Fighting Terrorism Since 1492

Although it has been around for years, I hadn’t seen the image below until my Gone Hollywood co-blogger Natalie pointed it out in the context of a rather ironic kerfuffle involving Johnny Depp.

Homeland Security Fighting Terrorism Since 1492 t-shirt logo

Catherine A. Corman wrote about the “”Fighting Terrorism Since 1492” t-shirts in October 2004:

Thinking about the T-shirt and seeing that flag poster up at Acoma, I wondered what Indians were saying about 9/11. That question stuck with me. A few conversations and emails later, I have learned that, like many other minorities in America, the Indians I spoke to are struggling to negotiate multiple identities that leave them to work out their relationships with patriotism and oppression. I have also learned that there is something uniquely Indian in the quality of this struggle, something that other groups, no matter how disenchanted or disenfranchised, cannot share.

It is hard to understand how Indians can simultaneously fly flags, said Robert Holden, Choctaw, and view the federal government as an occupying, terrorist agency. But that is just the way it is. “This is still our homeland,” said Holden, a specialist in radioactive waste disposal on Native land for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C. To illustrate Indians’ position, Holden reminded me that during World War II the Iroquois confederacy, seeing itself as a sovereign nation, declared war on Germany and Japan. Nowadays, even when they know that the U.S. government has contaminated their lands, “Indian people still go and fight for this country.” The National Congress of American Indians does not have figures yet for how many Native peoples are fighting in Iraq. It estimates that eight thousand Indians fought in World War I, twenty-five thousand fought in World War II, and forty-three thousand fought in Vietnam. Maybe the hard part for non-Indians to understand, Holden said, is that Indians do not entirely see the homeland they are defending as either American or Indian. “We are going to stand with our allies and protect our homeland.”

Matthew K. Tafoya, Navajo, who designed the original homeland security T-shirt and marketed it through his Albuquerque company, Tribal Sovereign Tees, is far more blunt. To Tafoya, Indians who fly American flags are “brainwashed” and “not thinking for themselves.” Indians do not join the U.S. Military, Tafoya said, because they are flag-waving patriots. With unemployment on Indian reservations hovering between 60 and 70 percent, Tafoya said, “the military is the only sure way to get a paycheck.”

Tafoya came up with the design and slogan for his homeland security T-shirt a few weeks after terrorists flew jets into the Twin Towers. He recalls thinking, “That’s right. Now they know how it feels.” Tafoya said that the shirt has been extremely popular with Indian veterans of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, who—ironically—show up at his booth at flea markets wearing worn-out, government-issue combat fatigues. He suspects that when Indian vets see his shirt, they are thinking, “We’re completely screwed over by the government, and we’re also lucky to be alive.”

“Traditional culture can promote entry to the U.S. military as an extension of the ‘warrior tradition,'” wrote Ben Winton, editor and publisher of The Native Press, which also markets a homeland security T-shirt. In an email responding to my questions about Indians, patriotism, 9/11, and military service, Winton wrote that young Indians “are protecting their families and their traditional homeland (what little of it remains under tribal control, anyway).” He mentioned the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II as a group that wanted to protect Indian Country and U. S. soil. “Assimilation and acculturation allow for many people to feel a sense of dual identity/citizenship,” Winton wrote. “They feel both proud as an ‘Indian person’ and proud as an ‘American’.”

While the white man’s conquest of North America more resembled traditional military operations than terrorism, I can certainly understand the sentiment. There is certainly an irony that a country founded on the concept of inalienable rights and human equality was settled through the violation of many of those rights and the treatment of the aboriginal inhabitants as savages.

Still, Tafoya’s well poisoning not withstanding, most American Indians who join the military are no more brainwashed than their peers. Many soldiers, of all ethnicities, join partly for financial reasons but most also choose service for a combination of motives, including patriotism, a desire for adventure, and a sense of purpose. The reservation system is, in many instances, a ghetto from which many can hardly wait to escape.

There’s not much doubt that great wrongs were visited on the tribes, some of it at least resembling terrorism. Still, most countries were settled and established through violent conquest and variations of what we now dub “ethnic cleansing.” At some point, the new guys simply become the dominant culture and the old guys, if there are any left, assimilate.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The biggest problem for all participants and observers on this particular topic seems to be trying to interpret the events of 500 years ago through the dung-colored glasses of today’s post-modern morality.

    It isn’t necessary to condemn those in the past for not living up to what Sir Thomas More might then have considered utopian ideals any more than it is to condemn those today who cannot live up to the utopian ideals of the Angry Left. Of course, bad things happened, even by the yardsticks used then. But at some point you have to, dare I say it, Move On and adjust to your new environment or live with the consequences. By all means, teach and remember, but let’s not rewrite history or obsessively dwell on ancient wrongs from the past. We rightly ridicule the Islamist rantings about the loss of Andalusia in 1492. Why should this be different?

    Not that it matters, but I’m part Cherokee as well. So does that give me absolute moral authority to speak on this topic? Oh, and oskee-wow-wow for any other Illinois fans out there. Go Chief!

