Peter d'Errico

U.S. Military History, Pow Wow Flags, Freedom and Fears

“What’s wrong with this picture?” I asked: A pow wow grand entry, the Eagle Staff closely followed by the U.S. stars and stripes and the POW/MIA flag.

What does the U.S., flag mean at an Indian pow wow? How is it that warriors who defend Indian territory are mixed up with soldiers who fight for the United States? I remember one pow wow where the M.C. listed great warriors of the past who “fought for America.” He included Crazy Horse and Geronimo!

Probably everyone knows Geronimo and Crazy Horse did not fight for America, but against American troops, just like Tecumseh, Pontiac, and many others. The M.C. was mixed up. But is it also mixed up to commemorate modern-day Indian soldiers as Indian warriors?

The answer I sometimes hear is that Indian warriorhood includes any kind of war, and since Indians are incorporated into the United States, when they fight in the U.S. military, they fight for Indian nations, too.

There are at least two major problems with this answer. First, as Crazy Horse, Tecumseh and others learned the hard way, a soldier doesn’t fight like an Indian warrior. The second problem has to do with colonialism; we’ll get to that.

I’m not the only one looking at the difference between “warriors” and “soldiers.” In 2003, a U.S. Army Task Force recommended changes in the Soldier’s Creed to incorporate a “warrior ethos.” This has led to some soul-searching among soldiers, but is firmly ensconced in military policy.

So there are reciprocal moves happening: Pow wows adopting the U.S. flag to honor Indian soldiers, and the U.S. Army adopting the warrior ethos to enhance the Soldier’s Creed. Maybe I should let my question go, but it still persists: the reciprocal moves prove there is a difference between warriors and soldiers.

One difference was noticed again and again in the Indian wars of the 19th century: warriors fight for individual honor while soldiers fight for unit effectiveness. This distinction was pointed out in a thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, “Contrasts Between American and Afghan Warriors, a Comparison Between Two Martial Cultures,” a study of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The author, Major Michael Willis, says of the “tribal fighters” that they see “more glory in close combat than in passively submitting to bombardment. This marks a departure from the western tradition of standing fast in the face of fire.”

Major Willis compares tribal fighters with early American colonial militia, writing, “These were [also] men who used their natural fighting skills to defend their communities with limited conventional military structure. They liked to do things ‘their way.'” This “doing things their way” was the core irritant to the British in the Revolutionary War and the core criticism made by American officers against their Indian warrior allies. Strange bedfellows. Does it mean my question is answered: that Indian warriors and American soldiers really are on the same page? Hardly.

As Major Willis points out, bringing Afghanistan warriors into line with American “nation-building” plans “will mean a significant but necessary change in a core cultural value. Developing a military culture that prizes loyalty to an ambiguous nation of Afghanistan in addition to and in precedence over tribal and local loyalties will not happen in ten years. Changing the Afghan warrior’s culture of loyalty to qawm [tribal solidarity group] to include the ideal of state service requires individual Afghans to cut loose fundamental understandings that they rely on for safety and security….”

Major Willis states it well: the difference between warrior and soldier is the difference between fighting for one’s own people and fighting for a state administration. This is precisely what Indian boarding schools like Hampton and Carlisle were designed to do: use the power of military discipline to “civilize” Indians. The adoption of Indian warriors into the U.S. Army followed.

This brings us to the second major problem: colonialism. As Thomas Grillot points out in his 2011 essay, “Native Americans, America’s Colonial Troops,” “The idea of integrating Indians in the U.S. army was raised in military circles in the 1880s. It was, at its root, a colonizing project….” The United States asserts power over Indian nations under the doctrine of Christian Discovery, which says that Christians are superior to “uncivilized non-Christian savages.” The U.S. incorporation of Indian nations is thus colonialism under the name of freedom.

I finally arrived at my own answer to my question when I walked away from the pow wow grounds and looked back. There, I saw not only the big flags, but also dozens of tiny stars and stripes atop poles around the perimeter. I suddenly had a flash of recognition: this was the scene of an old Indian encampment trying to protect itself from Army attack.

Perhaps the flags are a sign of fear, rather than patriotism.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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U.S. Military History, Pow Wow Flags, Freedom and Fears

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