Canaries in the Mineshaft of American Democracy: North American Settler Genocide in the Thought of Raphaël Lemkin

Document Type



genocide; Raphael Lemkin; settler colonialism; culture; legal development

Identifier Data



International Association of Genocide Scholars

Publication Source

Genocide Studies and Prevention

Rights Management

CC 4.0 CC-BY


Although it is often assumed that Raphael Lemkin’s original concept of genocide related only to Nazi atrocities, in fact the elements of the offense as Lemkin construed it predate his elaboration of genocide in Axis Rule in Europe. It is clear from Lemkin’s published and unpublished writings that he intended his definition to apply to other mass exterminations, including settler-Indian interactions on the North American frontier. Lemkin forsook the constrictive hermeneutics of legal formalism in favour of a broad understanding of genocide. At the heart of his concept was a concern with the preservation of unique cultural forms—the very phenomena under threat from civilian settler colonialism. Lemkin’s surprisingly non-legalistic concept of genocide is rooted less in 20th century legal developments than in European Romanticism. While law was the integument of his concept, the urge to protect cultural ways of being in the world was its life-blood.