Friday, March 29, 2013

Why Iraq is "Indian Country" - notes from George Tinker

Tink Tinker wrote me several notes on my essay on Governor Evans and Sand Creek documents 1 and 2 here. That a founding amnesia about committing genocide afflicts the US army is obvious in the following story Tink tells. Iraq, a colonel said, to motivate his troops against non-white people, is “Indian country”:

“One Shawnee friend of mine deployed to Iraq in 03 stood on the border a day or two before the invasion and was accosted by a colonel who became irate at him and a couple others for standing looking into Iraq without wearing helmets. As he gesticulated wildly in the direction of Baghdad, he loudly said, 'That, gentlemen, is Indian country.' The Shawnee had already begun to wonder what he was doing there.

See also Sand Creek, Sandy Hook and the Inauguration here.


Goyakhle (called Geronimo by the Mexicans parroted by the Americans), the great Mescalero Apache warrior who fought in self-defense against the Mexican slaughter of his family and US aggression, was invoked in "Code Name Geronimo" against the mass murderer Bin Laden.

Every time a drone takes off to murder at a distance nonwhite people (h/t Andy Reid for the interactive chart about Pakistan here), there is the resonance of US army and Mankato, the US army and the Trail of Tears, the US army and Sand Creek, the US army and Bear Creek, the US army and Wounded Knee, the dispossession, ethnic cleansing and driving out of indigenous people.


Goyakhle surrendered a "Winchester Model 1876 lever-action rifle with a silver-washed barrel and receiver, bearing serial number 109450." It is on display at the US Military Academy in West Point.

He also had a Colt "Single Action Army revolver with a nickel finish and ivory stocks bearing the serial number 89524, and a Sheffield Bowie knife with a dagger type of blade and stag handle made by George Wostenholm in a silver-studded holster and cartridge belt." The revolver, rig, and knife are on display at the Fort Sill museum...


On my article on Evans, Tink wrote:

"Let me say just two quick things. First of all, the Dakota are the Dakota; they do not become the Lakota. Two different peoples, even though they are closely related. The Dakota were removed from Minnesota and some were quite dispersed. There are those, however, who have begun to reclaim traditional communities in Minnesota. My old friend Mato Numpa is one of those who is deeply involved in that process today—claim his own status as a survivor of genocide! Indeed some of those Dakota who were run out of Minnesota did find a home with their Lakota relatives up on what is today the Standing Rock Reservation, but they are still Dakota. My mentor Vine Deloria Jr. derived from that Standing Rock community and was Dakota on one side of his heritage and Lakota on the other. The languages are not the same, but are close dialects.

Secondly, I would urge great caution in voicing the old colonialist verbiage about the Hungate affair. Your claim that “What they did was awful and no act of self-defense against soldiers or American aggression” is way premature, I think. You might look up a two-part essay published by Jeff Broome (“Indian Massacres in Elbert County, Colorado: New Information on the 1864 Hungate and 1868 Dietemann Murders,” Denver Westerners Roundup, LX:1 (2003/2004). It is available on-line. Broome does a credible job of complexifying the usual colonialist take on the incident. It was certainly not at all merely a random or premeditated killing or murder—as Evans, Chivington, and even you would describe it. Like most so-called Indian depredations, there is much more to the story."


I responded:

“Thanks, Tink. Yes, I agree with you strongly. I clarified in the last post and again in a forthcoming one on the Camp Weld meeting that the US government committed aggression and genocide throughout. Hence, resistance was justified (and those who were trying for nonviolence toward the army were not necessarily the most courageous - that even they were massacred shows something awful about the US government...

And I underlined that Lean Bear, offering papers of friendship signed in Washington, was gunned down by "soldiers" the month before, initiating the war and that the slaughter of the Hungate family was thus a form of retaliation."


In the first post, however, I mistakenly repeated the colonialist's story. Broome's illuminating article on the Hungate killings can be found here. The native americans were running off horses and mules. A Mrs. Ferguson even rode after one who did not attack her. On Broome's account, Nathan Hungate had just moved to Colorado. He shot at one of the indians taking a horse and killed him. The native americans then besieged his house - five rifles were fired at them from inside - and burned it, forcing the occupants out and killing him, a mother and two daughters.


In terms of this conflict, the act of killing Hungate was provoked by Hungate's murder and pretty directly self-defense (alternately, it was justice or capital punishment, given that indigenous people could receive none under American "law"). They were there to take horses and mules, not to kill and while the theft appeared odious to the settlers, the taking of indian land and starving out and cordoning off of indigenous tribes on reservations was the real theft.

