Thursday, November 16, 2006
(UPDATED) Opening the Gates of the Gulag (Pt. II): Manifest Destiny's Dark Side
This is a man: Chief Big Snake of the Poncas.
The frost of late October clung to the ground, and the small general store was wreathed in early morning murkiness when the detachment of soldiers arrived. Lieutenant Stanton Mason had been sent with his men to the small hamlet in Oklahoma's “Indian Country” under orders from General Tecumseh Sherman (that was his christening name; he added “William” later in life) and Carl Shurz, head of the Interior Department, to seize an “unlawful enemy combatant” for trial before a military commission.
Along with his Civil War comrade in mass murder Philip Sheridan (the butcher of the Shenandoah Valley), Sherman had been given the task of evicting the Plains Indians from land coveted by the corporatist railroad combine. Sherman displayed ironic zeal for that calling, given the name with which he'd been christened. To him goes the eternal obloquy of coining the phrase, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
On the available evidence, Lt. Mason wasn't happy with his assignment. And he was probably nauseated by the local Indian Agent, William Whitman. Like most people in his line of work, Whitman was a festering pile of corruption, wholly owned by the “Indian Ring” -- a syndicate of military officials, lobbyists, politicians, and private contractors who profited handsomely from the ongoing war to “pacify” the Plains Indians.
Whitman had become intimidated by Big Snake, a 6'6” Ponca Chief (one of several who held that rank). Despite being an astonishing physical specimen, Big Snake was a gentle and peaceful man. But as a man, he resented being imprisoned in a desolate stretch of Oklahoma, far from his homeland in Nebraska. He was furious that his children had been torn from his side and placed in a federally-supervised school, where they were being taught to hate their heritage. And he made no effort to disguise the frigid contempt he felt for the flabby, visibly corrupt little figure that embodied federal authority – William Whitman.
Wanting to get rid of Big Snake and establish his purported authority, Whitman wrote a series of letters and telegrams to Secretary Shurz describing Big Snake as a troublemaker. When small accusations didn't work, Whitman accused Big Snake of threatening to kill him. That charge prompted Washington to send Lt. Mason and his men to seize Big Snake for delivery to Fort Reno, where he would be put on trial before a military tribunal.
With the soldiers secreted at the rear of the store, Whitman set a trap for Big Snake. It had been months since Whitman had distributed government-issued rations and pay allowances. He had let the Poncas know that the disbursement would take place on October 31. Sometime on that day, Big Snake showed up, in the company of an English-speaking Ponca named Hairy Bear. No doubt with a self-satisfied sneer contorting his porcine features, Whitman summoned Lt. Mason, who – with his men surrounding the Indians – ordered Big Snake to surrender.
According to Hairy Bear's account, Big Snake responded by opening his blanket to show that he was unarmed, and then sitting down, his back ramrod straight, in quiet but resolute defiance.
“I have done nothing wrong,” Big Snake said by way of Hairy Bear's translation. “I have stolen no horses. I have threatened no man. You tell me I tried to kill someone who was it? When did it happen? Why have I been free, with no man accusing me? If I’ve done something wrong, take me to the local judge.”
Mason insisted that Big Snake had no choice but to submit to military arrest.
But Big Snake did have a choice. He sat down and simply refused to cooperate.
“I will not go,” he reiterated. “You can kill me, but I will not go.”
Mason ordered two soldiers to place handcuffs on Big Snake. One attempted to hold him down while the other tried to cuff the chief. For their trouble they got swatted down like misbehaving puppies.
Big Snake sat down again, with, one suspects, a small smile of quiet amusement brightening his face.
Mason and four soldiers attempted to drag Big Snake to his feet and cuff him. Rise to his feet the Chief did – but he was still more than a match for the five government employees, several of whom ended up prone at his feet.
At some point, one of the soldiers grabbed a gun and shot Big Snake point-blank, murdering him.
But he died as a man – despite the legal fiction that Indians were not “persons” for the purposes of the law.
"You can kill me, but I will not go": The Magnificient Big Snake, seen here during a visit to Washington, D.C. to plead for his people at the White House a couple of years prior to his murder by federal troops.
