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.
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.