From “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”


roxanne_dunbar_ortiz_photoby_barrie_karpRoxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, excerpt from the Conclusion of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States cited inAfghanistan as ‘Longest War’ Highlights Invisibility of Indigenous and Iraq Wars.” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014)

Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd writes: That the continued colonization of American Indian nations, peoples, and lands provides the United States the economic and material resources needed to cast its imperialist gaze globally is a fact that is simultaneously obvious within—and yet continually obscured by—what is essentially a settler colony’s national construction of itself as an ever more perfect multicultural, multiracial democracy. . . . [T]he status of American Indians as sovereign nations colonized by the United States continues to haunt.[1]

The conventional narrative of US history routinely segregates the “Indian Wars” as a sub-specialization within the dubious category “the West.” But, the architecture of US world dominance was designed and tested by the period of continental US militarism, 1790-1890, the Indian Wars. The opening of the twenty-first century saw a new, even more brazen form of US militarism and imperialism explode on the world followed by two major military invasions and hundreds of small wars employing US Special Forces around the globe, establishing a template that continued after their political power waned.

One highly regarded military analyst stepped forward to make the connections between the “Indian Wars” and what he considered the country’s bright imperialist past and future. Robert D. Kaplan, in his 2005 book Imperial Grunts, presented several case studies that he considered highly successful operations: Yemen, Colombia, Mongolia, and the Philippines, in addition to ongoing complex projects in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq.[2] While US citizens and many of their elected representatives called for ending the US military interventions they knew about—including Iraq and Afghanistan—Kaplan hailed protracted counterinsurgencies in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Pacific. He presented a guide for the US controlling those areas of the world based on its having achieved continental dominance in North America by means of counterinsurgency and employing total and unlimited war.

Kaplan, a meticulous researcher and influential writer born in 1952 in New York City, wrote for major newspapers and magazines before serving as “chief geopolitical strategist” for the private security think tank Stratfor. Among other prestigious posts, he has been a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC, and a member of the Defense Policy Board, a federal advisory committee to the US Department of Defense. In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine named Kaplan as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers.” Author of numerous best-selling books, including Balkan Ghosts and Surrender or Starve, Kaplan became one of the principal intellectual boosters for US power through the tried-and-true “first way of war.” This is the way of war dating to the British-colonial period that military historian John Grenier describes as a combination of “unlimited war and irregular war,” a military tradition “that accepted, legitimized, and encouraged attacks upon and the destruction of noncombatants, villages and agricultural resources . . . in shockingly violent campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest.”[3]

Kaplan sums up his thesis in the prologue to Imperial Grunts, which he subtitles “Injun Country”:

Kaplan writes:

By the turn of the twenty-first century the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.

The Pentagon divided the planet into five area commands—similar to the way that the Indian Country of the American West had been divided in the mid-nineteenth century by the U.S. Army. . . . [A]ccording to the soldiers and marines I met on the ground in far-flung corners of the earth, the comparison with the nineteenth century was . . . apt. ‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain I heard from troops from Colombia to the Philippines, including Afghanistan and Iraq… The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier.[4]

Kaplan goes on to ridicule “elites in New York and Washington” who debate imperialism in “grand, historical terms,” while individuals from all the armed services interpret policy according to the particular circumstances they face and are indifferent to or unaware of the fact that they are part of an imperialist project. To them, and for many US Americans, United States military power is the heart of their patriotism, and the military is revered as no other governmental institution is.

Pointing to the intentionality of US colonialism in North America, Kaplan challenges the concept of “manifest destiny,” arguing “it was not inevitable that the United States should have an empire in the western part of the continent.” Rather, he argues, it was the work of “small groups of frontiersmen, separated from each other by great distances.”

