On Sept. 21, thousands of American Indian representatives gathered on the
National Mall in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the grand opening of the
National Museum of the American Indian. That same day The Wall Street
Journal decided to publish an opinion column by Robert D. Kaplan, premised
on the background metaphor that Indian country is enemy territory. What
Kaplan fails to explicitly acknowledge, however, is that this metaphor is
deceptive because the United States was the invading force in its wars
against Indian nations.
Kaplan's article is entitled "Indian Country", a phrase he uses to frame
and illustrate a number points he wants to make about challenges he said
the U.S. military is presently facing in "the war on terrorism and the war
in Iraq in particular."
For example, Kaplan said that as "dirty little struggles proliferate,
featuring small clusters of combatants hiding out in Third World slums,
deserts and jungles - the American military is back to the days of fighting
the Indians." Since the United States government and the U.S. military are
said to be fighting "terrorists," we find the following meaning in Kaplan's
subtext: Fighting present day "terrorists" is like a return to the days
when the U.S. was fighting Indians in the "Old West."
Flip the analogy around, and Kaplan is comparing our Native ancestors -
those who militarily resisted the U.S. invasion of our respective ancestral
homelands - to present day "terrorists," "insurgents" and "combatants." In
a previous discussion of American pathological attitudes and behavior
toward Native peoples, this column explained that metaphors are used to
think of one thing in terms of another. Kaplan's self-described employment
of "the red Indian metaphor" is a process of thinking of the U.S. "war
against terrorism" and the U.S. "war in Iraq in particular" in terms of the
U.S. wars against "Indian Country" in the latter decades of the 19th
There are two steps to this kind of metaphorical thinking: First, identify
strategies and tactics used by the U.S. military in wars against Indian
nations in the West in the latter part of the 19th century. Second, figure
out what the successes and failures of those strategies and tactics have to
say about the challenges the U.S. military is now facing, and about what it
is attempting to accomplish against its enemies abroad in places such as
To balance the comparison, the word "enemies" needs to be applied to both
the present-day context of Iraq and to Indians of the past. Thus, we find
two primary metaphors behind Kaplan's use of "Indian Country" in his
column: 1) Present-day enemies of the U.S. are Indians, and, 2) Present-day
enemy territory is Indian country. "Indian Country has been expanding,"
said Kaplan, "as dictatorships collapse," security vacuums result, and
enemies proliferate around the globe.
Kaplan slightly softens his approach by referring to the U.S. military's
"reverence" for Indian enemies of old. In other words, Kaplan apparently
wants us to know that the U.S. military now has a feeling or attitude of
deep respect tinged with awe for the prowess of Indian enemy combatants of
In the 19th century, Kaplan said, the U.S. military's job was to confront a
wide "range of Indian groups, numbering in their hundreds." The varieties
of Indians, said Kaplan, "was no less varied than that of the warring
ethnic and religious militias spread throughout Eurasia, Africa and South
America in the early 21st century," which, in Kaplan's mind, is the wide
geographical scope of the "war on terror."
Kaplan said the issue of "civilian casualties" raised emotions in the past
just as it does today. "When the Cavalry invested Indian encampments, they
periodically encountered warrior braves beside women and children, much
like Fallujah," wrote Kaplan. The word "invested" (as in "to invest" money)
is certainly appropriate for a Wall Street Journal readership," but in a
military context the term means, "to surround a place with military forces
so as to prevent approach or escape."
Invest also means, "to lay siege." Siege is "the act or process of
surrounding and attacking a fortified place," but also, "any prolonged or
persistent effort to overcome resistance." Under "lay siege to" my
dictionary provides the following example: "The invaders laid siege to the
city for over a month." Kaplan's use of the term "invested" metaphorically
frames the U.S. Cavalry as an invading force against Indian villages.
Kaplan reassures us that when the U.S. cavalry surrounded Indian
encampments, "most Cavalry officers tried to spare the lives of
noncombatants," yet "inevitable civilian casualties" resulted in "howls of
protest among humanitarians back east."
The Washita River Massacre is a prime example of "inevitable civilian
casualties" during 19th century U.S. military actions against Indian
people. At dawn, on Nov. 27, 1868, the 7th Cavalry attacked the tipi
encampment of the Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle. The attack occurred
under the command of Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Custer was under
orders from General Phil Sheridan "to proceed ... [to] the supposed winter
seat of the hostile tribes; to destroy their villages and ponies, to kill
or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children."
When Custer's troops attacked the camp on the Washita. In no time at all,
the deadly fire from the soldiers' guns cut down 103 "hostiles;" of which
11 were warriors. In other words, Custer's troops killed 92 women, children
and elderly. These "inevitable civilian casualties" were a direct result of
U.S. soldiers indiscriminately killing Cheyennes. The soldiers also gunned
down several hundred horses. Because the horse was at the heart of the
Cheyenne way of life and economy, U.S. bullets that killed the horses were
simply another way of firing into the hearts of the Cheyennes.
Custer and his troops returned to Camp Supply where Sheridan was waiting.
They marched in a procession, waving the scalps of Black Kettle and other
massacred Cheyennes. A band played triumphant music. The soldiers had with
them 53 captured Cheyenne women and children. Sheridan praised Custer for
"efficient and gallant services."
Elsewhere in his column, Kaplan refers to "the American imperial future."
This, of course, correctly suggests an "American imperial" past and
present. In my view, the concept of the American empire is the frame needed
to accurately understand Kaplan's use of the metaphor "Indian Country," and
to make sense of the comparison he has drawn. The American empire was
responsible for unjustifiable invasions of Indian nations in the past, just
as it is now responsible for an unjustifiable invasion of Iraq, which has
left more than 10,000 Iraqis killed and countless others maimed, with no
end in sight.
It was during America's imperial past that Kaplan claims the Plains Indians
were "ultimately vanquished" by "a deluge of settlers aided by the
railroad." If not for settlers and railroads, Kaplan suggests, the U.S.
never could have been victorious in the Old West. He somehow fails to
mention the U.S.'s intentional slaughter of Indian communities, and the
wholesale slaughter of millions of buffalo in order to destroy the food
supplies and economic strength of the Plains nations.
Kaplan said there will be "no new settlers to help" the U.S. realize its
"imperial future" around the world. Thus, he said, "American ground troops
are going to have to learn to be more like Apaches."
Kaplan's suggestion reminds me of a photograph of Geronimo and a number of
other Apache warriors brandishing rifles, with a present day photo caption
that reads: "Fighting Terrorism Since 1492." The meaning of this photograph
is understandable to every Native person who knows the history of what the
United States did to terrorize, kill off and dispossess our ancestors, such
as at the Washita River. Kaplan's suggestion doesn't work for the simple
reason that the Apaches were a key part of the resistance to the American
empire for some 25 years.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator
at Kumeyaay Community College, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous
Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.