Wednesday, September 19, 2007
"Liberation," Then and Now
A representative of the "Coalition of the Willing" confronts an ungrateful Iraqi.*
(Warning: In the essay that follows there is one historically accurate vulgarism.)
Oliver Otis Howard was, by most accounts, an earnest Christian and a genuinely decent man -- in the conduct of his private affairs, in any case. Like too many American Christians, however, O.O. Howard built a mental "Wall of Separation" between the principles he professed and his conduct as an agent of the State.
In 1874, Howard, who lost his right arm to amputation after it was repeatedly wounded during the War Between the States, was given command of the "Department of Columbia." That territory stretched from Canada to the northern California border, and from the Bitterroot Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Whatever his official job description, Howard's chief task was to expropriate those Indian communities whose ancestral lands, though supposedly protected by treaty, were coveted by American settlers.
Under the so-called "Peace Policy" instituted in 1868 by President U.S. Grant, control over the various Indian tribes had been apportioned to the leaders of various religious denominations, whose task was to "Christianize" the natives; in practice that meant teaching them to adopt the transitory customs of mid-19th century America, and to submit without question to Washington's rule.
That program, incidentally, illustrates that there is nothing new about "Faith-Based" federal patronage, or the use of "Clergy Response Teams" to preach unconditional servility to the State.
Howard was selected to rule the Department of Columbia, in part, because he was Presbyterian, and that denomination had been given control over several Indian tribes in the Northwest, including the Nez Perce. Decades earlier, many of the Nez Perce, eager to learn from the "Book of Heaven" to which they had been introduced by Lewis and Clark, had become Presbyterians.
Some Nez Perce bands had not only become Christians, but had fully adapted to the Euro-American culture. Others, such as the band led by Tuekakas became increasingly disenchanted over the duplicity and corruption of the American government. American settlers took what they want without fear of punishment under the law that the US officials promised would protect both white and Indian alike. And the government kept revising its agreements with the Nez Perce with the obvious intent of driving them from their lands altogether.
Although he had gratefully accepted the Gospel, taken a Christian name, and received baptism, Tuekakas was driven from the faith by the violent, arrogant hypocrisy of the white men who professed the name of Christ. He eventually burned his copy of the Book of Heaven, bitterly remarking that it obviously meant nothing to the men who had shared it with him.
Seeking to protect his band's ancestral homeland in Oregon's Wallowa Valley, Teukakas set up cairns of rocks at the borders of his land. Those landmarks meant nothing to politically protected settlers, who blithely trespassed, grazed their stock on Nez Perce lands, and took what they cared to of its game and other wealth.
"If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian...we can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike.... give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who is born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men. Let me be a free man...free to travel... free to stop...free to work...free to choose my own teachers...free to follow the religion of my Fathers...free to think and talk and act for myself." --
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
On his deathbed he warned his son -- the sober, eloquent, and noble man known as Chief Joseph -- about the serpentine dishonesty and implacable opportunism of the white man's government. Don't take the government's money, Tuekakas warned, and refuse even so much as to touch a document presented by a government official, lest it be said you agreed to what was printed on it.
"Never accept any gifts, or they will say that you have sold something," "Old Joseph" advised his attentive son. "A few years more, and white men will be all around you. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."
Joseph was faithful to that charge: He never sold out. Instead, the federal government induced a Quisling from another band -- in one of God's little jokes, the sell-out was named "Lawyer" -- to "sell" the lands belonging to Joseph's band.
It fell to Gen. O.O. Howard, a man who read The Book of Heaven regularly, to do the dirty work of evicting Chief Joseph's people from lands they had never sold and that were theirs by supposedly solemn treaty. He was to provide the force behind the government's fraud, carried out to enhance the profits of politically connected commercial interest and to win the political support of the "values voters" who were pouring into the Northwest. The latter group was composed of people who professed to believe that by driving Indians off their lands they were carrying out a divinely ordained mission to promote "Christian civilization."
Howard discovered that Joseph was (in the words of Kent Nerburn, from his superb recent book) "an oak tree among the reeds and willows." Determined to keep the peace and preserve his people's homeland, Joseph was a fierce, persuasive, and effective negotiator who simply wouldn't fall for any of Washington's ruses.
In 1876, Howard announced that a "special commission" would be formed to bring about an "independent" and "fair" settlement of the land dispute. All of the commissioners were white; three members of the five-man panel were federal officials from Washington. Summoned to Lapwai, Idaho for a council with the commission, Joseph yielded not one inch.
