are notoriously difficult to obtains, data presented here are approximate. The information is drawn from a variety of sources, including national censuses, statistical surveys, research reports, and
from such organizations as the United Nations Statistical Division, United Nations Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, the World Factbook 2005,, International Mission Board,, Survival International (, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (, Cultural Survival (, Amnesty International (, Human Rights Watch (, Antislavery International (, the International Labour Organization (,
Minority Rights Group International ( and the World Bank ( Note that this table does not include some countries in Asia and the Pacific such as East Timor, which became an independent country on August 31, 2007. The total number of countries is 191.

Particular problems arise in defining people as indigenous in Africa and Asia. In many parts of Africa, it is difficult to establish antecedence since a variety of populations have moved in and out of local areas over time. Most African countries are multiethnic entities that contain a sizable number of different societies. Nigeria, for example, has at least 500 ethnic groups within its borders (Gordon, 2003). However, African governments are reluctant to disclose what percentage of their population is indigenous, taking the position, as Botswana has, that all the people in the country (with the exception of Europeans and Asians) are indigenous (see the Botswana government website, Individual Africans, on the other hand, frequently identify themselves as members of specific tribal or ethnic groups, which they tend to see as indigenous.

Even if some people claim to be indigenous, the countries where they live may not recognize them as aboriginal. The government of India, for example, maintains on the one hand that no indigenous groups exist within the country, but, on the other hand, the Indian government designates tens of millions of its citizens as “tribals” (Adivasis, “Scheduled Tribes”) (Bhengra, Bijoy, and Luthui, 1998).

African and Asian countries tend to take one of two different positions on the issue of indigenous populations: (1) they claim that there are no indigenous peoples whatsoever within their boundaries, or (2) they state that all groups in the country are indigenous (Martinez Cobo, 1987, p. 5; Sanders, 1989, pp. 417–418). Some countries, such as Botswana, prefer not to differentiate specific groups as targets of assistance, in part because they do not wish to be seen as practicing a kind of apartheid or separation on the basis of ethnic identification, as was seen in neighboring South Africa until 1994 (Saugestad, 2001; Hitchcock, 2002). On the other hand, there are states that do not want to admit to having indigenous peoples, in part, because they do not want to have to respond to queries or submit to investigations by the United Nations, the International Labour Organization, and other agencies on behalf of indigenous peoples. Some of them, such as Kenya, Tanzania, and the United States also do not want to meet new demands of indigenous populations for compensation for losses of land or natural resources.

Indigenous peoples are united in their desire to maintain their identities and to seek better standards of living and fair treatment. In some cases, these desires have led to efforts on their part to resist the attempts of states or other groups to change them. Some ethnic groups have been successful in their attempts to seek self-determination and sovereignty, as seen, for example, in the case of the people of East Timor, which became the world’s newest nation on August 31, 2007.

While there is tremendous diversity among the world’s indigenous peoples, they tend to have a number of socioeconomic features in common. Many indigenous peoples have strong ties to the land and its resources. Their economies are sometimes subsistence-oriented, producing goods for domestic use, although many of them do engage in market activities and raise cash through sales of goods and services. Some indigenous peoples derive a fairly significant portion of their diet and material requirements from hunting and gathering. Others are pastoralists (herders) who graze their domestic animals in savannas, deserts, temperate zones, and mountain environments. The vast majority of indigenous peoples are farmers who not only raise crops but also engage in various off-farm activities and rural and urban wage sector employment. Although many of these groups occupy remote areas, they are not isolated.

Some analysts suggest that contemporary indigenous groups are among the world’s most disadvantaged populations (Heinz, 1988; Maybury-Lewis, 1997, 2002; Bodley, 1999). A large percentage of the world’s indigenous people live below the poverty line. In Namibia, for example, 60 percent of the San were below the poverty datum line (Suzman, 2001, p. 8) while 95 percent of the Batek of Malaysia have incomes below $200 per year (Kirk Endicott, personal communication, 2007). Infant mortality rates among them tend to be high while health and nutritional standards generally are low. Unemployment rates are high, with some American Indian groups experiencing a 50 to 70 percent unemployment rate.

Many members of indigenous groups do not own land, and most groups have experienced dispossession or reductions in their ancestral territories. Educational and literacy levels generally are low, and languages are disappearing at a rapid rate, in part because of government policies aimed at acculturation and teaching of national languages (Nettle and Romaine, 2000; Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). At the same time, some indigenous peoples and their supporters such as the Lacandon Maya of Chiapas and Ju/’hoansi San in Namibia have started schools with curricula geared to their specific needs (Hays, 2007; Jill Gnade, personal communication).

Racism is a fact of life for indigenous peoples throughout the world. They are usually at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale of the countries where they live, and they are marginalized politically and legally. Indigenous groups have had difficulty getting redress for crimes committed against them, and they have often been treated negatively by courts when they have been charged with illegal activities. Often, the sentences they receive are more severe than those meted out to non-indigenous individuals (Amnesty International, 1992b). Members of indigenous communities tend to be overrepresented in the prisons of states such as Australia, Canada, and Botswana. Sometimes charges against indigenous groups are trumped up in order to remove them from lands that others covet, as was the case with the Triqui Indians in Mexico in 1984–1985 and with the Penan in Malaysia in 1988–1989 (see Many indigenous leaders argue that they have had to pay a terrible price for their interaction with non-indigenous societies.

Genocides among Indigenous Peoples

Many researchers, human rights workers, and journalists deem the ways in which indigenous peoples have been dealt with in the twentieth century to be genocide (Lewis, 1969, 1974, 1976; Munzel, 1973, 1974, 1985; Arens, 1976, 1978; Clay, 1984; Barta, 1987; Legters, 1988; Tatz, 1991, 2003; Hitchcock, 1999; Jaimes, 1992; Totten, Parsons, and Hitchcock, 2002; Barkan, 2003; Daes, 2005; Rensink, 2006). It is clear from a critical review of the literature on indigenous peoples that most writers use a fairly broad definition of the concept of genocide. While some researchers see genocide as a set of acts committed with the intent to destroy groups in whole or in part, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, others extend the concept to include such actions as intentional prevention of ethnic groups from practicing their traditional customs; forced resettlement; denial of access to food relief, health assistance, and development funds; and destruction of the habitats utilized by indigenous populations.

Sometimes victim groups label actions against them as genocidal in order to seek public recognition of the problems they are facing or to bring about greater condemnation of the actions of perpetrators. Defining genocide too narrowly, on the other hand, could have the effect of allowing authorities to overlook actions that are destructive and which eventually could result in the extinction of indigenous populations. As Totten, Parsons, and Hitchcock (2002) point out, if we are to develop sound conventions and warning systems to prevent genocide from occurring, then we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what does and does not constitute genocide (pp. 76–78).

Genocide, in the eyes of a number of social scientists, is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, social, religious, or cultural group by the state (Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990; Horowitz, 2002; Gellately and Kiernan, 2003). One problem with this approach, however, is that it may not cover those acts that are committed by settlers and miners in the Amazon, or private companies involved in the implementation of development projects. Clearly, in order to cover the diversity existing in cases of annihilation of indigenous peoples, it is necessary to use a definition that incorporates the full array of target groups and perpetrators and which specifies intent.

Fein (1990) defines genocide as “sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim” (p. 24). This definition is useful in that it excludes single massacres and is aimed at physically destroying group members selected on the basis of their being part of a collectivity.