  2. madmatt says:

    The us armys penchant for prioviding smallpox infested blankets to natives is the first use of biological weapons in the US…nice work, makes me want to puke

  3. James Joyner says:

    matt: While legendary, the story is almost certainly not true. In any case, Lord Jeffrey Amherst was commanding general of British forces.

  4. Christopher says:

    I wish people like Catherine Corman would get over it.

    No one forces the Indians to live in squalor on reservations. They are not prisoners for God sakes! In fact they are a lesson in liberal politics of what happens when you GIVE people money for doing nothing. Do you know how much money we GIVE to each and every Indian every month? Sick!

    Indians have always been small groups of nomadic peoples from the beginning. Were they supposed to have exclusive rights to the lands of America forever? Plus, Indians in the late 16th century and early 17th were savages-sorry, true. They slaughtered wholesale whenever they had the chance. That would be akin to me and a thousand of my camping buddies living alone in Washington state and killing anyone that came within its boundaries. Ridiculous!

    Hey Indians: get over it! Here in SW Washington state we are fighting them coming in (uninvited)with one of the largest proposed casinos in the country. Talk about your revenge…

  5. Hey, I can sympathize with the whole “divided loyalty” idea. There is more than one Southerner who can take pride in Lee’s military genius, condemn slavery, support states rights and still feel that the government whose army conducted the march across Georgia to the sea is worth serving in today.

    Or to take a different tack, I have no doubt that somewhere in my family tree were some Danes who decided to go a viking. The most likely took prisoners (aka slaves), burned, pillaged, etc. Now can you admire ‘viking’ military successes while still not suggesting the viking way of life should be how we live today? Absolutely.

  6. Rick DeMent says:


    While the specifics of the pox infected blanket story might not be true, the facts are that without the introduction of disease that was introduced to the indigenous population by European settlers the complexion of the north American Continent would not have been as white as it became.

    White euro’s owe a debt to the small pox virus for making manifest destiny possible.

  7. erg says:

    James — nice link, but thats not what the discussion says. All they say is that evidence that smallpox was actually used is not solid — there is definitely evidence that it was seriously considered and indirect evidence that it may have been used.

  8. Rick,

    You can also make a case that European domination of the world is owed to the plague. By shaking up the society order, making labor scarce and thus allowing for more value for labor, taking out a third of the people enabling the land to not marginally but richly support the survivors and finally giving incentive to innovation to replace the labor, Europe went from being behind the Islamic world (which would raid Europe for slaves) to being in charge of the world.

    So yes, there is a great case to be made that the colonization of America would not have proceeded as it did without the devastation of the small pox. But I think Africa or Asia is likely to give a better example of what the result would be rather than to say that Europeans would have never penetrated into America.

    As an aside, if you look at the projected death rates in Africa due to Aids, then look at the resources available in Africa, you can start to speculate on a similar European Renaissance in Africa, except that the dominant western culture is likely to butt up against it immediately.

  9. RA says:

    It was the terroist / savage behavior of the indians that gave the native Americans no choice but to go to war with the unrepentant savages.

    Yes the indians are not “native Americans”. You could call them native savage landers or native anti-Americans, but you cannot call them native Americans. It was white anglo saxon protestant Europeans who were the native Americans. They created the America we have today. The indians did everything in their power to ensure there would be no America at all!

  10. floyd says:

    most american indians were assimilated through marriage. so now the liberals can contend that marriage is a form of genocide as well as bondage and rape[lol]

  11. McGehee says:

    While the specifics of the pox infected blanket story might not be true, …

    I’m sure glad this was Rick DeMent instead of, say, Mary Mapes. 😉

  12. arky says:

    Just saw that same theme on a T-shirt in a store window here in San Antonio today. We were escorting my son on his town pass prior to graduating AF Basic Training.
    Funny how Indians only join the military to get a decent wage, when the reservations were set aside to allow them to live their traditional lifestyles. Who needs $100k a year to live in a traditional adobe and cook wild game over a wood fire?
    Damn those Europeans for modernizing the new world!
    Now the tribes that conquered the lands from the previous tribes need to buy batteries for their gameboys from their conquerors.

  13. slickdpdx says:

    Great post.

  14. Geri Timmons says:

    By the majority of the comments posted above it is quite obvious that racist attitudes in America is alive and well. Please someone point me to the money line for all the free hands out given to Native Americans. That is truly a misguided notion and is in fact a lie, if it were true then I would be demanding the back pay owed my son. The attitude of most Native Americans is not the landing of white men on these shores but the horrendous slaying of their people in order to gain all the land. If anyone was/is the true savage, look no further than our very ancestors who raped and robbed the Natives of everything they had. As for the casino’s oh please get over it. They will continue to grow and there is nothing you will do to stop this. Fair play to em! Right on to the true creator of the “Homeland Security” t-shirt Colleen Lloyd and Johnny Depp for giving her sales a HUGE boost.