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Myths American Indians Live and Die By

The mythical narrative taught by the colonists is that progress is an inevitable march in one direction. In the debate over the Texas annexation treaty, the colonial narrative acquired the majestic title of “Manifest Destiny,” taken to mean that the Protestant God had decreed North America should become the domain of the WASP. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were on a divine mission to rule over not just indigenes, but also brown Roman Catholics.

Co-existing with and reinforcing the Manifest Destiny myth, we have scientific progress, the other paradigm from which it springs. The idea is that in social sciences, as in natural sciences, the frontier of knowledge pushes forward in one direction, from dark to light. This metaphor is convenient to people of light color keeping their feet on the necks of people of darker color.

It’s hard to deny that there is a grand arc away from top-down government and toward bottom-up government, exemplified by a quotation from a man I was appalled to learn my students came to me knowing nothing about beyond the name of a three-day weekend. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The arc is indeed long. In my lifetime, democracy was not an ascendant ideology. It is now, so even the most tyrannical governments lace their tyranny with human rights rhetoric, lipstick on the authoritarian pig.

The arc of the moral universe is so long that the nature of the movement is episodic, not a steady march in one direction, and the US is a prime example. At the founding of what became those United States, Indians had no skin in the game. We were foreign military powers, sometimes siding with English colonists, sometimes French, even Spanish.

After the American and Mexican revolutions, Indians still represented a third force in the various power struggles. The Comanche-Kiowa Alliance dominated the southern part of the Great Plains as long as it did because of hostilities between Mexico and Texas, and later the US. Then came the US Civil War, which bought the Comanche and Kiowa more years of freedom even as it tore my Cherokee Nation apart.

Indians have never been able to stand aloof from colonial battles. Not then and not now. In modern times, even when there is no conscription, we side with our neighbors when we perceive threats from the outside.

I consider this behavior to be as rational as the outside threat is real. We all know that the outside threat is often trumped up, although seldom as trumped up as the pack of lies that led us into Iraq.

The lies have been thick enough lately to sometimes threaten the esteem in which we traditionally hold veterans. We see a guy messed up in the service and blame him for enlisting.

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You tell him he was wrong to fight, you young men who will tell me I was wrong. I don’t have the stomach for it. We share this land now and we share its defense. Those of us who have served will also admit there is much to admire in our non-Indian brothers in arms. But still, but still…what about the lies?

I’ll see your Gulf of Tonkin incident and raise you the sinking of the Maine. I’ll see your weapons of mass destruction and raise you the impressment of US sailors now cited as the reason for the War of 1812 in light of Thomas Jefferson’s 1812 observation "the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent."

Wars are always fought for reasons that must be mysterious to the kids fighting them. At my age, I’m entitled to say “kids,” but I was 17 when I joined and my son was 18. Our knowledge of foreign affairs was, to put it kindly, limited.

Buffy St. Marie’s song, "Universal Soldier," tells it how it is. The individual soldier “really is to blame” in the sense that if he does not offer up his body, then the politicians would throw a war nobody attended.

Still, Hitler hated American Indians no less than Jews. In Mein Kampf, he cited extermination by English colonists with approval and decried the intermarriage practiced by Spanish colonists. While all war is evil, sometimes it’s the lesser evil.

All American Indians are descended from warrior cultures. All those cultures I know have some tradition of honoring warriors.

The average VA disability claim for an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran takes 273 days just to get an answer. Should Indians care?

You tell him he was wrong to fight. I don’t have the stomach.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.