It is important to note that genocide is by no means a simple or unified phenomenon. Genocide represents systematic efforts to destroy collectivities, many of which are minorities. Cases of physical genocide include those in which the killing of members of a collectivity threatens the survival of the group as a whole. In practice, however, genocidal acts usually do not result in total annihilation of the population. Groups that have been subjected to genocidal treatment often end up being victimized in other ways as well; they are sometimes raped, enslaved, deprived of their property, and forcibly removed to new places. Some groups have died out as a result of the indirect impacts of genocide, including starvation and disease.

Chalk and Jonassohn (1990) use the term “genocidal massacre” in reference to those cases in which a combination of genocide and ethnocide was employed (p. 26). In these instances, “There is no intent to kill the entire victim group, but its disappearance is intended” (p. 26). The distinction between physical and cultural genocide is by no means clear-cut. According to Chalk and Jonassohn (1990) assimilation policies on the part of the United States, combined with differential legal treatment of Indians, had major impacts on the well-being of Native Americans (pp. 195–203). In the Americas, Australia, South Africa, and other settler societies, most indigenous peoples suffered and died from disease, starvation, and related physical and cultural stresses (Wolf, 1982; Barta, 1987; Bodley, 1999, pp. 38–41, 78–93; Tatz, 1991, 2003; Brantlinger, 2003; Daes, 2005).

While the U.S. government generally did not openly espouse extermination policies, it did engage throughout its history in cultural modification programs that led to the destruction of Indian societies. It is not surprising, therefore, that American Indian writers tend to describe American government policy as genocidal in intent (see, for example, DeLoria, 1969, 1985). Most non-Native Americans would reject the suggestion that they are part of a genocidal society (for a discussion of this concept, see Barta, 1987, pp. 237–240). The fact is, though, that while the U.S. government employed ethnocide as its major indigenous peoples’ policy, it was always ready to resort to genocide if it was deemed desirable (DeLoria, 1969, 1985; Legters, 1988; Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, p. 203; Jaimes, 1992). Examples of genocidal actions against Native American populations include the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado in November 1864 (Hoig, 1961; Carroll, 1973; Rensink, 2006), the killings of over 200 Minnecojou and Hunkpapa Sioux at Wounded Knee in December 1890 and the systematic extrajudicial killings of dozens of Oglala Lakota in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1970s (Weyler, 1982; Matthiessen, 1983; Crow Dog and Erdoes, 1990, pp. 115–116).

Forced relocation, education of Native American children in Euro-American concepts rather than Native American ones, destruction of the subsistence economies of indigenous groups, and imposition of new forms of sociopolitical organization all were implemented by American governmental agencies (Thornton, 1987). It was not until 1924 that Native Americans even received U.S. citizenship rights, and it was another decade before the government lifted its ban on Native Americans’ practice of traditional religious activities (Amnesty International, 1992a, p. 7). Native Americans in the U.S. today are still seeking religious freedoms, which have been compromised by a series of court decisions.

Cultural genocide takes place under conditions of state imposition of educational programs, modernization efforts, and nation building. Throughout the world, indigenous peoples have been coerced or cajoled into giving up their cultural traditions. Sometimes this is done in the name of “national reconciliation” after decolonization. States as diverse as Turkey, Somalia, and Russia have required their citizens to learn national languages. Even countries with positive human rights records, such as Botswana, have implemented national educational systems that fail to instruct indigenous students in their own customs and languages (Biesele and Hitchcock, 2000).

Ethnocide also occurs in situations where non-native religious organizations promote their views and seek actively to discourage the practice of indigenous traditions (Palmer, 1992). It is important to note, however, that although ethnocidal policies are practiced widely, they have not led invariably to cultural disintegration. A cultural resurgence or a kind of ethnogenesis process is occurring among sizable numbers of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world (Burger, 1990; Durning, 1992, pp. 37–46; Bodley, 1999, pp. 145–169; Reed, 2003; Jackson and Warren, 2005; Stidsen, 2007b).

Genocides of indigenous peoples in the twentieth century have occurred in a number of different contexts, ranging from those where there is competition over resources and land to multiethnic settings with socioeconomic stratification and cleavages among the various groups. In the past, a significant proportion of the genocides of indigenous peoples occurred during the course of colonial expansion, a process seen in the twentieth century primarily in the movements of settlers, companies, and government agencies into frontier zones. The expansion of miners and settlers into the interior of Brazil, for example, led to the destruction of a number of groups, some of whom were killed by Indian agents of the government’s Indian protection agency (Davis, 1977; Price, 1989). An invasion of Yanomami land by miners, with the apparent complicity of the government and the army, resulted in killings and environmental devastation (American Anthropological Association, 1991; Albert, 1992, 1994; Chagnon 1993a-c; Sponsel, 1994, 1997). Indian agents, settlers, and miners have also been responsible for both the purposeful and accidental introduction of diseases, which had a terrible impact on tribal populations.

“Indigenous peoples are killed simply for who they are,” according to Maya human rights activist and anthropologist Victor Montejo (n.d., p. 2). Indigenous peoples increasingly are protesting the human rights abuses they suffer at the hands of governments, development agencies, and multinational corporations. They note that they face many forms of persecution. Organized political killings and “disappearances” of indigenous leaders and members of opposition groups are common in countries such as Guatemala and Peru (Menchu, 1984; Carmarck, 1988; Manz, 1988; Warren, 1998; Stoll, 1999; Sanford, 2003; Jackson and Warren, 2005). In South and Southeast Asia, the Amazon Basin, the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific, entire communities of indigenous peoples have been massacred (Anti-Slavery Society, 1984; Burger, 1987; Gurr and Scaritt, 1989; Tatz, 1991; Maybury-Lewis, 1997; Daes, 2005; Stidsen, 2007b; Hitchcock and Koperski, 2008; Survival International, www. survival-

In Brazil, more than eighty Indian tribes that came in contact with the national society were destroyed between 1900 and 1957, and as a result, the indigenous population dropped from approximately a million to less than 200,000 (Davis, 1977, p. 5).

As far back as 1984, Clay noted that “There probably have been more genocides, ethnocides, and extinctions of tribal and ethnic groups in this century than any in history” (p. 1). From the standpoint of indigenous peoples’ survival, the twentieth century was brutal.

Indigenous peoples have been the victims of genocidal and ethnocidal acts in part because of the ways in which they have been perceived by dominant societies. In many cases, members of indigenous communities have been described as “primitives,” “subhuman,” “savages,” “vermin,” or “nuisances.” In fact, they have been subjected to these and other negative stereotypes for generations. The images of indigenous peoples have reinforced the tendencies on the part of governments to establish destructive and oppressive racial policies. Efforts on the part of states to vilify indigenous groups are frequently preconditions for genocidal action. This is especially true in those situations where nation-states are concerned about the possibility of indigenous groups supporting opposition movements, as was the case, for example, in Guatemala (Menchu, 1983; Montejo, 1987; Carmarck, 1988; Manz, 1988; Stoll, 1999; Wilkinson, 2002; Sanford, 2003).

It is extremely difficult to obtain reliable information on genocidal actions and/or outright genocides of indigenous peoples. There are several reasons for this. First, most contemporary indigenous groups that are victimized tend to be located in remote places or in conflict zones where it is difficult to gain access. Second, most governments and agencies that come in contact with indigenous groups tend to downplay or deny the severity of their treatment of those peoples. Third, some of the indigenous groups that have been the victims of genocidal acts have members who do not read or write; consequently, written records of what happened to them are rare. Fourth, while members of indigenous groups speak their own languages, they do not necessarily speak national languages that people doing interviews tend to speak; the result is that translation becomes something of a problem. Not surprisingly, there are relatively few first-person accounts of genocide of various indigenous peoples (Totten, 1991, pp. 311–319).