Here Kaplan refers to what Grenier calls “rangers,” self-organized settlers who destroyed Indigenous towns and fields and food supplies, murdering the inhabitants. Kaplan equates these settler vigilantes to the modern Special Forces; he acknowledges that the regular army provided lethal backup for settler counterinsurgency in slaughtering the buffalo, the food supply of Plains peoples, as well as making continuous raids on settlements to kill or confine the families of the Indigenous resistance fighters.[5] Kaplan summarizes the genealogy of US militarism today:

Whereas the average American at the dawn of the new millennium found patriotic inspiration in the legacies of the Civil War and World War II, when the evils of slavery and fascism were confronted and vanquished, for many commissioned and noncommissioned officers the U.S. Army’s defining moment was fighting the ’Indians.’

The legacy of the Indian wars is palpable in the numerous military bases spread across the South, the Middle West, and particularly the Great Plains: that vast desert and steppe comprising the Army’s historical “heartland,” punctuated by such storied outposts as Forts Hays, Kearney, Leavenworth, Riley, and Sill. Leavenworth, where the Oregon and Santa Fe trails separated, was now the home of the Army’s Command and General Staff College; Riley, the base of George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry, now that of the 1st Infantry Division; and Sill, where Geronimo lived out the lasts years of his life, the headquarters of the U.S. Artillery. . . .While microscopic in size, it was the fast and irregular military actions against the Indians, memorialized in bronze and oil by Remington, that shaped the nature of American nationalism.[6]

Although Kaplan relies principally on the post-Civil War source of US counterinsurgency, it actually dates from the colonies even before US independence. Kaplan acknowledges this in a footnote in which he reports what he learned at the Airborne Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, North Carolina: quote, “It is a small but interesting fact that members of the 101st Airborne Division, in preparation for their parachute drop on D-Day, shaved themselves in Mohawk style and applied war paint on their faces.”[7] This takes us back to pre-independence colonial war and then through US independence and the myth popularized by The Last of the Mohicans. Except for that instance, Kaplan seems unaware of the deeper historical roots of the continuing US military’s fetish for Indian warfare.

On March 19, 2003, near the Iraqi desert in Kuwait, Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer illustrates the symbolic power of Indian wars as a source of US military memory and practice. Once again we find troops retracing historical bloody footprints back to the 19th century Seminole wars:

She wrote:

Tank crews from the Alpha Company 4th Battalion 64th Armor Regiment perform a “Seminole Indian war dance” before convoying to a position near the Iraqi border Wednesday, March 19, 2003. Capt. Phillip Wolford’s men leaped into the air and waved empty rifles in an impromptu desert war dance. . . .

With thousands of M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and trucks, the mechanized infantry unit known as the “Iron Fist” would be the only U.S. armored division in the fight, and would likely meet any Iraqi defenses head on.

“We will be entering Iraq as an army of liberation, not domination,” said Wolford, of Marysville, Ohio, directing the men of his 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment to take down the U.S. flags fluttering from their sand-colored tanks.

After a brief prayer, Wolford leaped into an impromptu desert war dance. Camouflaged soldiers joined him, jumping up and down in the sand, chanting and brandishing rifles carefully emptied of their rounds.

This “Seminole War Dance” is serious business. The 3 declared wars against the Seminole Nation in the Florida Everglades spanned a 42 year period, from 1816 to 1858. The wars took place under five presidents: 1816-23, under James Monroe, with General Andrew Jackson the army commander; 1835-42, under Jackson as president and Martin van Buren; 1855-58, under Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. The Seminole wars remain deeply embedded in the US military tradition and practice. These three wars, along with the dozens of others against the Indigenous agriculturalists east of the Mississippi, followed by the 1860-90 thirty-years of unrelenting war on the Plains and the former Mexican territory (US Southwest) formed the US Army. There was not a day without US aggressive warfare somewhere from the founding of the US to the present. But, the Seminole wars forged the initial imprint of prolonged counterinsurgent warfare and are remembered in the military.

