The White House's choice of Carlisle Barracks as the venue for the
President's May 24 speech is no doubt as complex and it is intriguing. No
one would have guessed from either the content or coverage that the
American Indian history of the place had any bearing on the subject, which
was "a free and self-governing Iraq" and "a humane, well-supervised prison
On the surface, it was a logical choice to deliver the address at Carlisle
Barracks, the site of the U.S. Army War College, where the nation's
military leaders have studied war since the 1950s.
It made political sense, too, being in that part of Pennsylvania - a state
rich in electoral votes - where George W. Bush and the war are still
The President predicted that the rise of a free Iraq "would be a decisive
blow to terrorism at the heart of its power, and a victory for the security
of America and the civilized world."
The message just beneath the surface and all around its edges was
"civilization." That's where the location of the speech comes in.
Carlisle Barracks, from 1879 to 1918, was the site of the first federal
Indian boarding school. Thousands of children of famous Indian leaders were
taken there as hostage students, in order to keep their families down on
the reservations. Many never made it back home.
My mother's grandfather, Thunderbird (Richard Davis), and his sister Elsie
Davis were among the first Cheyennes at Carlisle. They were taken hostage
because their father was Chief Bull Bear, who was also a Dog Men Society
leader. The War Department wanted to make sure that he did not "roam off
the reservation" or resume the life of a "hostile."
At the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1893, Elsie Davis died of
"consumption" according to the school paper, and Thunderbird became a model
Headstones and remains of Elsie and some few other children who died in the
school's early years were relocated to the present small cemetery. The
original grave yard and the remains of other children who died at Carlisle
were plowed under for a sports field and grandstand.
Both the school and town of Carlisle are big on sports. As recently as
2002, the town was the summer training camp of the Washington professional
football team with the name most Native people despise.
The Carlisle Indian School was a "well-supervised prison system" that was
rarely "humane." The motto of its founder, Captain Richard H. Pratt, was
"kill the Indian, save the man." This meant that the Indians would become
"civilized" - read, deculturalized - or else.
The Carlisle kids were forced to speak English only, practice Christianity
and work for no or low wages. Indian slave labor in 1887 built the very
building where the President read his speech about Iraq. It's a gymnasium
which was named after Carlisle alum Jim Thorpe, the great Sac and Fox
athlete who won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics.
But, no one would ever guess that. Bush did not acknowledge Thorpe or
Carlisle or the Indian "civilization" policy the U.S. adopted when
extermination wasn't working.
One person tried to alert reporters and producers about the connections
between U.S. policies in Iraq and at Carlisle, and the irony.
Barbara C. Landis, author of the Carlisle Indian School Research Web pages,
e-mailed the television networks and National Public Radio, asking, "Does
anybody in the Bush administration realize he will be speaking in a venue
that was designed and implemented to become the benchmark of the
assimilation of American Indians?"
In her May 23 e-mail, Landis pointed out that the War College is "smack dab
in the middle of the old school grounds ... I wonder at the lack of
foresight in presenting a major foreign policy speech designed to spin the
failed policy of this administration - in a venue that for many Americans,
represents the failed assimilationist policies of a century ago."
Only ABC's Nightline responded, said Landis, but just to thank her for the
information. There was "absolutely no reference to Carlisle ... on any news
shows I watched ... The gym was disguised to look like a blue velvet-draped
presidential sealed room, which is what it became. The audience was
hand-picked to represent cheerleaders for Bush's policies."
Perhaps White House staffers intended for Iraqis to slowly uncover the
harsh history of the Carlisle cradle of U.S. "civilization" policy. Perhaps
some wanted to send a message that bad beginnings can produce good results,
such as Thorpe and other extraordinary Native people (the ones who lived
through it, that is), and that Native nations today are self-governing.
It is possible that the White House intended to send these cautionary notes
and optimist messages. It is also possible that no one in the White House -
which is not known for subtlety - was told anything about where they were.
Whatever subsurface message was intended, the history and lessons of
Carlisle and "civilization" are there for all the world to learn. A decade
before the end of the official Indian "civilization" policy, Indian people
were made U.S. citizens, on June 2, 1924.
After 80 years under the Indian Citizenship Act, Native peoples remain the
most economically impoverished segment of American society, with all the
attendant problems of poverty, notwithstanding significant gains made
through gaming. And, Indian nations are subjected to threats that Indian
gaming will be outlawed unless greater amounts of revenue are turned over
to the federal, state and local governments.
Native people have yet to attain full voting rights and there are organized
anti-Indian groups that advocate abolishing treaties and other legal Indian
rights and authorities. Despite repatriation laws, Native American graves
and sacred objects continue to be robbed and desecrated.
Native people are the only people in the U.S. who do not have full
religious freedom rights and cannot defend threatened sacred places in the
American justice system. And Native peoples alone are targeted, mascotted
and humiliated in sports nationwide.
This is the status of Native America after eight decades of citizenship and
more than a century of "civilization." For us, these are serious matters of
sovereignty and human rights. These also are family matters.
We know what the White House says it intends to do to free Iraq. The
question at home is what will the White House do to help Native Americans
transition to freedom?