In the twentieth century, indigenous groups disappeared at an unprecedented rate (Clay, 1984, p. 1; Durning, 1992, p. 9). This loss of cultural diversity was a product of both physical and cultural extinction. Table 2 contains a summary of twentieth-century and early twenty-first century cases of physical genocide of various indigenous peoples.

The reports from which the data are drawn include the Urgent Action Bulletins (UAB) of the indigenous peoples’ advocacy organization Survival International, reports by other non-government organizations, published sources, and personal communications. It is evident from the data presented here that a variety of indigenous peoples in a number of different countries were the victims of genocidal actions. Indigenous hunter-gatherers, who Kuper (1981) saw as victimized groups that are perpetually at risk, have been particularly hard hit (p. 158). The treatment of foraging societies is extremely difficult to monitor, in part because they tend to be mobile and in a number of cases avoid contact with outsiders (Totten, Parsons, and Hitchcock, 2002; Castillo, 2004). Because of the tendency of hunter-gatherers to have fewer links with the larger society and their small numbers, the plight of these groups often goes unnoticed (Kuper, 1981, p. 158; Kuper, 1985, pp. 201–202; Hitchcock, 1985, pp. 457–459).

TABLE 13.2 Twentieth and Twenty-First-Century Cases of Genocide of Indigenous Peoples
Group Name Country Date(s)
Barabaig Tanzania 1990–92
Bubi Equatorial Guinea 1969–79
Dinka, Nuer Sudan 1983–2002
Efe Pygmies Congo (DRC) 1994-present
Fur, Zagawa, Masalit Sudan 2003-present
Herero Namibia 1904–07
Isaak Somalia 1988–89
Karimojong Uganda 1979–86
Mbuti Pygmies Congo (DRC) 1994-present
Nuba Sudan 1991–2002
San Angola 1975–2002
San Namibia 1912–1915
Tuareg Mali, Niger 1988–95
Twa Rwanda 1994
Tyua San Zimbabwe 1982–83
Agta Philippines 1988
Amungme West Papua 1997
Armenians Turkey 1915–18
Atta Philippines 1987
Auyu West Papua 1989
Cham Kampuchea 1975–79
Dani New Guinea 1988
Higaonan Philippines 1988
H’mong Laos 1979–86
Jawara India (Andamans) 1987–2001
Jumma Bangladesh 1977–1997
Karen Myanmar (Burma) 1988-present
Kurds Iraq 1987–2003
Marsh Arabs Iraq 1991
Nasioi Bougainville 1990–91
Penan Malaysia 1986–89
Timorese East Timor 1975–2002
Central America
Indians El Salvador 1980–92
Maya Indians Guatemala 1964–96
Maya Indians Mexico 1994–1999
Miskito Nicaragua 1981–86
Latin America
Ache Paraguay 1952–76
Ashaninka Peru 1986
Aya Ache Guatemala 1982–85
Arara Brazil 1992
Cuiva Colombia 1967–71
Mapuche Chile 1986
Nambiquara Brazil 1986–87
Nunak Colombia 1991
Paez Colombia 1991
Pai Tavytere Paraguay 1990–91
Ticuna Brazil 1988
Waorani Ecuador 1986–92
Yanomami Brazil 1988–89, 1993
North America
Indians Canada 16th-19th centuries
Indians United States 15th_19th centuries
Note: Data obtained from Survival International (, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (, Cultural Survival (, Amnesty International (, Human Rights Watch (, Minority Rights Group International (, Antislavery International (, the United Nations (,
the United Nations Childrens Fund (, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues of the United Nations (, the World Bank
( and the annual United States Country Reports on Human Rights. See also Gedicks (1993, 2001); Bodley (1999); Hitchcock (1999), Totten, Parsons, and Hitchcock (2002:67, Table 3.1), and Hitchcock and Koperski (2008).

Some indigenous groups have been deemed, by the governments of the states in which they live, as terrorists or as being involved in liberation movements, an argument that is sometimes used by nation-states to justify genocidal actions. In the Philippines, for example, members of indigenous groups on Mindanao and Luzon have been attacked because of alleged support for liberation groups, and Adivasis have been discriminated against, attacked and killed in India due to their being considered primitives, uncivilized, and subhuman (Stidsen, 2007b, pp. 314–320, 398–406).

It is important to note that warfare undertaken to exterminate an enemy can be (and has been) carried out by indigenous groups, although it is much less common among indigenous and tribal peoples (Krech, 1994, p. 14; Douglas Bamforth and Raymond Hames, personal communications). Examples in the twentieth century include the Bay region of Somalia in the early 1990s and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the latter part of the 1990s. There is also archaeological evidence that indicates the destruction of entire groups of indigenous peoples by other indigenous groups (Willey, 1990; Krech, 2002, pp. 14–15).

Typologies of Genocide Relating to Indigenous Peoples

Researchers have developed numerous typologies of genocide that include categories relevant to indigenous peoples as victim groups (Dadrian, 1975; Kuper, 1981, pp. 46–54, 88, 158; Kuper, 1984, pp. 32–33; Kuper, 1985, pp. 151, 200–202, 211–212; Smith, 1987, pp. 23–25, 30–32; Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, pp. 22–29, 195–222, 412–414; Fein, 1990, pp. 28–30, 79–91). Of the five categories of genocide identified by Dadrian (1975), one of them, which he calls utilitarian genocide, aims at obtaining control of economic resources. Examples of this kind of genocide against indigenous groups include the Ache of Paraguay and the Indians of Brazil.

Smith (1987) sees genocide as an aspect of (1) war, and (2) development, and he notes that in the past genocide appeared in a variety of contexts, including conquest, religious persecution, and colonial domination. He distinguishes five different types of genocide, one of which, like Dadrian (1975), he calls utilitarian genocide (Smith, 1987, pp. 23–25). This kind of genocide, according to Smith, occurred especially in the sixteenth- to nineteenth-century period when colonial societies came in contact with indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, Tasmania, and Africa (1987, p. 23). It has continued in the twentieth century as the Indians of Paraguay, Brazil, and Peru have been destroyed, as Smith puts it, “out of cold calculation of gain, and, in some cases, as sadistic pleasure” (1987, p. 23). The basic objectives of twentieth-century genocides of indigenous peoples have been, according to Smith, Indian land, resources and labor (1987, p. 25).

Like some other analysts of genocide, Smith rejects the hypotheses of population surplus and political crisis as being primary causes of the destruction of indigenous peoples, arguing instead that “They are being killed because of a combination of ethnocentrism and simple greed” (1987, p. 25). He goes on to suggest that the basic motivation behind utilitarian genocide is that some people, according to the perpetrators’ worldview, must die “so that others might live well” (1987, p. 25). Smith adds that one of the reasons that this kind of genocide claims fewer lives today than in the past is because earlier genocides were so effective and contemporary indigenous populations are so small (1987, p. 25). In his view, genocidal actions against indigenous peoples are not simply accidental or unpremeditated events but are acts perpetrated purposely to achieve economic objectives.

