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‘Medicine Bags and Dog Tags,’ by Al Carroll

Al Carroll’s “Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veterans from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War” is like a merry-go-round: you anticipate fun, with ups and downs, but when the ride is over you end up right back where you started.

His book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, promises to look at Native veterans from colonial times to the current Iraq war, and how Native culture influenced the military.

It’s a grandiose ambition, and it only partially succeeds.

Too often, the 285-page book – the final 60 pages consisting of a bibliography and index – comes across as a college term paper, padded to book length. In fact, in several instances, Carroll seems to repeat the same points – nearly word for word – in different chapters.

Carroll’s work does merit some praise in tackling a complex issue and often meeting – if not raising – the bar.

The main problem seems to be that Carroll, an unenrolled member of the Mescalero Apache tribe, isn’t sure what he wants to do with this book. He decries how Natives are stereotyped in niche characters, like the helpful Tonto, the savage Magua or the in-tune-with-nature/spiritual Billy Jack.

But in later chapters, he relates how some Natives revealed visions – from deceased relatives to an eagle – that guided them through war.

He debunks the myth of scalping, only to later include comments from various Native vets about how they took scalps or celebrated with Scalp dances.

If it weren’t a stereotype, one might conclude that Carroll spoke with a forked tongue, spouting outrage at these base images while including soldiers’ statements that reinforce those very images.

Chapter 2 comes as a surprise, as Carroll spends nearly a dozen pages talking about white soldier Robert Rogers. Although Rogers is credited with blending traditional Native warfare with American military, Carroll seems to spend most of the chapter arguing that Rogers wasn’t an “Indian hater” as some historians paint him to be. In fact, Carroll devotes more time to defending Rogers than he gives to any other single Native soldier he mentions. The chapter reads as if the course he has plotted hit a detour.

Another area where Carroll comes up lacking is the inclusion of all Natives. His work comes across as if there were/are no Indians east of the Iroquois.

He specifically mentions the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island on page 175, in a passing reference to a T-shirt declaring “Fighting Terrorism since 1492,” and two pages later makes passing reference to a Mohegan veteran from Connecticut.

Earlier in the book, in a section on naming ships for Natives or Native imagery, he mentions two 17th century Narragansetts sachems – without identifying the tribe – in a dismissive way, saying they were “honored” with ships because they were friends of the white man.

While his statement is true enough in explaining Canonicus, it shortchanges Miantinomi, who became an enemy of the colonists and sought to build a Native alliance not unlike those attempted later by Tecumseh and Pontiac.

Carroll also manages to work in several references regarding sports mascots, presumably how they generally depict Natives as “savage” and “warriors.”

While he detests this image of the Native, Carroll provides various statements from veterans about how they viewed themselves as warriors or saw a chance to recapture their tribe’s warrior tradition.

The best parts of “Medicine Bags and Dog Tags” are the few instances in which Carroll talks about the actual experiences of Native veterans, such as Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibway known as “the Indian Sergeant York.” The reader glosses over that tale of his singlehanded capture of some 300 German soldiers, wishing there was more about that incident.

Carroll’s book would have been more compelling had he spent more time telling the stories of men like Pegahmagabow, Navajo code talker Teddy Draper or Iwo Jima hero Ira Hayes.

Still, even if the merry-go-round doesn’t really take you anywhere, it still provides a few moments of fun.

Carroll’s work can be summed up by borrowing a quote from Vietnam veteran Richard Chagin (page 150): “It’s not that much, but by God, it’s all we’ve got.”