The settler/colonial story is thus false to a much more complicated situation and as Tink rightly underlines, miscasts the characters: the American aggressors and those "friendly" to them are good; those who were on the land and defend themselves - innocent on the oldest moral understandings of war - see Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, Alan Gilbert, Democratic Individuality, ch 1) - were falsely demonized as "hostiles"

Try the same identifications about the Warsaw ghetto or the Occupied Territories...


But the act of killing the wife and the two children was a) unjustified (often indigenous people captured women and children rather than kill them, however), and b) unwise in that it resulted in the Denver elite led by Evans, displaying the bodies to create a racist fury among the citizens, who, becoming the "hundred daysters" - volunteers for a hundred days - committed the massacre at Sand Creek.


Since the US government violated every treaty it signed with indigenous people, including the Fort Lyon Treaty (1851) which gave the Arapahos and Cheyennes much of the territory of Colorado - "forgotten" in the gold rush and the hurry to put the railway through - it is, of course, unclear what indigenous people could have done to head off the Massacre.

Black Kettle, White Antelope, Bull Bear and others made every effort to honor Evans's unreasonable, dishonest and coercive request: resettle by Fort Lyon or the US "will kill and destroy" man, woman and child.


Tink responded:

“Kasi x’si y’all:
That’s good morning. The y’all part is not ie wazhazhe. Just Oklahoma.

There are a couple of typical misconceptions that linger in most contemporary colonialist interpretation of Colorado history. The first is a misunderstanding of the nature of the Cheyenne village at Sand Creek. Many, many Indian communities had dual forms of leadership identified in terms of military defense and peace. These leaders would typically be called in english peace chiefs and war chiefs—even though no Indian languages had any word for war. During the 1860s in Colorado, the Cheyenne leaders trying to develop a non-violence based relationship with the invaders were called peace chiefs, and many of these leaders had gathered together in a single community. This was the community that had gathered at Sand Creek. So Sand Creek was, as it were, a village of peace chiefs. The other Cheyenne rallied around a particular “society,” called the dog society (or in popular english, the dog “soldiers”[one wonders if the phrase "shoot them down like dogs" was coined in this context]) and became the largest faction of armed resistance to euro-christian encroachment. So the massacre was a massacre of the peace chiefs and failed completely to confront the so-called hostile Cheyenne, i.e., dog society band.

That moves us to the second typical misconception that we need to be clearer about today. That is this business of hostile vs. friendly Indians—typified in Evans proclamations and in other christian frontier rhetoric, particularly in the press. The typification of Indian peoples as friendly or hostile is entirely a colonialist act of signification from the get-go! Indeed, to typify any invasive squatter who deigns to build a farm or ranch on Indian land as somehow “innocent” is really the quintessential colonialist signifying act of conquest. Of course the farmer is an innocent. After all, the farmer is a christian person/family; the Indians are pagan savages by definition. That, after all, is the very basis for the rule of (european christian) international law called the Doctrine of Discovery (or as Steve Newcomb rightly calls it, the doctrine of christian discovery: …the first christian prince….). So the farmer is a non-combatant. That must mean he is free to walk in and steal someone else’s land. And how dare any Native community resist? Hostiles! The rhetoric of colonial conquest wraps itself in innocence and poises itself against Native resistance as wildness and savagery. From the vantage point of the aboriginal owners of the land, the Hungates, for instance, could be called innocents only by a huge stretch of the imagination. And as Jeff Broome illustrates in his analysis of the Hungate incident, the actualities of that situation were far more complex than simplistic historians or colonialists’ rhetoric would have us think.

Wherever I travel on the continent these days my tendency is to say to an audience: Nice country y’all got here! …How’d you get it? Garrison Keillor, bless his humorous little heart, never bothers to mention that Lake Woebegone was Indian land and that the only way Minnesota was finally pried loose from Dakota control was through a murderous violation of a treaty followed by an even more murderous war—in which the Dakota were caricaturized as violent savages for daring to resist. How did all those lutheran and catholic folk get that land and turn it into Keillor’s middle-America? The Mankato genocide did the trick, clearing the entire property for christian occupancy [see here], and the Sand Creek Massacre did precisely the same two years later for the soon-to-be state of Colorado. So please let’s be careful in using that colonialist distinction between hostile and friendly.

Indeed, this word 'hostiles' was used persistently during the Iraq invasion to talk about those Iraqi who dared to resist american invasion and military governance. This is language that persists from the euro-christian conquest of the american frontier.