As an Indian, he supposedly had no individual rights the government was required to respect. By virtue of his race, Big Snake was an “enemy combatant” in the war to subdue the Indians; like the thousands of other disarmed Indians who died at Federal Hands, Big Snake was an individual to whom the government owed no Due Process of any kind.
The long and bloody Indian war was something America's noblest Founder had sought to prevent.
At the time of our nation's founding, George Washington had urged that the new Republic cultivate peaceful relations with the Indian communities, insisting that “commerce with them should be promoted with regulations tending to secure an equitable deportment toward them.” This would include “rigorous execution of justice on the violators of peace.” Engaging in honest, mutually beneficial commerce with the Indians, and protecting their rights on equal terms with Anglo-Americans, “is most likely to conciliate their attachment” with the new American Republic, Washington predicted.
Would that things had worked out as Washington prescribed.
The Cherokee "Trail of Tears": One of many forced Indian expulsions by the federal government.
“The history of the Government connections with the Indians is a shameful record of broken treaties and unfulilled promises,” reported a Presidential Commission on Indian Affairs convened by U.S. Grant. “The history of the border white man's connection with the Indians is a sickening record of murder, outrage, robbery, and wrongs committed by the former, as the rule, and occasional savage outbreaks and unspeakably barbarous deeds of retaliation by the latter, as the exception. Taught by the Government that they had rights entitled to respect, when those rights have been assailed by the rapacity of the white man, the arm which should have been raised to protect them has ever been ready to sustain the aggressor. In our Indian wars, almost without exception, the first aggressions have been made by the white man.”
This is not to say, of course, that the Indians were uniformly the placid utopia-dwellers conjured into existence by the Politically Correct imagination. Horrible things were done both to and by various Indian tribes. But this was largely because then, as now, there were profits to be made by cultivating and exploiting a terrorist threat.
The 1869 Presidential Commission recognized the existence of “a large class of professedly reputable men who use every means in their power to bring on Indian wars for the sake of the profit to be realized from the presence of troops and the expenditure of Government funds in their midst. They proclaim death to the Indians at all times in words and publications, making no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. They irate [sic – the author most likely meant “irasce”] the lowest class of men to the perpetration of the darkest deeds against their victims, and as judges and jurymen shield them from the justice due to their crimes. Every crime committed by a white man against an Indian is concealed or palliated. Every offense committed by an Indian against a white man is borne on the wings of the post or the telegraph to the remotest corner of the land, clothed with all the horrors which the reality or the imagination can throw around it.”
While professional alarmists of that era didn't have Fox News or Glenn Beck to cultivate war fever, they were able to maintain a useful public frenzy through broadsheets, “penny dreadfuls,” and “Blood and Thunder” books. In the popular mind, the Indians were an omnipresent terrorist threat best dealt with through summary liquidation.
Consider, as one suitable example, the public reaction to the November 1864 massacre of 150 Cheyenne Indians – most of them women and children – at Sand Creek in Colorado. Black Kettle, leader of this small band, had been given a U.S. Flag by the Army as testimony of the tribe's pacific intentions, and promised to protect them during their winter camp.
Yet neither the flag nor the Army did anything to help Black Kettle's band when it was beset by a force of Colorado Volunteers led by Col. John Chivington, who had led Union forces in a key Civil War battle fought in New Mexico. The resulting slaughter, observes Hampton Sides in his terrific new book Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, “is now widely regarded as the worst atrocity committed in all the Indian wars.”
That wasn't how it was perceived at the time, Sides continues:
“Chivington returned to Denver in triumph. At a theater his men paraded their war trophies before the cheering crowds: Scalps, fingers, tobacco pouches made from scrotums, purses of stretched pudenda hacked from Cheyenne women. The Denver newspapers praised the Colorado Volunteers for their glorious victory.” “Posterity will speak of me as the great Indian fighter,” boasted Chivington. “I have eclipsed Kit Carson.”
