On May 17, 1838, the United States Army and local state militia initiated the forced removal that would be known as the Cherokee Trail of Tears during which an estimated four-thousand died. This treacherous instance of genocidal forced relocation has imprinted the phrase “trail of tears” onto American history in infamy. Rightfully so, the phrase has come to symbolize history recalls how the government removed Native Americans from their land at the point of a bayonet. Other examples would include the Pottawatomie Trail of Death, also in 1838, and the Ponca Trail of Tears of 1877.
In a society not as comfortable with filling their history with euphemism, the term “trail of tears” would not be used by non-indigenous America to recall these tragedies. We would allow that terminology to be used by those for which it has an impact. Instead, we would call them “death marches” to signify upfront that their goal was destroying the Native Americans they were relocating physically as well as territorially. On that point, the Pottawatomie removal has a far better name than its brethren atrocities against other Indian nations.
Over fifty-three years later, on December 29, 1890, one of the most infamous acts of genocidal mass murder was perpetrated by soldiers of the 7th Calvary commanded by Colonel James William Forsyth at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Those forcibly encamped at the creek were a band of Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota led by Spotted Elk, who were peacefully intercepted the previous day while traveling at the invitation of Red Cloud to presumed safety amid the military response to the on-going Ghost Dance religious movement. However, the following day, Forsyth commanded that the Lakota be forcibly stripped of their weapons. During this procedure, a medicine man named Yellow Bird began the Ghost Dance, reassuring the people that their ghost shirts would make them immune to bullets. After a misunderstanding with an allegedly hearing-impaired Indian named Black Coyote, a shot was fired. This action caused five young Lakota men to reveal hidden weapons and fire upon the troops.
Rather than simply engage the five gunmen, the Americans found an excuse to escalate the conflict. The soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing over three hundred Lakota who were mostly women and children. A snow storm made the bodies of the murdered unrecoverable for three days, and the frozen corpses were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave – but not without being the subject of numerous trophy photos. Twenty soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for their apparent gallantry in massacring women and children. This event was the defining moment of the Ghost Dance War: a euphemistic title for a genocidal military campaign looking to crush a Christian-influenced indigenous religious revival.
Now, in our present day, these memories arise once more, albeit in the worst possible manner. Instead of being remembered in sorrow and memorial, they arise in jest. In two instances, the sitting President of the United States decided to make those atrocities parts of a joke targeting a political opponent. On January 13, 2019, Donald J. Trump called forth the Wounded Knee Massacre to mock 2020 Presidential contender Senator Elizabeth Warren’s kitchen video in a tweet. A month later, on February 9th, a second tweet responded to Warren’s official announcement by questioning if she will run as the first Native American presidential candidate before Trump emphasized the word “TRAIL” as a direct reference to the death march of the Cherokee and the other tribes of the Southeast. As should be expected, in both tweets, he continued to use the nickname of “Pocahontas” as a slur.
While Warren has opened herself up to these insults because of her dubious family legends of Cherokee ancestry, these tweets are a notable example of Donald Trump’s multi-level, scattergun-style of bigotry. While aiming at Senator Warren he once against wounded Native Americans but, unlike the redeployment of the usual slur, he decided to directly punch the open wounds that scar American history. He assaulted the historic injuries of not one but, at least, three Native American groups with implications that insult many more. The Cherokee Trail of Tears was a genocide. The Wounded Knee Massacre was a genocidal mass killing that punctuated not only the Ghost Dance War, but also an armed history of conquest stretching back to the arrival of Spanish ships in the Caribbean. These episodes simply show how dismal Donald Trump’s thought process is when he plays solely to his hardcore base. His historically illiteracy and utter depravity do not matter to those who simply want to use him as their cathartic insult comic with a Presidential seal.