Tink clarifies the internal relationship between peace and military leaders. It was natural that indigenous people tried to achieve peace, given that the soldiers and settlers outnumbered them and had heavier weaponry...


Edna Brillon also sent me the disturbing piece below on the use of smallpox in Canada to steal/"claim and settle" indigenous land. It further illustrates Tink's point about the untrustworthiness of conqueror's/colonial "history":

"Smallpox, Colonialism and Injustice: Comox
Posted on March 27, 2013 by Tom Swanky in Articles, Canada's 'War'

The Great Darkening will attend the Comox Valley book fair, May 4. We also will make a presentation of “Smallpox at Victoria.”

This provides an occasion to ask what role the 1862 smallpox epidemics played in the transition from indigenous sovereignty to colonial rule at “Comox,” often translated as “Place of Plenty.”

Canadian academics commonly teach that European diseases swept North America ahead of settlement, leaving an empty wilderness to be occupied innocently by settlers. This is not what happened at Comox or throughout British Columbia. Before 1862, as below, knowledgeable people described Pacific Shelf natives as numerous and that their “powerful” regimes controlled their own space. Then many died, and the survivors lost control, suddenly. How did it happen?

Where possible, we start with the local tradition. The Comox Argus of Jan 6, 1931 reported these story elements as received from the wife of George Mitchell, “the first settler.”

Smallpox (in 1862) reduced native communities from hundreds strong to the scattered remnants that now live up and down the coast. Canoes full of dead and dying Indians came to the Indian village at the mouth of the Courtney River. An excessive desire for wealth or possessions was their undoing. Comox natives became infected when they despoiled the dead of their bracelets. In a few weeks, this prosperous village was a graveyard. Native communities in this area, once powerful and numerous, have never recovered.

This settler tradition blames Comox natives for their own demise. In an apparent example of mirroring (seeing one’s own faults in the behavior of others), it re-interprets the cultural virtue of saving valuable items from waste as the sin of greed. Ironically, Mitchell’s wallet has been preserved at the B.C. Archives.

[the program does not reproduce photographs which can be found here.}

These canoes “full of dead and dying Indians” originated in Victoria. So this story actually has its main root there and not in native culture, except as settlers may have knowingly taken advantage.

In March 1862, Governor James Douglas’ primary constituency, Hudson’s Bay Company associates turned land speculators, and some business colleagues of Attorney General George Cary introduced smallpox at Victoria in the first instance. The evidence for this is explored at length in “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,” available at, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

By late April, the disease had become established among a few of the 2500-3000 northern natives living at Victoria, making some 20 to 30 its victims. Douglas then expelled the northerners in four waves at two-week intervals. Most were Tsimshian, Haida, Heiltsuk or Tahltan; all these would have passed Comox.

While expelling the northerners, colonial officials repeatedly forced sick and healthy natives together into canoes under the threat of police violence. They did not offer quarantine or vaccine, neither for healthy natives in the canoes nor for those in the home territories.

Every observer believed it was certain that this policy would kill many in the canoes; many along the way as natives salvaged items from victims put ashore in desperation to stop the disease in the canoes; and many in the home territories.

In other words, the Douglas Administration deployed smallpox to inflict conditions of life calculated to kill these natives and all those in their path. Indeed, tens of thousands caught the disease and died as the direct result of this ethnic cleansing policy, including those at Comox.

On two occasions, the first expulsion of May 1 and that of June 11, colonial gunboats accompanied the disease-laden canoes past Comox. If these were the local disease source, then its arrival here was not by chance at all: the dead and dying were deposited under the supervision of colonial officials. Since settlers were sure to desire a “Place of Plenty,” villages here very well may have been targeted. Is there other evidence supporting such an inference?

The earliest that disease laden canoes could have arrived at Comox in 1862 was after the Victoria expulsion of May 1. These would have passed the Comox Valley about May 5-8, with a gunboat escort. The World Health Organization says smallpox epidemics develop slowly. At Ft. Simpson, where these same canoes arrived May 17, the HBC manager reported the first local deaths June 11 and the dying peaked only in mid-July. So, if the disease reached Comox in early May, then the dying did not peak until late June.

Yet the first settlers, including George Mitchell as shown by this excerpt from the colonial pre-emption records, filed their claims already on June 3.

[same link as above]

So the first settlers claimed the land under colonial rules just as the bulk of its native residents began dying, certainly before they were dead. In the legal fiction of official colonial propaganda, settlers could claim only vacant land. This land was not vacant. Nor, it should go without saying, do survivors lose any rightful inheritance only because their antecedents died from an epidemic disease; nor, for that matter, from mass murder.

