On April 24, 2015, the centennial of the start of the Armenian genocide, Armenians in Colorado stood shoulder to shoulder with indigenous peoples of the Americas on the grounds of the Colorado state Capitol for the unveiling of a memorial recognizing the Armenian genocide. A representative of the Ute Nations, some of the indigenous peoples of what is now Colorado, offered words in recognition of the common experience of Armenians and indigenous peoples.
Last weekend, Colorado’s Armenian community gathered again at the state Capitol memorial, a replica of a medieval monument recently destroyed in an ongoing act of Armenian erasure. This month’s commemoration differed from previous years. This year, Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to formally recognize the Armenian genocide.
While one official statement cannot eliminate fears of another genocide or the pain of losing millions of Armenian, Assyrian, Pontic Greek, Yazidi civilians and their indigenous homelands during the 1915-1923 genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, Biden’s proclamation made hope for justice more imaginable and the intergenerational Armenian trauma slightly more manageable.
Now, it is time for Biden and the United States to take those sentiments and look inward.
Denial of the genocide against indigenous peoples by the United States is rampant. The massacre of Native peoples — from Mystic River, Gnadenhütten and Sacramento River to Bear River, Sand Creek, Camp Grant and Wounded Knee (and the fact that most readers have probably never heard of these) — is evidence of American amnesia about its homegrown genocide.
Multiple forced marches and removals — the most infamous being the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk — were precursors to the forced death marches of Armenians to the Deir ez-Zor desert that now stand condemned by Biden. The kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of indigenous children in the United States and missionary manual labor schools are equally condemnable to the ethnic cleansing, slaughter and turkification against Armenian children by the Ottomans — practices now recognized as genocide under the international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Native nations now surrounded by the United States still await Biden’s proclamation and reparations for those crimes against humanity.
In some ways, America has made superficial efforts to do what Turkey, which denies the very existence of Armenian genocide, is so far from doing. At least the United States acknowledges Native nations as indigenous peoples, although it refuses to implement the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Turkey denies that Armenians are indigenous people in their homelands.
The United States has laws to protect indigenous peoples’ sacred sites, albeit often ignored in places such as the Black Hills and Bears Ears, while Turkey continues to erase Armenians’ heritage sites and denies their antiquity. Turkey’s obsession with erasure is so brazen that even the Armenian Tiara adorning 2,000-year-old statues at the Nemrut Dağ World Heritage Site is rebranded in official Turkish publications as “Five-spiked Tiara.”
U.S. policy toward indigenous peoples possesses the veneer and cachet of greater civility, including the recent appointment of Deb Haaland to serve as interior secretary. What is missing from U.S. practice is any formal recognition of the systematic crimes committed against Native nations and the ongoing damage that persists through extractive industries, land theft, missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and the denial of genuine self-determination for indigenous peoples under international law. What is missing from both countries is any acknowledgement that their societies and economies remain the beneficiaries of genocide.
Despite Turkey’s threats that diplomatic relations with the United States will be damaged by Biden’s proclamation, it is obviously easier for Washington to recognize the Armenian genocide than to hold itself to account for genocidal U.S. practices. Both Turkey and the United States try to control the production of the historical record to sanitize, rationalize or erase their genocidal records. Despite these futile attempts, the Chinese writer Lu Xun reminds us: “Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood.”
The spirit and future of the Armenian people, as well as the indigenous peoples of the Americas, springs from and runs with the land, and thus, it will be forever. Perhaps Biden’s proclamation is a small step in acknowledging that truth.