At some point during my childhood, I asked my mother if there were still Indians.

“No,” she said. “Not really. There are a few, but they dress like us and live in houses. It’s not like in the movies.”

She meant well. She thought she was telling me the truth. But I now realize that we were participating in a kind of genocide.

We didn’t massacre anyone or swindle them out of their land or any of the other crimes committed in the conquest of the North American continent. I’m sure my mother didn’t hate Indians, or think they should be wiped off the face of the earth.

But she did accept their cultural annihilation as a fact, even though there should have been ample evidence at that time – during the 1970s – that Indians did still exist. Despite their modern clothing and shelter, they still had a cultural identity that they were trying to protect by defining who they were and how they related to the country that had grown around them.

“Genocide has two phases,” wrote Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the term in 1944. “One, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.”

It’s that second part of the definition, cultural genocide, that needs to be considered as the town of Skowhegan considers dropping the name “Indians” from its sports teams. Skowhegan is the last community in Maine to have such a nickname, and a lot of residents don’t see anything wrong with that.

Nobody in the community says they hate Indians. They don’t want to kill anyone. Judging from the coverage of a big hearing earlier this month, a lot of non-native people feel the name “Indians” belongs to them, and not to some long-lost tribe or pushy outsiders who want to tell the locals what their symbols mean. Keeping the name is a source of community pride.

But ignoring real-life Indians when they say that they don’t feel proud when sports teams are named after them is just another way of saying that they don’t exist. And the term for that is “cultural genocide.”

The 1948 U.N. resolution that defined the crime of genocide uses some of Lemkin’s ideas about its cultural aspect, including “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

We may not think of it as genocide, but that’s been happening to Indians in Maine – not just in Colonial times but also in our era, while white people were cheering for sports teams with names like “Redskins.”

In 2015, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission issued a report after 27 months of fact-finding among the state’s native people, a process that’s the subject of the documentary “Dawnland” (it aired on PBS last year and is scheduled for several screenings around Maine this winter). It describes the lifelong trauma that follows Indian children who were taken away from their homes and brought up in an alien culture. The impact of those placements was well known inside the tribal community but was news to the commission members, which included Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

They found that in the years leading up to their study, Maine Wabanaki children were being taken into state custody more than five times as often as non-native children. Tribal relationships were not treated with the same deference given to family relationships, even though federal law required the state to do that.

These removals, probably done with good intentions, hurt many children. It also tore the fabric of community and decreased the population of people who could speak native languages and participate in religious practices. In other words, cultural genocide.

“We realize that these are forceful words and that they may land in readers’ hearts and minds as blame,” the commissioners reported. “It is hard to fathom for many in Maine that genocide occurred here, much less that it continues to occur in a cultural form.”

And what’s even more disturbing is the idea that we can participate in cultural genocide without having any bad intent. All it requires of us is blindness.

I’m sure I was not the only white kid who was taught that Indians didn’t exist anymore – that I didn’t need to worry about hurting their feelings, because they weren’t around to be hurt.

But none of us should say that we don’t know the truth now. And acknowledging that by renaming a few sports teams is not too much to ask.


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