Chalk and Jonassohn (1990) classify genocides according to the motives behind them (p. 29). They distinguish four types of genocide that set out to accomplish various goals: (1) to eliminate a real or potential threat, (2) to spread terror among real or potential enemies, (3) to acquire economic wealth, and (4) to implement a belief, theory, or ideology. The genocide most relevant to indigenous peoples is that aimed at acquiring economic wealth. That said, genocides also occur in order to terrorize indigenous peoples into subservience (Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, pp. 29, 36–37). Substantial numbers of killings and deaths of indigenous peoples due to disease and starvation occurred in the context of European expansion into the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific and were a result of campaigns by frontier settlers (Thornton, 1987). Sometimes these actions were opposed by governments, but, as Chalk and Jonassohn (1990) note, efforts to protect indigenous peoples were feeble at best (pp. 36–37).

An equivalent category to the utilitarian genocide suggested by Dadrian (1975) and Smith (1987) and that of genocide aimed at acquiring economic wealth suggested by Chalk and Jonassohn (1990) is what Fein (1984, pp. 8–9) refers to as developmental genocide. This type of genocide generally is preceded by the movement of development agencies, governmental organizations, or individuals into frontier zones where indigenous groups reside and make their living. There is, of course, significant variation in the ways in which encroaching individuals and agencies have dealt with local peoples. In some cases the outsiders have attempted to negotiate with local people; in other cases, they have taken their land and resources away from them without their permission; and in still other cases they have tried to annihilate them (Fein, 1984, p. 8; Bodley, 1999, pp. 12–92).

Harff (1984) and Gurr and Harff (1992), on the other hand, differentiate between genocides and politicides, the former referring to extreme repression aimed at destroying groups defined on the basis of their membership in particular ethnic, religious, national, or racial groups, and the latter referring to victims defined in terms of their political position (e.g., classes or political organizations opposed to the state or dominant group). Politicides, they contend, are more numerous and just as deadly as genocides (Gurr and Harff, 1992, p. 169).

Worldwide, a number of indigenous peoples are caught up in conflicts between governments and local insurgent organizations. In South America, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, many of the instances of genocide of indigenous peoples have occurred in the context of armed conflicts in which either the government forces or the opposition groups or both have targeted local people for their support of one side or the other or solely for being in the region where military actions occur. In some cases, as in the Ituri Forest region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, indigenous peoples, in this case the Mbuti Pygmies, were targeted by groups involved in fighting in the region (Bergner, 2003; Human Rights Watch, 2003a).

It is possible to distinguish specific types of genocide involving indigenous populations. The first type, which can be termed socioeconomic genocide, comes about in the context of colonization or exploitation of resources in areas occupied by indigenous groups (this can also be described as developmental genocide). The perpetrators of socioeconomic genocides range from government organizations established ostensibly to assist indigenous peoples to settlers who receive subsidies from the state and from large landowners to peasant farmers. Multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have been responsible for the destruction of indigenous populations through funding projects in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh (Anti-Slavery Society, 1984; Mey, 1984; Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, 1991), the Chixoy Dam area of Guatemala (Johnston, 2005, 2006), and the islands of Sumatra, East Timor, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan of Indonesia where the Transmigration Program, a large-scale resettlement effort, was implemented (Burger, 1987, pp. 142–147; Bodley, 1999, p. 91; Gedicks, 2001). Survival International, Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other non-government organizations have attacked the World Bank for what they perceived as the Bank’s failure to undertake comprehensive social and environmental impact assessments and to implement adequate compensation and resettlement programs (see, for example, Survival International, 2000). It should be noted, however, that the World Bank has made efforts to improve its policies regarding indigenous peoples. Between 1992 and 2005 the World Bank financed 449 projects involving indigenous peoples, and it had put in place a set of standards and regulations regarding the treatment and participation of indigenous peoples in project activities (World Bank, 2005a, b; Dan Aronson, personal communication, 2007).

A second type of genocide where indigenous peoples are victims is retributive genocide, in which actions are taken against collectivities that are perceived as threats or as representing opposition to state ideology and interests. This kind of genocide occurs in contexts in which (1) there is civil conflict, or (2) there are challenges to the legitimacy and authority of a dominant class or group. Indigenous peoples in a number of countries have been the victims of retributive genocide in the twentieth century, including the Hereros and San of Namibia, the Maya of Guatemala and Mexico, the Nuba of Sudan, the Kurds of Iraq, the Nagas of India, and various groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines (Gurr, 2000; Minority Rights Group International, 2007; Stidsen, 2007b; Gordon, n.d.). Data on these and other cases have been provided by governments and non-government organizations, opposition groups, anthropologists, and indigenous people themselves. This information has sometimes resulted in further investigations into the treatment of indigenous groups (see, for example, American Anthropological Association, 1991; Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, 1991). The problem, however, is that the findings of these investigations have not always led to improvements in the situations facing indigenous populations.

It is useful, as Kuper (1984) points out, to draw a distinction between “domestic” genocides, those arising from international divisions within a society, and genocides resulting from international warfare (p. 32). The majority of the genocides perpetrated against indigenous peoples fall into the category of domestic genocides. Chalk and Jonassohn (1990, p. 18) suggest that it is often new states or regimes that try to impose ideological conformity that are especially likely to commit genocide. Fein (1984) points out that the structural relationships most conducive to genocide are ones based in ethnic stratification in which state power is not constrained effectively by internal or external checks (p. 6). The victims of genocide are often those who are not fully incorporated into the state system, middleman minorities, or opposition groups, as shown, for example, in the results of the work in the Minorities at Risk Study of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland (Gurr, 2000). In Africa, indigenous peoples have been subjected to genocidal and ethnocidal treatment in a number of states in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (see Table 3).

The Isaaqs Of Somaliland From Genocide In The 20th CenturyA recent case of genocide in Africa is the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where Fur, Zaghawa, Masalit, and other African groups have been subjected to mass murder, rape, aerial and ground attacks, destruction of villages, crops, and livestock, ethnic cleansing, and efforts to prevent the distribution of food, medicines, and other relief supplies. (See Samuel Totten, “The Darfur Genocide,” this volume Chapter 17, for a detailed discussion of that particular genocide.)

Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.S. House of Representatives declared the events in Darfur as constituting genocide in June 2004. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1593 referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Currently, there is a UN/African Union Hybrid (AU) peace-keeping force in Sudan, but it is underfunded and under-equipped. A number of international organizations are monitoring the situation in western Sudan, including the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. Nevertheless, the killings, ethnic cleansing, rapes, and destruction of communities continue unabated as the government of Sudan continues to maintain that the situation in Darfur is an internal matter.

Ecocide, the purposeful and systematic destruction of ecosystems by states, agencies, or corporations, is a problem that many indigenous peoples in various parts of the world have also faced. For example, the Ogoni and other indigenous and minority groups in the Niger Delta of Nigeria have claimed that the government of Nigeria and transnational corporations including Shell and ExxonMobil have been complicit in allowing oil spills and the dumping and burning of toxic substances (Sachs, 1995, 1996). Similar claims have been made about the actions of the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments and the gold miners (garimperos) who use mercury in gold processing in the area occupied by the Yanomamo in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela (Sponsel, 1994). The former government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein had also been accused of ecocidal actions in the destruction of the marshes of southern Iraq and attacks on the Marsh Arabs (Ma’dan) and other groups in the period following the Gulf War of 1991 (Human Rights Watch, 1992; Partow, 2001). The Iraqis drained the marshes in retaliation for the Marsh Arabs’ rebellion against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Turkey and Syria contributed to the draining of the marshlands as well by holding water back from the rivers entering Iraq. As Human Rights Watch (2003b) reported:

Prior to their destruction, the marshlands (al-ahwar) had covered an area of up to 20,000 square kilometers around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq…. Together, these wetlands formed a series of interconnected permanent marshes and lakes covering an area of some 8,800 square kilometers, extending to some 20,000 kilometers when large tracts of dry or desert land were seasonally inundated. The marshlands were once home to several hundred thousand inhabitants, the Ma’dan, a people whose unique way of life had been preserved for over 5,000 years (p. 3).

