Not Up for Debate?

At Sacramento State, student says she was kicked out of class for insisting that Native Americans were victims of genocide. As incident is investigated, debate grows over whether she was treated unfairly -- and how to handle classroom discussions of this sort.

September 15, 2015
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Site of mass grave at Wounded Knee

With various working definitions of genocide, debates about the term's application to historical events can get heated. But can such debates ever get a student kicked out of class? That’s what a sophomore at California State University at Sacramento says happened to her, after she challenged a professor who allegedly said the term "genocide" wasn’t appropriate for U.S. settler and government actions against American Indians. The university disputes the student's account, saying she was not kicked out of class, but it's further investigating exactly what happened. Reports about the dispute have already spread widely among Native American advocates and scholars.

Chiitaanibah Johnson, 19-year-old student of Navajo and Maidu ancestry, says the trouble started earlier this month when Maury Wiseman, a professor of U.S. history, allegedly said in class that the word "genocide" was too strong to describe what happened to Native Americans. That's because genocide implies intention, Wiseman allegedly said, and, in his opinion, most native people were killed by European diseases.

Johnson, who could not immediately be reached for an interview, told Indian Country Today Media Network that she felt “enraged” by the professor’s comments, but declined to respond immediately. She said she wrote down his comments in order to present “tangible or solid evidence” to challenge him at the next class meeting.

Two days later, Johnson shared some of her research in class. This led to a lengthy exchange, near the end of which Johnson began reading the United Nations’ 1948 definition of genocide. Wiseman allegedly asked her to stop, inviting her to come to talk to him after class, rather than “hijack” his lesson.

Eventually Wiseman dismissed the class. That’s when Johnson says he threatened to disenroll and expel her from the classroom.

“I don't appreciate you making me sound like a racist and a bigot in my classroom,” she recalled him saying.

Johnson said she took Wiseman's threat to mean she was no longer welcome in the class, but the university says she’s still enrolled and that Wiseman never booted her.

A university spokesman said he couldn’t comment in detail, calling the issue a personnel matter. But he said that Robert S. Nelsen, university president, had spoken with Johnson and her parents, as well as Wiseman, “as he attempts to achieve a positive resolution.”

Nelsen said in a statement, “We at the university believe in academic freedom, and we also believe in civility and rigorous academic research. Our standards must be high, and we must follow the processes that we have put in place to ensure that the rights of students and faculty are protected.”

Wiseman declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Johnson said she was shocked by how quickly the situation escalated, and that she was disappointed that no classmates came to her defense -- especially because, in her view, she’d remained civil.

“This was the third day of class, and already you're going to completely expel me?” she said. “I didn't call him names, I did not say he was racist, I did not use foul language -- yes, I raised my voice because he raised his voice at me and was talking over me and wouldn't let me say anything. I felt like I had my feet completely kicked out from under me. I felt like I approached the situation in a way that a student of the university level is supposed to approach a disagreement with the professor.”

Johnson may not have gotten support in class, but she’s gotten lots on social media, including on Twitter. Some academics are among her supporters.

Cutcha Risling Baldy, an instructor in Native American literature at the University of California at Davis, wrote on her blog that she -- in a reversal of the Sacramento case -- sometimes encounters resistance from students who don’t want to believe there was a genocide in the U.S.

“The collective silence on this genocide is so loud,” she wrote, arguing that even if disease killed most Native Americans, as some scholars have argued, that ignores many concurrent factors that constitute genocide. “It echoes when we sit in classrooms and someone says something like, ‘I don’t really like to talk about genocide and Native Americans’ or ‘I don’t think it applies.’”

Mishuana Goeman, an associate professor of gender studies and interim director of the American Indian Studies Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, agreed with Baldy that Wiseman -- if Johnson’s claims are proved true -- “is just incorrect.”

“By all number counts, policy practices and temporal regards, the mass persecution and genocide of California Indians is documented,” as well as widely accepted, Goeman said. “I feel this line of questioning is insensitive and the debate itself is distracting from recognizing the inhumane and ongoing erasure of California Indians.”

The International Association of Genocide Scholars has no official position on whether the crimes committed against American Indians constitute genocide. The association's president, Andrew Woolford, chair of sociology and a scholar of colonial genocide at the University of Manitoba in Canada, said the issue is complicated. For starters, he said, American Indians are not one group but many diverse groups with different experiences of colonialism and settler colonialism. Moreover, he said, genocide is a “contested notion.”

“Some scholars subscribe to very narrow definitions of the term,” Woolford said. “In particular, those who have had their understanding of the term shaped by their knowledge of the Holocaust tend to treat this prominent example of genocide as prototypical." This results in an understanding of genocide "that focuses solely on the intentional physical destruction of an entire group,” he said.

But the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide statement of 1948 is slightly broader, he said, in that it specifies groups can be destroyed "in whole or in part" and that other forms of attempted destruction must be considered -- such as attempts to halt the reproduction of a group through practices like sterilization or the forced transfer of children. And Raphael Lemkin, the scholar who coined the term "genocide" in 1943, held an even broader view that genocide targeted “the essential foundations of group life,” or cultural destruction, Woolford said.

Woolford said that the experiences of several indigenous groups in modern-day California have been demonstrated by many reputable scholars to meet the UN criteria for genocide. Beyond California, he said, “one must keep in mind that nearly the entirety of North America, in one period or another, was governed under the notion that there was an ‘Indian problem’ or ‘Indian question’ to be resolved.”

Omer Bartov, the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and professor of history and professor of German studies at Brown University, has written extensively about the Holocaust. He said the UN definition of genocide is the internationally recognized one, but that it only emerged after sustained debate and is still disputed by scholars.

Regarding American Indians, Bartov said, various scholars have argued whether what happened to them was genocide. But, he said, highlighting the pedagogical issues at play in the Johnson case, “Whether one agrees with that or not, such disagreement should certainly not be handled in the manner” described in news reports. “Universities should teach how to debate difficult issues, not how to cut off debate,” he added.

Discussions about the 1915 Armenian genocide and Turkey’s denial of it, for example, can be similarly contentious, Bartov said. But a professor's job is to share all sides of the argument, provide the available documentation and state his or her opinion if he or she wishes. And a professor might ask a student who disagrees to consult the literature and present it to the class.

“The only moment at which one might want to put an end to such a debate would be in the face of denial of generally acknowledged facts,” Bartov said. “I would not, for instance, remove a student from my class who denied the Holocaust, but I would also not debate that with them,” unless it served an academic purpose.

Woolford said that regardless of one's chosen definition, “When teaching on genocide the professor should not aspire to be either prosecution, defense counsel or judge of the charge of genocide.”

Engaging students in examining the intended meaning of instruments like the UN statement, as well as interrogating its limitations, is ideal, he said -- as is presenting students with information on specific case studies and encouraging them to arrive at their own assessments.

It’s also “admirable when students engage in the research required to build their own arguments, and I would as an instructor want to facilitate such student initiative rather than treat it as disruptive,” he added.

Finally, when teaching about genocide, Woolford said, professors need to be aware that there are “survivors and intergenerational survivors in our classrooms. Denial of their experiences, or their family's experiences, is not merely an academic argument -- it has real emotional consequences for many students.”


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