In early 2011, during President Obama’s first term, a Yemeni citizen, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, was serving a life sentence at Guantánamo as an “enemy combatant,” a military tribunal having convicted him of crimes associated with his service to al-Qaeda as Osama bin Laden’s media secretary. In arguing on appeal that Bahlul’s conviction be upheld, a Pentagon lawyer, navy captain Edward S. White, relied on a precedent from an 1818 tribunal. In his thirty-seven-page military commissions brief, Captain White wrote: “Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violate the customs and usages of war.” The Center for Constitutional Rights objected to this passage in the government’s brief. “The court should . . . reject the government’s notable reliance on the ‘Seminole Wars’ of the 1800s, a genocide that led to the Trail of Tears…The government’s characterization of Native American resistance to the United States as ‘much like modern-day al Qaeda’ is not only factually wrong but overtly racist, and cannot present any legitimate legal basis to uphold Mr. Bahlul’s conviction.”[8] In response, the Pentagon’s general counsel issued a letter stating that the US government stood by its precedent.

But, the Seminole Wars were not the only such precedent embedded in the US military. Afghans resisting US forces and others who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were taken into custody, and most of them were sent to a hastily constructed prison facility on the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on land the United States appropriated in its 1898 war against Cuba.

Rather than bestowing the status of prisoner of war on the detainees, which would have given them certain rights under the Geneva Conventions, they were designated as “unlawful combatants,” a status thought to have been previously unknown in the annals of Western warfare. As such, the detainees were subjected to torture by US interrogators and shamelessly monitored by civilian psychologists and medical personnel. Much of the rhetoric following the declaration of the “War on Terror” after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 references US American militaristic memory of the wars against Native nations.

In response to questions and condemnations from around the globe, a University of California international law professor, John C. Yoo, on leave to serve as assistant US attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, penned in March 2003, what became the infamous “Torture Memo.” Despite strong objections to the “unlawful combatant” moniker, not much was made at the time of one of the precedents Yoo used to defend the designation “unlawful combatant,” the US Supreme Court’s 1873 opinion in Modoc Indian Prisoners.

In 1872, the Modoc leader, Kint-pu-ash, also known as Captain Jack, led some 150 of his people to return to their own country in Northern California after the US Army had rounded them up and forced them to share a reservation in Oregon. Fifty-three insurgent fighters from the group were surrounded by US troops and Oregon militia and forced to take refuge in the barren and rugged lava beds around Mount Lassen, a dormant volcano, a part of their ancestral homeland that they knew every inch of.

More than a thousand troops commanded by General Edward R. S. Canby, a former Civil War general, attempted to capture the resisters, but had no success as the Modocs engaged in effective guerrilla warfare. Before the Civil War, Canby had built his military career fighting in the Second Seminole War and later in the invasion of Mexico. Posted to Utah on the eve of the Civil War, he had led attacks against the Navajos, and then began his Civil War service in New Mexico. Therefore, Canby was a seasoned Indian killer.

In negotiations between the general and Kint-pu-ash, the Modoc leader killed the general and the other commissioners when they would allow no resolution other than Modoc surrender. In response, the Army command dispatched another former Civil War general with more than a thousand additional soldiers as reinforcements, and in April 1873, these troops attacked the Modoc stronghold, this time forcing the Modoc resisters to flee.

After four months of fighting that cost the United States almost $500,000—equal to nearly $10 million currently—and the lives of more than four hundred of its soldiers and a general, the nationwide backlash against the Modocs was vengeful.[9]

Kint-pu-ash and several other captured Modocs were designated prisoners of war, imprisoned, tried, hanged at a military base, and the Modoc families were scattered and incarcerated on reservations as far away as Oklahoma. Kint-pu-ash’s corpse was embalmed and exhibited at circuses around the country.[10]