Indigenous groups in Southeast Asia have argued that the use by the United States of herbicides (e.g. Agent Orange) in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and chemical weapons in Laos in the 1970s was ecocidal and genocidal in intent (Andrew Gray, personal communication). Efforts to conserve land and species have also led to a growing number of “invisible refugees” around the world, some of whom see themselves as victims of “coercive conservation” (Hitchcock, 1997). It has also been argued that the destruction of bison on the Great Plains in the nineteenth century was aimed specifically at destroying the peoples who were dependent on this species for their survival (Matthiessen, 1991, p. 16).

Protection of Indigenous People and Prosecution of Perpetrators

Human rights organizations have argued that specific cases of genocide should be worked up through the collection of evidence and then prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The former can be accomplished in part through the application of archaeological and forensic techniques aimed at determining the causes of death and identities of individuals, as was done, for example, in the case of the Kurds killed during the Anfal Campaign of the Iraqi government and army in 1988 (Middle East Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, 1988; Whitley, 1994; Goldberg, 2002). Subsequently, that evidence, as well as other types, should be presented to international tribunals and courts (e.g. the International Criminal Court) and state-level courts and institutions that can try cases of human rights violations.

Organizations established at the national level to provide assistance to indigenous peoples have been relatively unsuccessful in ensuring the long-term survival of the people they are charged with protecting. Beyond that, some organizations have actually been involved in harming groups of indigenous peoples. The National Foundation for the Indian (FUNAI) in Brazil, for example, has engaged in pacification programs and has facilitated the process whereby Indians have been removed from their lands (Davis, 1977; Bodley, 1999, pp. 68, 84; Albert, 1992; Amnesty International, 1992c; Rabben, 1998, pp. 87–95). In the Philippines, the tribal peoples’ agency known as the Presidential Assistant on National Minorities (PANAMIN) was involved from 1968 to 1984 in carrying out resettlement and development programs, some of which had devastating effects on indigenous peoples (Hydman, 1992, pp. 67–68). FUNAI, PANAMIN, and other national indigenous peoples’ organizations have sometimes worked closely with international development agencies and multinational corporations in their efforts to establish projects that have had deleterious social and environmental impacts. Some of these projects have been accompanied by the intentional killings of indigenous residents of the areas being developed (Survival International, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1996, 2005; Gedicks, 1993, 2001; Hitchcock 1997, 1999). Responses of indigenous groups to intensified pressure and genocidal actions ranged from peaceful protests and appeals to governments and pleas to human rights agencies for help to the establishment of grassroots political movements and armed resistance (Burger, 1987; Durning, 1992; Neitschmann, 1994; Maybury-Lewis 1997, 2002; Jackson and Warren, 2005).

Given the prevailing attitudes toward indigenous peoples, it is not surprising that in the vast majority of instances those responsible for killing them were never brought to justice. The phenomenon of impunity, or tacit protection from prosecution, is one of the crucial factors contributing to the continuing pattern of genocidal acts and human rights violations against indigenous peoples (p. 71). After several centuries of genocide, it was only in the latter part of the 1980s that the Brazilian government actually brought federal charges of genocide against individuals. In 1988, five men were accused of intending to “exterminate or eliminate an ethnic group or race” in their murder of a number of Xacriaba Indians (Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, p. 414). Other countries in Latin America (Colombia, Bolivia) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia) have also considered trying people for these crimes.

Very few cases of human rights violations against indigenous people by agents of governments have resulted in the punishment of the offenders. For the most part, agents of governments accused of genocide of indigenous peoples have been quick to deny the charges. For example, when accused of genocidal acts against the Ache Indians of Paraguay, the country’s defense Minister argued that, by definition, genocide was not perpetrated. In doing so, he made the assertion that: “Although there are victims and victimizers, there is not the third element necessary to establish the crime of genocide—that is ‘intent,’ therefore, as there is no ‘intent,’ one cannot speak of genocide” (quoted in Lewis, 1976, p. 63).

A similar defense was presented by the Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations in 1969, who argued that crimes committed against Brazilian indigenous populations could not be seen as genocide because (1) they never eliminated Indians as an ethnic or cultural group, and (2) the actions were committed for “exclusively, economic reasons” and therefore lacked “the special malice or motivation necessary” to be characterized as genocide (United Nations Human Rights Communication No. 478, September 29, 1969, cited in Kuper, 1984, p. 33). Taken to its logical extreme, this argument would mean that practically none of the actions against indigenous peoples that are obviously genocidal in nature could be described as genocide.

Over the past several decades, efforts have been made by a wide variety of agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals to promote the interests of indigenous peoples and to educate the public about their situations (Sanders, 1989; Swepston, 1989; Burger, 1990; Bodley, 1999, pp. 174–201; Jackson and Warren, 2005). These efforts have included the documentation of human rights abuses, working directly with individuals and groups whose rights have been violated to try to obtain legal redress, bringing pressure to bear on governments and agencies involved in activities deleterious to indigenous peoples, and providing funds and technical assistance to indigenous groups seeking to improve their lives. The work of these organizations has been constrained, however, by lack of funds and political support.

The activities of indigenous peoples’ rights organizations have not been without controversy. In the 1970s, for example, the London-based non-government organization Survival International stated that the government of Paraguay had committed genocide against the Ache Indians (Arens, 1976, 1978; Smith and Melia, 1978; Survival International, 1988a, 1993). Some of the documentation of the human rights violations against the Ache was also published by another indigenous support group, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (Munzel 1973, 1974). These allegations of massive human rights violations against the Ache were rejected not only by the governments of Paraguay, the United States, Britain, and West Germany but also by Cultural Survival, an American indigenous peoples’ support organization (Maybury-Lewis and Howe, 1980). The denial of the occurrence of the genocide of the Ache was based in part upon a definitional question relating to whether or not there had been a “planned or conscious effort on the part of the government of Paraguay to exterminate, molest, or harm the Ache Indians in any way” (Survival International, 1993, p. 5). Intent, of course, can be inferred from the actions on the ground. As far as could be ascertained, over 100 Ache were killed. Government officials made various comments about the Ache needing to be done way with, and such comments were recorded by researchers.

Clearly, definitional issues are of major importance in the discussions concerning physical and cultural genocide. Equally as clear is the fact that the protection of indigenous groups from genocide would be enhanced if there were greater cooperation and coordination among the various organizations involved with indigenous peoples’ welfare.

What the Genocides of Indigenous Peoples Have Taught Us

Many countries have made rhetorical commitments to enforce laws with respect to freedom of association, access to fair and impartial judicial procedures, and elimination of discriminatory minorities. In practice, however, numerous countries have engaged in repressive actions against their citizens. Most states, along with the United Nations, have been reluctant to criticize individual nations for their actions on the pretense that this would constitute a violation of sovereignty. They have also tended to accept government denials of genocides at face value. As a result, genocidal actions continue.