"All I can say is I love my country," he told the panel. "We will not sell the land. We will not give up the land."
After failing to intimidate Joseph and his allies into surrender, Howard decided that the time had come for undisguised force. In May 1877 he summoned Joseph and the chiefs representing the other Nez Perce hold-outs to another conference in Lapwai. On that occasion, the task of speaking for the Nez Perce fell on Toohoolhoolzote, a large man who had little of Joseph's preternatural patience but a certain rough eloquence of his own.
When Toohoolhoolzote once again began reciting the Nez Perce position, Howard interrupted him. Gen. Howard laid the matter before the chiefs in blunt terms: They were to vacate their lands and relocate to the reservation. No other course of action would be permitted.
"Who are you to tell me what to do?" demanded Toohoolhoolzote. "What person pretends to divide the land and put me on it?"
"I am that man," Howard asserted, abandoning all pretense of diplomacy.
"I am chief here!" exclaimed Toohoolhoolzote. "No man can come here and tell me anything I must do. Go back to your own country. Tell them you are chief there. I am chief here."
As a Christian, Oliver Otis Howard must have known that it was the Nez Perce who were clearly in the right. As an employee of the State, however, Gen. O.O. Howard was committed to carrying out his task, at whatever cost to principle.
"My orders are plain and will be executed," Howard declared, his decision protected by his mental Wall of Separation. "You will go onto the [reservation] land, or I will send soldiers to put you on it."
As would be the case with any man possessing a particle of dignity, Toohoolhoolzote -- by this time an elderly man, albeit still a vigorous one -- was not going to yield in the face of Howard's threat, and he explained this in characteristically colorful language.
"I am a man. I have a prick. You will not tell me what to do."
WELL.... Certainly THAT kind of offense just couldn't go unpunished. Gen. Howard -- who had no compunctions against taking part in the vulgar, obvious theft of Nez Perce land, or over threatening to kill those who resisted that theft -- simply couldn't countenance this breach of Christian decorum. He had Toohoolhoolzote seized and imprisoned.
Howard's threat and his seizure of Chief Toohoolhoolzote constituted an act known to the Nez Perce as "showing the rifle." Open warfare soon flared between the Nez Perce, who were fighting on their home soil to repel lawless invaders, and the U.S. Army. This led to the eviction of the Nez Perce from the Wallowa Valley, retaliatory massacres of white settlers, and the storied 1,500-mile fighting retreat of a handful of Nez Perce under the care of Chief Joseph. The Nez Perce were cut off by the army just short of the Canadian border, and freedom, and then dragged thousands of miles to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
"The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are--perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." --
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, surrendering to General Nelson Miles at Bear's Paw, October 5, 1877.
The Nez Perce were eventually permitted to return to the Northwest from exile in Oklahoma, but despite Joseph's repeated entreaties -- in which he used the notoriety he had earned to plead the cause of his people -- he was never permitted to return to his stolen homeland.
Today, notes Nerburn, Chief Joseph "is not a historical figure but a cultural commodity, a brand name"; the American Ruling Establishment has a perverse genius for commodifying the victims of its conquests. (The British elite has displayed the same depraved gift in its cultural treatment of the conquered Highland Scots after Culloden.)
I find myself pondering three different, but related questions:
*Do supporters of the Global Democratic Revolution anticipate a time when Iraqis, Iranians, and other restive peoples will be rendered docile, confined to reservations, and considered fit to be treated with the same condescending sentimentality now routinely directed at American Indians?
*Wouldn't it be healthy for those who believe that Washington should "Christianize" and "liberate" the Middle East to review the unvarnished history of how that project turned out back when it was called "Manifest Destiny"?
*Have those targeted for "liberation" read American history a bit more carefully than most Americans, and, if so, might this help explain the vigor with which they resist our government's armed benevolence?
* I received the following very welcome correction from a good friend (and brother in Christ) currently serving in Iraq: "Your latest blog entry where you say a U.S soldier is chewing out that Iraqi? That ain't a us soldier. Wrong uniform, wrong body armor, and wrong weapon.
Looks like an Iraqi army guy, or someone else, but definitely not a US soldier."
Given the small stature of the individual in question, I think it's likely he's an Iraqi, which would make him the equivalent of the "Treaty Indians" who carried out police functions during Washington's 19th Century conquest of the Indians.
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