Academic journal article MELUS

"If I Were Jewish, How Would I Mourn the Dead?": Holocaust and Genocide in the Work of Sherman Alexie

Academic journal article MELUS

"If I Were Jewish, How Would I Mourn the Dead?": Holocaust and Genocide in the Work of Sherman Alexie

Article excerpt

One of the longest-reaching aftereffects of World War II, the Nazi camps, and the Holocaust is the belated recognition of other acts of mass destruction and genocide, especially in the United States. When Toni Morrison published her now-canonized novel Beloved in 1987, she included an epigraph that became controversial--"Sixty Million / and more"--referring to an estimated number of Africans who perished both in Africa after being captured and on the Middle Passage before entering slavery in the Americas. Similarly, Native American demographers have attempted to estimate the number of indigenous peoples extinguished in North America since the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, with estimates varying from several million to fifteen million and more.(1) The painstaking and painful work of arriving at such victim counts follows in the wake of the historical legacy of the Holocaust and cultural consciousness of the devastation. Comparing other instances of genocide to the Holocaust unleashes a host of unsettling issues, however. In a vitriolic review of Morrison's Beloved, Stanley Crouch takes issue with her reference to sixty million, reading this figure as a direct, exponential reference to the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust (six million times ten) and criticizing Beloved for being a "blackface holocaust novel" (40). Crouch's charged reaction to Beloved demonstrates how comparisons of tragic histories can become caught up with victim counts, leading to a hierarchy of suffering or victimization.

For many minority peoples in the United States, claiming the visibility and ethical weight of the Nazi Holocaust has become a way to articulate and call attention to their own traumatic histories.(2) In fact, this has become a prominent line of analysis in Native American studies over the past two decades, with several scholars drawing attention to the "American Holocaust" that has gone unrecognized. Russell Thornton's demographic study American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (1987) set the stage for this kind of comparison. While Thornton draws an explicit connection between Holocaust history and Native American depopulation only in his title and preface, subsequent studies have extended the comparison. Like Thornton's work, David E. Stannard's groundbreaking American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New Worm (1992) and Ward Churchill's A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present (1997) insist not only on comparing Native history to the Nazi Holocaust, but also claim the term Holocaust to refer to the tremendous devastation wrought on indigenous peoples since 1492, brought on by the introduction of diseases, liquor, and guns, as well as the escalation of warfare.(3)

More recently, Native literary anthologies have entered the conversation. In particular, Genocide of the Mind. New Native American Writing (2003) and Eating Fire, Tasting Blood. Breaking the Great Silence of the American Indian Holocaust (2006), both edited by MariJo Moore (Cherokee), and Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Volume II (2007), edited by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), bring together Native writers from many different tribal backgrounds from across the Americas, writing to insist that the devastating legacy wrought by the Indian wars and other forms of colonialism be recognized. They vehemently protest "whitewashed" versions of American history that speak of "settlement" and "civilization" without recognizing the decimation of Native peoples, cultures, and languages since 1492. These works also testify to the fiercely honed ability of Indian peoples to survive and assert their sovereignty in the twenty-first century.

While the historical and demographic work of Thornton and Stannard is known by scholars, the poems, essays, and stories gathered in these Native literary anthologies address themselves to a broader audience and bring up complicated epistemological and ethical issues. …

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