“Each year on this day,” Biden’s 2021 statement read, “we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring.” Compare that with the phrasing in 2016, when Biden was vice president: “Today we solemnly reflect on the first mass atrocity of the 20th century — the Armenian Meds Yeghern — when one and a half million Armenian people were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman empire.”
In both cases, the White House was recognizing the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians. Only in the 2021 version, though, was that atrocity attributed to a genocidal effort — that is, an explicit effort by Turkey to eradicate Armenians.
Turkey has for years objected to the description of the killings as a genocide. In the wake of Biden’s statement, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there would be “a reaction of different forms and kinds and degrees in coming days and months” to the administration’s rhetoric. It’s likely that the response will include a declaration from Turkey that Erdogan had threatened in 2019, when the Senate declared that the mass murder of the Armenian population was a genocide: He would recognize the massacre of Native Americans in the United States using similar language.
For many Americans, this threat probably seems a bit hollow. That the Native American population in North America was decimated by settlers from Europe is hardly a revelation; the effort to displace and eradicate Native American communities is both well-documented and fairly obvious. Speaking to Congress in 1833, President Andrew Jackson described Native Americans as having “neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition.”
“Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them,” Jackson continued, “they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
The U.S. government pushed Native tribes out of their ancestral areas, with thousands dying in the process.
All of this is fundamental American history, nothing to be celebrated but a component of middle-school history. A threat from Erdogan to elevate it seems a bit like his threatening to point out that the United States once engaged in a Civil War: This is already pretty well-known.
The real threat is to the story America prefers to tell itself. That was exemplified by former U.S. senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who on Friday addressed the conservative Young America’s Foundation. An excerpt of his speech was published by the watchdog organization Media Matters for America.
“If you think about this country, I don’t know of any other country in the world that was settled predominantly by people who were coming to practice their faith,” Santorum said. “They came here because they were not allowed to practice their particular faith in their own country and so they came here mostly from Europe and they set up a country that was based on Judeo-Christian principles — I say Judeo-Christian — the Mosaic laws, Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ, the morals and teachings of Jesus Christ. That’s what our founding documents are based upon. It’s in our DNA.”
He pointed out that other countries such as China and Turkey had been around “for millennia” and had seen their cultures “evolve over time.” But not the United States.
“We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” Santorum said. “I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture. It was born of the people who came here pursuing religious liberty to practice their faith. To live as they ought to live.”
This is the story that many Americans like to tell. A freedom-loving people escaping oppression in Europe, coming to this continent and creating a new nation predicated on liberty. And there’s an element of truth to that narrative, of course.
But Santorum glosses over several complications to that tale.
For example, it’s not clear how he’s measuring the “evolution” of those older countries over time, but it does seem a bit silly to compare China’s cultural traditions with those of the United States, given that China has been around 3,000 years and America less than 300.
Santorum also presents a view of the role of religion in the founding of the country that is far simpler than the one historians understand to have been the case. There's some irony to Santorum's embrace of religious freedom by the original settlers and his insistence that the country was rooted in one particular religious tradition, but it's important to the story he wants to tell that those things work in concert.
The most obvious complication that trips up Santorum, of course, is that reference to Native Americans. He wants to tell a story about a new nation being created on a virgin continent, a version of the story that’s been told many times before. But listeners today understand that isn’t the case. So Santorum downplays what happened.
One reason there “isn't much Native American culture in American culture” is because Americans two centuries ago viewed Native American culture as something to be overcome, if not destroyed. The story of America is not one about settlers coming to North America and working with Native Americans to build a new land, however central that idea may be to the Thanksgiving holiday. It was far more complicated and often far more bloody.
It's not clear what Native American cultural concepts Santorum would say had permeated our national culture. It is worth noting, though, that the founding he celebrates was influenced, to some small extent, by the Iroquois system of government. The arrows the eagle clutches in the national seal? It's believed to be a reference to a metaphor made by a Native American leader.
Santorum wants to tell a very specific story about the United States, one that is accurate in a broad sense but incomplete or erroneous in another. He presents the existence of Native Americans as incidental to his story instead of their being an unhappy component of the country’s evolution — one that, like slavery, erodes his case.
“You hear it all the time, about faith and freedom, faith and freedom,” he said at another point, “but it is what makes America unique in the world.”
Whatever power a declaration by Erdogan about Native Americans would have, it’s in reminding the world that this story is more complicated than we always like to acknowledge. There’s at least some power in that; it’s what Biden’s declaration about the murder of Armenians is forcing on Turkey, after all. The easiest way to defuse it is to acknowledge it ourselves, where appropriate.
It’s not incongruous to celebrate American traditions while acknowledging how the country evolved and grew. But, admittedly, it is not always pleasant — and it is not always an easy or simple story to tell.