Drawing a legal analogy between the Modoc prisoners and the Guantánamo detainees, Assistant US Attorney General Yoo employed the legal category of homo sacer—in Roman law, a person banned from society, excluded from its legal protections but still subject to the sovereign’s power.[11] Anyone may kill a homo sacer without it being considered murder.[12] To buttress his claim that the detainees could be denied prisoner of war status, Yoo quoted from the 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners opinion:

All the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier; but the circumstances attending the assassination of Canby [Army general] and Thomas [U.S. peace commissioner] are such as to make their murder as much a violation of the laws of savage as of civilized warfare, and the Indians concerned in it fully understood the baseness and treachery of their act.[13]

Thereby, anyone who could be defined as “Indian” could thus be killed legally, and they also could be held criminally responsible for engaging any US soldier.[14]

The United States is a militarized culture. We see it all around us and in the media. But, as military historian John Grenier notes, the cultural aspects of militarization are not new; they have deep historical roots, reaching into the nation’s Anglo-settler past and continuing through unrelenting wars of conquest and ethnic cleansing over three centuries. Grenier writes, “Beyond its sheer military utility, Americans also found a use for the first way of war in the construction of an ‘American identity.’ . . . [T]he enduring appeal of the romanticized myth of the ‘settlement’ (not calling it conquest) of the frontier, either by ‘actual’ men such as Robert Rogers or Daniel Boone or fictitious ones like Nathaniel Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s creation, points to what D. H. Lawrence called the ‘myth of the essential white American,’”[15] as “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”[16]

The astronomical number of firearms owned by US civilians, with the Second Amendment as a sacred mandate, is also intricately related to militaristic culture. The militias referred to in the Second Amendment are those civilians who were mobilized to attack Indigenous towns, burning their fields, to take their land. Everyday life and the culture in general are damaged by ramped-up militarization, and this includes academia, particularly the social sciences, with psychologists and anthropologists being recruited as advisors to the military. Anthropologist David H. Price, in his indispensable book Weaponizing Anthropology, remarks that “anthropology has always fed between the lines of war.” Anthropology was born of European and US colonial wars. Price sees an accelerated pace of militarization in the early twenty-first century: “Today’s weaponization of anthropology and other social sciences has been a long time coming, and post-9/11 America’s climate of fear coupled with reductions in traditional academic funding provided the conditions of a sort of perfect storm for the militarization of the discipline and the academy as a whole.”[17]

Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd writes: “The story of the new world is horror, the story of America a crime.” It is necessary to start with the origin of the United States as a settler state and its explicit intention to occupy the continent. These origins contain the historical seeds of genocide. Any true history of the United States must focus on what has happened to (and with) Indigenous peoples—and what still happens.[18] It’s not just past colonialist actions but also “the continued colonization of American Indian nations, peoples, and lands” that allows the United States “to cast its imperialist gaze globally.” The United States is a crime scene.

[1] Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 122–23.

[2] Robert D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (New York: Random House, 2005).

[3] John Grenier, The First Way of War,1607-1814. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 10.

[4] Kaplan, Imperial Grunts, 3–5.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Kaplan, Imperial Grunts, 8, 10.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Vincent Warren, “Government Calls Native American Resistance of 1800s ‘Much Like Modern-Day Al-Qaeda,’” Truthout, April 11, 2011, (accessed October 3, 2013).

[9] Frederick E. Hoxie, Encyclopedia of North American Indians (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 319.

[10]Byrd, The Transit of Empire, 226–28.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[12] Byrd, The Transit of Empire, 226–27.

[13] The Modoc Indian Prisoners, 14 Op. Att’y Gen. 252 (1873), quoted in John C. Yoo, Memorandum for William J. Haynes II, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, March 14, 2003, p. 7. Quoted in Byrd, Transit of Empire, 227.

[14] Byrd, Transit of Empire, 227.

[15] Grenier, The First Way of War, 222.

[16] D. H. Lawrence, quoted in Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 466

[17] David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 1, 11.

[18] Byrd, The Transit of Empire, xii–xiv.