In the twentieth century, dozens of indigenous peoples were the victims of physical and cultural genocide. The lack of teeth behind the rhetorical commitment to the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights has been and continues to be, a tremendous problem. If the gross violations of the human rights of indigenous peoples are to be stopped, then efforts must be made to enforce existing international human rights laws and to impose sanctions on those countries, institutions, agencies, and individuals responsible for genocidal actions. Attempts must also be made to develop genocide early warning systems and to determine the preconditions for genocide (Kuper, 1985, pp. 218–219; Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, p. 4).

A major lesson learned from the experiences of indigenous peoples harmed by development projects is that detailed social and environmental impact assessments and careful consultations with local people must be carried out prior to the implementation of any projects. It is also evident that development agencies must provide for the legal protection of the lives and assets of people affected by projects. Failure to do so should result in the cutting off of all financial support for those agencies.

The protection of indigenous peoples from genocide at the international level has generally been ineffective. Few cases of genocide against indigenous peoples have been brought before the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations. Those who have brought complaints to the United Nations have learned that the international agency does not provide redress for alleged human rights violations. In addition, they have discovered that the United Nations does not have the capacity or, according to some, the commitment, to provide direct protection from perpetrators of human rights violations. If this is to be effective, however, substantial efforts will need to be made to gain detailed knowledge of the situation on the ground before such interventions are attempted; and thus, that is a second major lesson learned.

There have been investigations by forensic anthropologists, medical doctors, and lawyers of cases where genocides and massive human rights violations were alleged to have occurred, as seen, for example, in cases ranging from Argentina and Guatemala to Rwanda and Sri Lanka (Koff, 2005). While these investigations have had positive impacts in terms of documenting tragedies and providing information to survivors about what happened to relatives and friends, the evidence obtained has yet to be brought forward in trials of people accused of genocide, war crimes, and massive human rights violations. Thus, the third lessoned learned is that follow-through on cases of genocide is crucial.

There are a number of different ways in which indigenous peoples and organizations working with indigenous groups can address issues of genocide and massive human rights violations. One way is to educate the public about genocide in general and the genocides of indigenous peoples specifically. Incorporating information on indigenous peoples’ genocides in curricula of schools, colleges, and universities is crucial, as is making such information available on websites and in materials distributed to international agencies, governments, non-government organizations, and the public at large.

It would be very useful if coordination among groups promoting indigenous peoples’ rights was enhanced. Efforts need to be made to bring together indigenous peoples and indigenous advocacy groups to discuss genocides and human rights with an eye toward coming up with recommendations on genocide prevention, early warning systems, monitoring systems, and ways to deal with genocides and massive human rights violations once they occur.

There are cases where indigenous groups and their supporters have sought legal redress against companies that have pursued policies that have caused the destruction of indigenous peoples and their habitats (Gedicks, 2001; Joseph, 2004). Examples of such actions include those of the Waorani of the Oriente region of Ecuador, who sued Texaco (now Chevron Texaco) in federal court in Los Angeles under the Alien Claims Torts Act of 1789. The case was filed in 1993 by an Ecuadorian-born, Massachusetts-based international human rights lawyer named Christobal Bonifaz. It was dismissed in 1996, and again in 2001 on jurisdictional grounds. Mr. Bonifaz then brought the case to Ecuador. In 2006, it was re-filed in San Francisco, California, and is still pending (Stephens, 2007, p. A18).

In 2006, local people in Myanmar brought legal action against Unocal, an American oil company, also under the Alien Claims Torts Act (Baue, 2006). It resulted in a settlement in March 2005 and constituted the first case in which a major multinational corporation paid cash to the people who brought the lawsuit. Efforts to change the behavior of UNOCAL were recommended by stockholders, leading to UNOCAL giving up its activities in Burma. Various indigenous peoples have also called for stockholder action against companies involved in corporate and environmental crime.

Not only should legal cases against corporations be pursued, in the opinions of some indigenous peoples, but so should legal redress be sought against individuals such as the chief executive officers (CEOs) of transnational corporations, an example being the CEOs of Union Carbide for the Bhopal, India disaster and of Total, the French oil company, for its involvement in slave labor in Myanmar. It has also been recommended by some indigenous peoples’ spokespersons that members of the public should divest themselves of holdings in companies that engage in actions that lead to human rights violations and environmental destruction. In addition, the pursuit of legal cases against corporations has led to greater awareness of social responsibility on the part of transnationals.

There are numerous other ways that indigenous peoples can protect themselves from genocides and human rights violations. One strategy is to develop indicators for indigenous peoples’ well-being that indigenous groups and non-government organizations working with them can monitor (see Taylor, 2004). A second strategy is to provide training to indigenous community-based organizations and communities in human rights and conflict resolution. Provision of education and literacy programs will also go a long way towards facilitating indigenous groups’ recording of their own histories, obtaining testimonies, and collecting materials that can be disseminated in order to increase awareness of the wide array of human rights issues facing indigenous peoples. Yet another strategy for indigenous organizations and anthropologists is to conduct detailed demographic studies, as was done, for example, by Hill and Hurtado (1995) on the Ache of eastern Paraguay, in order to determine mortality rates and causes of death among indigenous peoples.

Indigenous organizations, local leaders, and advocacy groups all maintain that it is necessary to have security rights—that is, those rights involving the protection of the person. Some indigenous groups have sought to protect themselves through the capacity-building of local institutions and working out agreements with local police and militaries. Another strategy employed by indigenous peoples has been to gain recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights at the international level and through the courts. On September 13, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only four states voted against the declaration: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. The issue now for Indigenous peoples and their supporters around the world will be to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are implemented. Indigenous peoples have had some success in gaining state recognition of land and resource rights in Australia (Young, 1995; Taylor, 2004), Canada (Anaya, 1996, p. 131), New Zealand (Wishart, 2001), and South Africa (Chan, 2004; Chennels and Du Toit, 2004). Obtaining greater civil and political rights, especially the right to participate in decision-making and policy formulation, however, remain a yet-to-be-realized goal for most indigenous peoples.

The failure to prevent genocide of indigenous peoples is the result of a combination of factors, including government inaction, bureaucratic inefficiency, and lack of enforcement of international human rights law, racism, and outright greed. Experience has taught us that genocide cannot be prevented unless the perpetrators perceive that the costs of their actions will outweigh the benefits. Without efforts to document cases of genocide and to impose penalties on those governments and agencies responsible, killings and disappearances will be commonplace occurrences not just for indigenous groups but for many of the world’s peoples.


Physical and Cultural Genocide of Various Indigenous Peoples

It is exceptionally difficult to obtain reliable and detailed information on the genocides of indigenous peoples. This is particularly true when it comes to locating first-person accounts of genocides involving such groups. One reason for this situation is that many contemporary indigenous groups who have been subjected to genocidal treatment tend to live in out-of-the-way places which are often inaccessible for environmental or political reasons. Documentation of genocidal events against indigenous communities is also rare since those groups residing in remote locations tend to be illiterate or have limited exposure to educational opportunities. Concomitantly, the language proficiency of individuals visiting the indigenous communities is often limited at best.

Gathering data on genocides of indigenous peoples is also difficult because in many cases the gross violations of human rights are ongoing. Individuals are reluctant to talk for fear of reprisals. It is not uncommon for people to express deep concern that those responsible for the genocidal acts would retaliate against them and their families for their having revealed what transpired. They, therefore, are often unwilling to provide information such as their names, identities of relatives, places of residence, and any other data that could be used to determine who they are.