Just days before Chivington's “victory” over defenseless Cheyenne women and children, Carson had fought a real battle against a huge force of Comanches and Kiowa on the plains of Texas. Out-numbered ten-to-one and facing other strategic disadvantages, Carson managed to eke out a nominal “victory” in the Battle of Adobe Walls, in large measure because he – unlike, say, General Custer – knew how to read the momentum of a battle and wasn't too arrogant to order a fighting retreat when it turned against him.
Portrait of a Rat Bastard: Colonel John Milton Chivington (who certainly wasn't worthy of his given name), architect of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Carson learned of the slaughter at Sand Creek on returning from Adobe Walls. “Just to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds, up at Sand Creek,” Carson commented contemptuously to Army Inspector Col. James Rusling. “His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children. You call such soldiers Christians...? And Indians savages? What do you suppose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don't like a hostile Redskin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I've fought 'em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew bead on a squaw or a papoose, and I despise the man who would. I've seen as much of 'em as any man livin', and I can't help but pity 'em, right or wrong. They once owned this country.... But now they own next door to nothing, and will soon be gone.”
An American Gulag: Dispossessed Navajos in the Bosque Redondo Reservation.
Carson spent a brief and frustrating term as commissioner of the Bosque Redondo Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, envisioned by its creator, General James Henry Carleton, as a model experiment in forcibly assimilation of Indian populations. Uprooted by the army from their homeland -- “severity will be the most humane course,” Carleton insisted – the Navajo were forced to endure what they call the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo. Hundreds died of disease and starvation en route. The land in the new Navajo “home” was barren, the water Stygian. Promised supplies and farm implements arrived sporadically, if at all.
Once the Navajo had been cattle-penned at Bosque Redondo, Washington -- distracted by its war with the Confederacy -- paid little heed to their welfare and focused instead on examining Carleton's claims that the Navajo lands abounded in gold (they didn't, although silver and copper could be found there).
Hundreds more died when the Navajos' cornfields fell prey to a cutworm infestation. If they hadn't been permitted to leave, the entire Navajo population would likely have died at Bosque Redondo.
Carleton* had told Washington that the “only peace” that could be made with the Navajo “must rest on the basis that they move onto the lands at Bosque Redondo.... Either subjugation or destruction ... are the alternatives.” He frequently wrote of the need to “chastise” and “overawe” the Navajo, to let them “feel the power and the sting of the government.”
As the defeated Navajos were enduring their murderous trek to the Bosque Redondo gulag, Carleton wrote what he thought was a gallant and generous epitaph for that people:
“The exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers is a touching sight. They have fought us gallantly for years on years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with heroism, but at length, they found it was their destiny, too, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race.”
It was all a matter of lebensraum, you see. George Washington's notion that Indians should be dealt with as human beings created in God's image was all right for its time, but it wasn't suitably progressive.
“They were not subjects of fascism who clubbed to death infants in the arms of Indian mothers,” writes historian John Upton Terrell in his study Land Grab. “They were not Nazis who shot running Indian children to demonstrate their prowess as marksmen. It was not a dictatorship which condoned the illegal appropriation of territory awarded to Indians by solemn treaty for `as long as the waters run and the sun rises.' It was not ... a fuhrer or a duce who herded [Indians] into prison camps and let them die of malnutrition, cold and disease.... The bugle calls of American history proclaim not only noble victories and morally justified accomplishments. They proclaim, as well, base deeds and infamous triumphs.”
All of those atrocities from the era of Manifest Destiny were facilitated by legal doctrines and dictatorial practices strikingly akin to those being developed as part of the Grand and Glorious Democratic Revolution. And – here's the critical point – these things were done in America, by Americans, to Americans.
When confronted by warnings that the War on Terror is creating a Reich, defenders of the regime blithely insist that it's irresponsible to project the lines forward and see such a result, because it “can't happen here.” All that is necessary to rebut that view is to project the lines backward and show that it has happened here.
Tomorrow: How did Indians become "persons," and what does that have to do with the War on Terror?
*Yes, this is the same James Henry Carleton who conducted the official Army investigation into the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
On account of breaking news from the contemporary US Gulag State, it looks like I'll have to postpone the final installment of the ongoing series, which would have continued our examination of the 19th century version.
at 10:38 AM