It’s probably uncommon for a documentary about genocide against American Indians to be directed by members of an indie rock band, but The Canary Effect is just such a film. It is a compelling overview of the history of European relations with American Indians in the Western Hemisphere, beginning (of course) with Columbus. Unlike most of the fairy-tale tellings of the period, the film emphasizes the words of Bartolomeo de las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, who advocated on behalf of the indigenous people that Columbus met, enslaved, and slaughtered. Thus, a film on Native Americans begins on the correct footing: discussing how Europeans’ first impulse in the “new world” was to exterminate those they considered “lessers”. This helps to put the documentary on course to destroy the Columbus mythology.
Through interviews with a few academics and many more American Indians, including Ward Churchill, The Canary Effect steps viewers through all five of the criteria of the international convention on genocide, demonstrating very clearly that what has happened to American Indians has been unequivocally genocidal. (Thus, the fairy-tale of Western and American exceptionalism begins to disappear…) The US army engaged in targeted killing of Indians, including the massacres at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, conveyed smallpox-infested blanked to tribes, forceably relocated Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes from the US southeast to Oklahoma (which included the devastating Trail of Tears), and scalp bounties. The latter will likely stick in viewers minds longer than the others, which are moderately well-known; fewer people know that every state, colony, and territory in the US (except for Alaska and Hawaii) had at some point a “bounty” that the state would pay to white citizens who rendered an Indian “scalp” (the bloody red pulp of their head), including for children.
Another characteristic of genocide is the creation of conditions that lead to the death of a group; in the case of American Indians, reservations today are the poorest places in the US, with the poorest farming land and few jobs. The result is that Indians have the shortest life expectancy and some of the worse health outcomes of any race in the US. The prevention of births also qualifies as genocidal, as doctors through the Indian Health Service sterilized Indian women over a period of many decades. Many of these sterilizations were done without informed consent. Estimates are as high as 40 percent of Indian women of child-bearing age may have been sterilized—this is likely a cause to the noticeable drop in fertility rates for Indians during the late-middle part of the twentieth century. Finally, genocide can also result from the “transfer” of children. By taking multiple generations-worth of children from their families on reservations, and placing them in religious “boarding schools”, the US government aimed to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The schools’ goals were to teach Indians English, have them worship Christianity, dress as Westerners, and so forth. Children were prevented from seeing their families, speaking their native languages, practicing traditional customs and religion, or wearing Indian-style clothing. Shockingly, approximately half of all American Indians went through the boarding school system over a multi-decade period; of those who did, half did not emerge from the experience alive. Deaths resulted from starvation, neglect, abuse and violence, exposure (many tried to escape and go back home), and—as one interviewee puts it—from sadness.
In other words, it’s impossible to deny the post-“contact” experience of Native Americans in the United States as anything other than genocide. The interviewees label it very clearly as a process of colonialism: everything about Indian life is turned upside down. The boarding schools were simply the last step in colonization. Today, half the Indian population lives in urban settings and are nominally-Christian—these are the children of the boarding school system. And the resultant effect of this colonialization is detailed in the second half of The Canary Effect.
The sources of the shortened life-span for American Indians are many, but they include alcoholism, suicide, and violence. Alcoholism is always a side-effect of life circumstances, especially depression. It is a way of coping with a hopeless and joyless existence. Thus, many Indian people drown their sorrow in temporary fixes, neglecting family and their bodies in the process. The link between alcoholism and depression is most pronounced in the epidemic of suicide amongst Indian people, especially youth. Nearly every child at Indian schools either knows someone who has attempted suicide or they have tried it themselves. Some of these children are so young that it breaks your heart (I have shown The Canary Effect three times in classes, and each time sizable portions of the class cry when the film discusses the suicide of a very young girl who hangs herself).
Other violence stalks Native communities, in the form of predators—including sexual predators (Indian women face a very high rate of sexual assault and rape, many of which are hard to prosecute since perpetrators are non-reservation residents). One woman describes a male doctor reaching out to help her with her depression, only to discover that he has plans to have sex with her instead. Then, one of the most deadly school shootings in US history occurs on the Red Lake reservation in Northern Minnesota. Not only did the shooter have a predictable history of depression and suicide in his family, but the national news media looked away. In fact, it takes then-President George W. Bush a week to even comment on the tragedy. (Perversely, the film includes what first appears to be a very poor-taste cartoon of a person going on a shooting rampage, while describing the shooter… only to then tell the audience that the cartoon was made by the killer himself and posted on the Internet before the tragedy.)
Not only do politicians like Bush seem indifferent to Indian issues, they also don’t seem to understand them. For example, Jesse Jackson mocks Bush’s inability to describe the basic concept of Indian sovereignty. They also seem unable to understand what trust responsibility means; for example, the California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tirades against the “theft” of Indian gaming. The “Governator” articulates the common American misconceptions when he assumes that such gaming is a huge profit-making enterprise; the majority of reservation-based gaming has very low returns and the most profitable enterprises are run by some the US’s smallest tribes. In other words, Indians in general are barely benefiting from gaming.
The long-term trauma of genocide (of which the boarding schools is an illustrative example) continues to affect subsequent generations, just as addiction and psychological disorders are passed down from parents to children. Churchill argues that in order to reverse the multi-generational effects of colonialism, North American decolonization is necessary. The interviewees also make an analogy with Iraq, wherein the US attacked and decimated the country, leading to what will surely be decades-long problems. This is akin to the colonization of American Indians by the US, and until that process is stopped and the wrongs are righted, the negative consequences will continue. Of course, the United States does not seem eager to address this issue, let alone to return all the land that is appropriated through the violation of hundreds of treaties. Notably, The Canary Effect ends by observing that the US government mismanaged the funds generated by leases of Indian resources on reservations, and did its job so poorly that it could not determine who was owed proceeds. Then, the government refused to pay anything and spent the money on other things. In other words, people may occasionally mention the wrong done to Native Americans, speak favorably about Indian culture today, or even speak superficially when visiting Indian Country (as Clinton did just once). But few are willing to come to terms with how the US economy’s prominence is directly due to the incredible resource base the US controls through its conquest of American Indians (and stolen African labor from slavery). The Canary Effect describes the impoverishment and misery of American Indians as the “canary in the coal-mine”, to indicate to any who will listen that something dangerous and deadly is happening with the American Project.
Topics: race, colonialism, genocide, Native Americans, political sociology