During the course of interviews of indigenous people who have been the victims of atrocities, we found that individuals often address the topic of violence only indirectly or in careful terms. Some of them emphasize that they find it extremely difficult to put into words all that had happened. They describe their experiences in culturally appropriate ways, which means that one has to be reasonably familiar with the languages and cultures of the societies of which they have been a part in order to get at the full meaning of what they are saying.

One of the difficulties faced by anthropologists and others investigating genocidal acts is that most of the existing accounts are not from indigenous groups but rather come from the government, the military, or other agencies who have come in contact with these groups. The problem with these reports is that they are often not based on first-person testimony, and are not as detailed or accurate as ones collected by independent investigators focusing specifically on genocidal acts. In addition, government and military reports sometimes purposely overlook events. There is also the chance of bias on the part of government authorities and military officials who may wish to downplay the severity of the issues.

Fortunately, indigenous peoples themselves are recording their experiences and telling their stories more often now than was the case in the past. This is sometimes done in autobiographical form, as can be seen in the example of Victor Montejo, a Guatemalan Quiche Maya Indian and anthropologist who described an attack on a village, Tzalala, where he was serving as a teacher in September 1978 (Montejo, 1987). Guatemala, like some other countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific where indigenous people exist, saw oppression, genocidal massacres, and massive human rights violations over a 30-year period in the twentieth century.

One type of oral testimony obtained from indigenous peoples consists of statements made to investigators, some of whom are human rights workers such as those from African Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Survival International, or Cultural Survival. An advantage of these oral histories is that they sometimes are obtained not long after the genocidal events occurred, thus ensuring that the effects of gradual memory loss are minimized, and in this way reducing the chances that subsequent reports have influences on individual perceptions.

Another type of oral testimony on genocides of indigenous peoples is that obtained during the course of interviews designed to get other kinds of information such as life histories of individuals. In such cases, genocide is not the subject of the discussion and is only alluded to in passing. Once genocidal actions are mentioned, additional details are sought. The difficulty in these situations is that so little is known of the general context in which the genocide occurred that is not easy to ask appropriate and detailed questions. Under these kinds of conditions, it is hard to assess the validity of the testimony provided.

The oral testimonies presented here have been chosen to illustrate the types of information available on the genocides of various indigenous peoples. The accounts are drawn from Bangladesh, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. The first account is taken from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (“Life Is Not Ours”: Land and Human Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: The Report of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, May 1991). The second set of first-person accounts is drawn from a report by Africa Watch (Somalia: A Government at War with Its Own People. Testimonies about the Killings and Conflicts in the North, Washington, D.C. and New York: Africa Watch, 1990). The third oral testimony is one obtained by Robert Hitchcock from a Tyua San man in Western Zimbabwe in June 1989.

The Isaaqs Of Somaliland From Genocide In The 20th Century
Summary executions of Hargeisa Isaaqs happened at Badhka, close to a hill in the outskirts of the city, where 25 soldiers shot blindfolded victims whose hands and feet were tied.

The Isaaqs of Somaliland (former northern Somalia)

In 1988 the army of the government of Somalia attacked villages in the northern part of the country with the aim of destroying members of the Isaaq clan, one of several clans in Somalia which they blamed for participating in rebellious actions against the state. The justification for these acts was state security.

The Somalia case illustrates a kind of “auto-genocide” not unlike that in Cambodia perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The genocidal actions in Somalia, like those in Cambodia, were aimed specifically at exterminating members of one’s own ethnic group (Africa Watch, 1990, pp. 1-2). Prior to the outbreak of fighting in northern Somalia [now Somaliland], members of the Isaaq clan disappeared, some of the hands of the Somalia National Security Service and paramilitary forces whose task was to root out dissent.

An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people, the majority of them Isaaqs, died during the 1980s, most of them in the period between 1988 and early 1990. Civilians were targeted along with suspected insurgents. The Somali government forces carried out sweeps of both urban and rural areas, and both massacres and extrajudicial executions occurred. Camel and goat-keeping pastoral nomads were victimized by the Somali government because of the perception that they were providing economic support to the insurgents. The following oral testimonies were obtained from several people in the months following the 1988 attacks by Africa Watch and in 1990 by Robert Hitchcock.

The first oral testimony is from a woman named Monda Ahmed Yusuf, who lived in the Tuurta Turwa district of Burao in northern Somalia. She was interviewed by Africa Watch in London, England, on July 2, 1989.

Shelling with long-range weapons started on Sunday. It hit a neighbor’s house, the Abdirahman family of seven people. Six of them died instantaneously. The only survivor was a little girl who had been sent to fetch sugar. The mother had just had a baby.

They were after civilians. Their scouts would direct them to those areas where civilians were concentrated and then that spot would be shelled. On Monday, the shelling intensified. Two houses behind ours belonging to my uncle were hit. Luckily, one was empty as the family had congregated in the other house. It hit that house too and his daughter, niece, and sister-in-law were wounded. Our side was particularly targeted as it was one of the areas the SNM entered when they first came into town. When the bombing started, the sight of the dying, the wounded, and the collapse of houses was too much to bear.

The second testimony was that of Khadija Sugal, who described how government forces intentionally separated Isaaq clans-people from non-Isaaqs.

As soon as the fighting broke out, the government used loudspeakers to sort the civilians out into Darood and Isaaq. They would shout, “Who is from Galkayo? Mogadishu? Las Anod? Garoe?” [Non-Isaaq territory]. They appealed to the non-Isaaqs to leave so they could burn the town and all those who remained behind. Most of the people from these towns left; the government provided them with transportation.

The artillery shelling began immediately after the non-Isaaqs had been evacuated. Everything seemed to collapse or to be on fire. Whole areas of Burao seemed to be lit up with gunfire. Our suffering until then seemed of no significance compared to the impact of the shelling. The effect of the shelling is indescribable. The shock made people sick—many pregnant women went into early labor and, without any medical help, gave birth to premature babies. The shelling forced everyone, even the wounded and the very old, to flee.

On Tuesday, the aerial bombardment began. The smoke was overwhelming. You choked, and it felt as if you were inhaling poison. It left a sharp pain in your throat and burned your eyes. After Tuesday, the city seemed to be burning. There was smoke everywhere. By Wednesday, we became desperate. I left home without even a head scarf, with only one shoe on. I headed east with some other women. There were so many dead people spread out on the road; it seemed as if someone had laid a giant cloth on the ground.

Among the dead are: My brother, Suleiman, in his 30s, killed by soldiers as he fled; Mohamoud Jama “Ogleh,” my children’s grandfather, shot by soldiers. A friend of mine, Khadija Haji Abdi, a woman in her 50s, died when a bomb hit her home and the house collapsed on her.

The Isaaqs Of Somaliland From Genocide In The 20th Century
Summary executions of Hargeisa Isaaqs happened at Badhka, close to a hill in the outskirts of the city, where 25 soldiers shot blindfolded victims whose hands and feet were tied.

The third testimony is that of Ismail Dualeh Mohamed, a seaman who was interviewed by Africa Watch in Cardiff on July 6, 1989:

If they [Somali government forces] had made any distinctions between SNM[1] fighters and civilians, there wouldn’t have been so many casualties and there wouldn’t have been so much suffering. What they wanted, to put it simply, was to wipe us out. A hail of bullets came at you from every direction. As we fled Burao, my wife was hit by a bullet and badly wounded. My mother-in-law died when a bomb hit their house. My mother’s niece was also killed. So many people have died in this war, including so many members of my own extended family. Only God can count the numbers.

