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

Peter d'Errico

"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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tuschkahouma's picture
The commenters here for the most part forget who sent the US military or the US cavalry to enforce the invalid and fraudulent land grabs or who committed the atrocities on the Washita River in 1867 or on December 29, 1890. I remember an article some years ago where a young Lakota woman was being assigned to the modern day US Seventh Cavalry and I thought of the Jewish Star of David World War One veteran grave markers my father talked of seeing in Berlin cemeteries in 2000. We all know that no Jewish man would've fought for the German military in World War Two. When I drive to my inlaws in Tonganoxie, Kansas I drive past the Lenape cemetery where Citizen Delawares are buried. I also drive through an area called Falleaf named for Lenape Captain Falleaf. He led a regiment of Lenape men who fought with the Union forces in the US Civil War. They fought beside Union forces whose soldiers and Kansas settlers became the reason for Lenape removal in the late 1860's from Kansas to the Cherokee Nation. I go to the Copan pow-wow on the Falleaf allotment in the area where the Lenape traditionalists live. When I look at my Chahta history I think of Pushmataha and how being a joiner got him buried in the Arlington Cemetery as an American hero. Historically, some Choctaw people believe he was poisoned in Washington D.C. in 1824. I think of him siding with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans with his death and the Chahta removal occuring over the next 15 years. Pushmataha also banished the Chahta warriors who went with Tecumseh and the Red Stick Creeks against the Americans and thus went to where the modern Mowa Choctaw People live. Speak to the people whose Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Nez Perce, Dakota, Lakota, and Modoc ancestors were POW's of this country in the 19th century about this. The boarding schools of Richard Pratt came out of cultural experiments done with these POW's. In World War One the US Military had a ROTC Unit at Haskell Institute. This was the outcome of US assimilation of indigenous peoples. I saw the same at the veterans memorial in the middle of the Moraviantown Munsee Community in Ontario. They fought for the English going back to the Boer War and Canadian First Nations Soldiers didn't have official status until the 1950's from what I read. When I went to the Haudenosaunee reserves in Ontario, Quebec, and New York, they were Haudenosaunee first which is probably the main issue here.
swrussel's picture
I think it's futile to expect descendants of warrior cultures to be terribly picky about whether to join when the people around them are going to war. There are probably as many abstract motivations as there are soldiers, without regard to ethnicity or citizenship, but most of the WWII American Indian vets I have interviewed told me directly that they felt their communities were personally threatened by the Axis Powers. If you wish, you may consider that a victory of Allied propaganda, but there are remarks about American Indians in Mein Kampf that suggest our fathers and grandfathers were not misled. A North America dominated by the Axis Powers would not have gone well for us. Our colonial wars are disgraceful, but not just for Indian soldiers. This gets back to the discussion about whether Indians should grasp what power they have to determine US policy and try to turn it or whether the act of voting or holding state/federal office is a betrayal of tribal sovereignty. If it is, then so is allowing oneself to be drafted. Draft resistance becomes a moral duty. Enlisting, on the other hand, is a personal choice. I enlisted in the US armed forces but suppose I enlisted in the French Foreign Legion? That's my choice. We admire warriors or we don't. We separate the matter of their courage from the cause for which they fought or we don't. I'm not clear these issues separate Indians from other humans, except that we all have tribal traditions regarding the status of warriors and those traditions will not disappear quickly, if ever.
erickrhoan's picture
I can understand the author's argument, but disagree with its conclusion. Whether a soldier is Native American or not, each fights for their country as much as for themselves, to prove themselves worthy of the uniform, their flag, their family, their unit, and their country. It's not just for "state administration," but I'm sure the military brass only cares about that. As for colonizing effects, that much is debatable. Plenty of Indians fight for the United States without it erasing their heritage or preventing them from celebrating their heritage. To counter Mr. D'Errico, perhaps the flags are sign of patriotism, rather than fear.
thinkaboutit's picture
Mr. D'Errico, As with a plethora of academic analysis concerning American Indian culture, it is easy to apply comparisons of Native lifestyles to EuroAmerican thinking. Especially when you are an outsider, looking in. Indigenous people worldwide have always protected their lands, lives, families and homelands since time immemorial. This warrior tendency of protecting has continued to this day in North America. The modern powwow derived from the wardance (aka Helushka)of the prairie tribes. What is now called "head staff" had its origins in the positions held in Helushka society. To have our modern day warriors (aka veterans) lead the grand entry in powwows is a powerful reminder of where we, as Native people, originated the modern powwow. Sincerely, Dennis W. Zotigh Museum Cultural Specialist National Museum of the American Indian
jimmyboydial's picture
I bring the Stars and Stripes in for what the it is supposed to represent not for how it is perceived because of the behavior of the country it represents. Freedom is not free and must always be defended, even by Indians.
joecross's picture
I appreciate the remarks. The first paragraph stating the eagle staff comes in first is because of flag protocol. Our eagle staff, or Indian Flag, was here first so it comes in first. It has been adopted by most powwows as correct. I was proud to have carried the eagle staff (mine) on several occasions in this fashion. First, honoring the Navajo Code Talkers at an event in upstate New York, the Ganondagon Historical Site. And several times for the Code Talkers at New York City's Veteran's Day Parade. I'm a Vietnam Marine Veteran (68-69) and the kinship to the Code Talkers as fellow Marines is tremendous. But there's a tribal generational concern that perturbs me. My reasons for serving weren't the same as my father or grandfather. I feel much of the article is quaint supposition, failing to take into account progress that comes with tribal survival over generations. I too recognize the "fear" comment about the flags in the last paragraph, especially as it applied to my grandfather's generation. But not to mine. Must close, my chihuahua wants walked.
tmsyr11's picture
I remember my grandfather telling he found for the United States during WWII because he was fighting to protect his land, country and making sure his 'children' don't have to fight other wars. He reached down and picked up the red sand and rubbed against his forearm and said as red as dirt is, so is his skin....since he 'belongs' to the earth being made of dirt, he belongs to the land......his country, his people. I do miss these early pioneers and indian patriots and indian leaders who passed onto me what is to be a proud Navajo and a proud American.