It would, however, be wrong to assume that the President knows even the most basic history of Wounded Knee Creek – the massacre, the 1973 occupation and so on – or the simplest facts about mass removal, Cherokee or otherwise. A man who will not even listen to his own intelligence apparatus would certainly not listen to any historian who tried to educate him. Thus, Donald Trump’s easily proven track record of proud, outright, unapologetic historical illiteracy speaks for itself and does so with a thunderous roar. However, these tweets are quite different. They are distinct not only in the ever-spiraling behavior of Trump himself but in what we expect from a President when it comes to dealing with mass atrocity.
We have placed men into the office of the Presidency that arguably participated in colonial genocide; consider George Washington, who earned the moniker “Town Destroyer” among the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy by ordering their villages destroyed in total war, or Andrew Jackson’s conduct during the Creek War. Presidents have used the office to support genocide, from Ronald Reagan aiding the Guatemalan government against the Mayans in the name of anti-communism to our present day, bipartisan, pan-administration support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. We have even had administrations outwardly declare indifference if a genocide was to occur, as when Henry Kissinger informed Richard Nixon that a hypothetical gassing of Soviet Jews was, perhaps, a humanitarian issue. Throughout forty-five Presidents, this country has run the gauntlet of leaders who personified colonialism and imperialism.
Throughout our history, we’ve committed genocide; we’ve aided it, we’ve ignored it, and, of course, we’ve denied it. Now, we can also say we joked about it. While bigoted humor is by no means as evil or as tragic as the bloodlettings that make up our legacy, it is a sign that we have moved beyond the point of ignoring or denying our history to accepting it.
This type of discourse is not new. Most prominently, back in August of 2015, Fox News’ Jesse Watters, a panelist on their program The Five, chimed in on the discussion of then-candidate Trump’s immigration policy as followed: “Listen, I know it’s going to be a Trail of Tears, but it’s a simple plan: protect the border, protect families, protect jobs.” Watters mentioned the Trail of Tears apropos of nothing and even framed it positively. While it took a few years, that vile mindset has finally been weaponized as duel two-hundred-eighty-character shotgun blasts towards a sitting Senator and Presidential candidate at the expense of those who it really harmed.
That isn’t genocide denial. Denialism would be the moments of our history where we pretend that genocide only started in the Twentieth Century with Ottomans or with Nazis or when we believe the civic myths of the Indian Wars. This is a step beyond. We’ve reached the point where the murderous legacy can be used as a joke by the sitting leader of the country that committed the crimes. Imagine for a moment Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany joking about sending one of her political opponents to Dachau. We have allowed our discourse to hit that point. However, this is not an issue contained simply to the ever-deepening depths of indecency that the Trumpian Right is willing to sink. This is an issue that has been in the water for some time.
We will say “Never Forget” for every tragedy that graces America from the Alamo to 9/11, and rightfully so, but we refuse to grant such liberal calls of remembrance to the atrocities that we’ve perpetrated ourselves. To quote The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, “The national religion of the United States is American exceptionalism”. As a result, Americans, in general, do not seem to like the idea of being reminded of their mistakes. Therefore, no one expects America to learn from them. Even in the post-Holocaust, post-Cold War decades of “Never Again,” the banal evil of genocide denial remained as American as apple pie and baseball. That has not changed at all, but we’ve reached a new low. When the President can laugh at the Wounded Knee Massacre or the Cherokee Trail of Tears as casually as he screams “witch hunt” or serves fast food to champion athletes, we can see clearly how deep those termites of denialism have burrowed.
It’s time to root them out and recognize our history properly with truth rather than civic myths of constant, unquestionable, unimpeachable exceptionalism. The man in the White House won’t do it, and we shouldn’t expect him to. We need to hold ourselves, as Americans, to a far higher standard than we allow Donald J. Trump to drag us all down to. We need to be better than a President who laughs at genocide.
Michael E. Carter is an independent scholar who graduated with his M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Kean University. He focuses on colonial genocide in the Western Hemisphere primarily on the destruction of the Native Americans You can follow him on Twitter at @DeckofCarter.