In the best-case scenario, this was only an opportunistic exercise. The full reality seems worse. All these claimants were Hudson’s Bay Company associates turned land speculators. They surveyed this land at Comox in summer 1861, (See the British Colonist for June 1 and Sept. 13, 1861.) This was months before smallpox arrived but during the period when it would have been under contemplation.

Except for Mitchell, none established any residency here. It seems revealing, rather than coincidence, that they delayed registering their claims until it was certain smallpox would transform the space so that it could be treated as if it had been vacant. Registration then became urgent to establish ownership before flipping control to some farmers a few months later.

As HBC associates, these men may have had inside knowledge that the Comox village precincts could be emptied by smallpox and that the Governor afterward would underwrite the dispossession of any survivors with threats of conventional violence. This scenario seems more likely as another settler shared just such inside knowledge with a community at Alert Bay, north of Comox, to save it instead.

In any scenario, what would the native survivors have been justified in thinking? They soon would have learned that it was colonial officials who caused the disease to spread from Victoria, expecting it to kill them. Specifically or generally targeted, the legal and moral result is the same: they were victims of the Douglas Administration creating conditions of life calculated to bring about their destruction, allowing settlers to take control without negotiating treaties or paying compensation.

George Mitchell’s fate also seems instructive. Mitchell claimed the most valuable commercial site at the river’s mouth, nearest the location for a boat landing. In March 1864, survivors attacked him. They seized blankets and clothing from his house.This seems lawfully claiming reparations under native law, not theft or plunder. Since Douglas failed even to attempt consensual constitutional change, natives had no reason to believe anything but that their law was still the law of the land. As, indeed, many still believe, given Canada’s ongoing failure to repair and heal the Douglas Administration’s genocidal legacy.

Mitchell may have attracted special attention as one of the first speculators, and may have been accused of having brought the disease to kill them for their land, or by displacing survivors whose land he had taken. Mitchell had served on the HBC’s ship Beaver, passing here countless times. He knew perfectly well that natives occupied this land but he also would have appreciated that this context provided a golden opportunity to start a business and serve any growing settler community.

[Same link as above]

At some point, Mitchell seems to have taken a native wife (the newspapers said, “he kept a squaw.”) Since native “land use” privileges typically attached to the maternal line, this may have been a “gateway” marriage to make peace by legalizing his position under native rules.

Then, in October 1867, Mitchell tried to evict this woman’s brother who had come to live with them. By custom, it would have been the wife’s prerogative to invite her brother in and not Mitchell’s right to evict him. While intoxicated, Mitchell shot at the brother three times. Wounded, the brother feigned his death until he could grab the gun. He then shot Mitchell with his own weapon.

While these facts suggest self-defense even under English law, a coroner’s jury said Mitchell had died from “willful murder.” Apparently fearing retaliation after any trial and execution on these facts, the coroner hastily convened a second jury. It said Mitchell had died from “natural causes”!! (See British Colonist for Oct. 28, 1867.) Setters would never concede, not ever, that a native might have been justified in killing one of their number…not under either English or native law.

Under the headline “The (Latest) Murder on the East Coast” the British Colonist observed,

The East Coast [of Vancouver Island] beats all other parts of the Colony (for) death by violence; yet, strange to say, the crime is seldom, if ever, brought home to anyone…There is something wrong in the management of affairs on that coast.

The Douglas Administration’s choice of ethnic cleansing in place of lawful means to extend British institutions where colonial authority was thin on the ground created this chaos: dramatically weakened and traumatized native communities with every right to believe that their laws still applied were forced to live beside a range of arrogant or ignorant settlers enjoying the fruits of something for nothing under their laws.

The harm of that choice, and the new harm perpetrated by those who still choose to defend it, is reflected today in every issue touching native life, in B.C. native/settler relations and in natural resource allocation.

In a timely example, as the Tsilhqot’in title case advances to Canada’s Supreme Court, Canada hopes for a precedent that constitutional aboriginal rights apply only to small parcels and not to whole national territories. This would cruelly dishonour those who died in this ethnic cleansing exercise on space now occupied by large settler communities, such as the Comox Valley, and the survivors rudely dispossessed of their land and sovereign control.

Seeking the precedent also dishonours the descendants of those survivors who hope for post-colonial good faith from Canada’s system of jurisprudence.

Tom Swanky is the author of The True Story of Canada's 'War' of Extermination on the Pacific. You can connect with Tom on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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