- Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, 1877
It is estimated that when Christopher Columbus "discovered" America in 1492, as many as 100 million people were living on the North and South American continents. Beginning with the islands of the Caribbean, Spanish conquistadors moved as locusts through the Americas forcing the native populations into slavery along the way. This utterly elimanated the populations on modern day Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Hispanola and other islands in the region. In modern day Mexico, where it is estimated that 12 million lived, the conquistadors ravaged the countryside looking for gold. In their wake disease, forced conversion to Christianity, and mass extermination decimated the native Mexican peoples. In what is now Canada, in a period of 300 years, the population dwindled from roughly 2 million people to around 500,000 by the turn of the 20th century. in 1830, a US policy known as the Indian Removal Act fed by the power of the Monroe Doctrine created conditions which forced native people from their ancestral lands, the most well known being the forced removal of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes. This became known as the Trail of Tears due to the deaths of thousands from starvation, exhaustion and disease. Once American Indians were forced onto reservations, their children were taken and placed in Christian schools where they were forced to learn English, convert to Christianity and were not allowed to display any cultural norms from home.
From 1981-1983 the Guatemalan military slaughtered thousands of Maya peoples under the backdrop of a civil war because they were suspected of being part of a communist group wanting to overthrow the current government. Children were thrown against walls like ragdolls and adults were hunted down and slaughtered. Livestock and crops were destroyed, drinking water polluted. As common in eliminationist movements, Mayan women were systematically raped. Throughout the genocide, the United States supported the Guatemalan government to contain the percieved growth of communism. Most of the perpetrators have recieved amnesty including the military leader of the time who is now a member of the Guatemalan congress.
Today remains a legacy of exclusion, gross human rights violations, health disparities, cultural destruction and political invisibility that continues to disenfranchise the indigenous populations of the Americas. Short sighted policies that leave tribes absent in the American conversation continue to reek havoc on the well being and futures of all native peoples.
As shown in our Code of Ethics, we as a profession must work with indigenous populations in culturally appropriate ways that seek to advance the well being of their societies. We must be aware of the collective histories that profoundly impacts the todays and tomorrows of native peoples. For too long the struggle of the peoples of North and South America has been fought unacknowledged by the larger society. Social workers should be part of this continued struggle and assist in bringing it to light.
Further Reading on the topic includes, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur by Ben Kiernan and The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America by James Wilson.