The fourth oral testimony on Somalia is that of Jama Osman Samater, who had been a political prisoner from 1982 through 1988

I had just come out from the mosque from Friday prayers when I heard the news of the SNM attack on Burao. It was lunchtime. At 2:30 a whistle blew, announcing a curfew. I went home. The next morning I learned that many businessmen and elders had been arrested. I saw soldiers herding people into cars. They were confiscating all vehicles, including taxis, because when the SNM attacked Burao, taxi drivers had helped the SNM. When they couldn’t find the keys quickly enough, they punctured the tires and broke the windows. I understood immediately the gravity of the situation. The soldiers were looting food and medicines from the shops and loading them onto cars. The Gulwadayaal[2] were assisting the soldiers.

As a former political prisoner, I was in danger of being re-arrested. I had to disguise myself. I went into the back of our shop, shaved my head, and dressed as a nomad. As I left, I saw two other men arrested. They were “Guun,” and Abdillahi Khalif, “Ku Cadeeye,” both elders. I don’t know what happened to them.

I went towards my house. As I was about to board the bus, one of our shop assistants told me not to go home. Soldiers had just come to the shop looking for me and they must be on their way to the house. I went to hide at a neighbor’s. That night, soldiers and NSS[3] officers went to my house. They took all valuables. One of my little sons screamed “faqash” at them and they slapped him across the ears. We learned later that his eardrum burst. I stayed a second night at a neighbor’s house. Then, a friend and I hid ourselves in a big rubbish bin on the outskirts of Hargeisa for an entire day. The next night, the SNM attacked Hargeisa and we came back to town. On our way back, we passed a house near a military checkpoint belonging to Yusuf Elmi Samatar and saw soldiers and a tank on the move. We learned that 18 civilians, who had fled the city center and taken shelter there, had been killed. They were robbed of everything and some of the women were raped.

We stayed in Hargeisa until June 8. My wife, mother, six children, two sisters and their children gathered in one house. After a few days, the shelling started. It was relentless. They shelled homes, even when no one was in the house. The objective was to ensure that no one escaped alive and no house left to stand. Volleys of artillery were being fired from every direction. There was burning everywhere. In front of my sister’s house, a wooden house was hit and eight people, mostly women and children, perished. The shock was so overwhelming that we soon lost any sense of fear.

I realized that my suffering in prison was nothing compared to this. In prison, my pain had affected just me. Here everyone was a victim. The shelling did not discriminate. There were even dead animals, dogs and goats, everywhere. The first dead bodies I saw were two or three traders of Asian origin who had lived in Somalia for generations. I went to hide in a mosque. I couldn’t walk fast as there were so many dead bodies on the road.

The fifth testimony is that of Khadra Muhumed Abdi, who spoke to Africa Watch in London on June 2, 1989:

On Friday, I came to our hotel (Oriental Hotel), unaware, at the time, of the SNM attack on Burao. I learned that businessmen and elders were being rounded up. As a former political prisoner, I was nervous. NSS officers came to look for me. I escaped through a back door and hid in a store next door. Later, I asked a young boy to fetch me a taxi and I went to hide in my aunt’s house in Dumbulugq district. I was afraid to go home for fear that they would be waiting for me.

The morning after the SNM attack on Hargeisa, I could see our district, the Radio Station area, burning. It seemed as if the whole city was on fire. The government was going around with loudspeakers saying that “Four lice-ridden bandits on a suicide mission entered the town and we have now driven them away.” They insisted that everything was back to normal and urged people to return to their homes. Unfortunately, many people believed them and were killed.

It was clear that the war was going on whatever the government said. I could not run because of the disability in my leg. [She limps in one leg.] My mother and my two children joined us on the third day of the fighting. A part of our house had collapsed and they tried to hide in the undamaged section. They left when it was no longer safe to stay there. A neighbor gave them shelter but the children had no milk and food was scarce.

We stayed another twelve days in my aunt’s house. Soldiers came and took everything we had. What they couldn’t take with them, such as trunks, they destroyed. When he sensed our tension, one of them turned around and said to me, “If I hear one word out of you, I will make you carry the heads of your children after I have cut them off.” Fortunately, I made the two boys (one was a year and 3 months and the other was two years and 3 months) wear dresses, so they thought they were girls. If they had recognized them as boys, they would have shot them at once. We knew of so many boys, including babies, who had been killed. A neighbor of my aunt’s, known as “Cirro,” had five sons and two nephews in the house. Because of their ages, he wouldn’t let them out of the house. When they ran out of food, he went to buy it himself. When he came back, all seven boys were dead— their throats slit. In that same neighborhood, in a house belonging to Abdillahi Ibrahim Aden, soldiers heard them listening to the BBC. They killed four boys with bazookas.

The shelling wouldn’t cease, so we hid in another house. We tried to escape between the compounds of the 24th and the 11th sector of the army. We went to the dry-river bed, about 100 of us, but were driven away by soldiers. Then we tried to escape through a place called Meegaga but turned back when we saw soldiers again. Everyone then just fled—escaping in whatever way they could. I couldn’t walk fast, let alone run, because of my foot. One of my cousins and I got lost. We hid in a hut and were found by another cousin who had come to look for us. I couldn’t go on. My leg hurt too much. My cousins found a donkey cart for me. We reached Qool’Aday after three days. We found thousands of other people there. I had no idea what had happened to my children and mother.

The final testimony is that of Abdi Mohamed, who Robert Hitchcock interviewed in London in July 1990. Mr. Mohamed had gone to visit relatives in the countrywide southeast of Burao in the Toghdeer Region. His relatives, who were nomads, had been attacked from the air, their camp bombed and strafed by Somali government planes. They had also found their main water points poisoned, and most of their camels had died from thirst. His testimony indicates the degree to which pastoral nomads were victimized by the Somali government.

Several months before the army attacked Burao [May 27, 1988], I went to see my children who had been staying in the area outside Ainabo. Two of my sons had been arrested by soldiers and accused of being members of the Somali National Movement. The soldiers said that they and other nomads were giving food to the SNM. They beat them very badly in prison but my sons told the soldiers nothing. When they got out they sent word to me in Burao to join them. As I traveled there, I saw many barkad [water reservoirs] that had been blown up by the army. One of the soldiers on the truck said that the army destroyed the reservoirs to punish the Isaaqs for helping the SNM. They also killed the camels and cattle of people so that they had to move into the cities to get food. Land mines were placed around the barkad to keep people away.

When I got to my sons’ camp I found that some of my relatives had been killed. They were shot by the army after some soldiers were hurt by a mine on one of the roads. At night I could hear explosions and gunshots. In the morning we would sometimes find the bodies of people and livestock in camps that had been destroyed by the soldiers. Some of the bodies were burned. I will never forget the smell.

There were so many people killed, nearly all of them Isaaqs. The government in Mogadishu wanted to destroy the Isaaqs ever since 1982 when a state of emergency was declared.

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[1] The Somali National Movement, an opposition organization composed mainly of Isaaqs, one of several Somali clans that was formed to fight the government forces of President Siyad Barre in northern Somalia.

[2] The Gulwadayaal, also known as Victory Pioneers, were paramilitary forces, established in the early 1970s, who worked directly for President Siyad Barre. They had extraordinary legal authority over and above the Somali police and could charge people with crimes and make arrests.

[3] National Security Service, the national security organization of the government of the Somali Democratic Republic.

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