Friday, June 15, 2007

Indigenous War Talk

“An American Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation of Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians, and then suddenly one day he stopped in Vietnam and he said, ‘my God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done to my people,’ and he stopped.”

Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement by John Kerry to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, April 23, 1971

It has been 36 years since John Kerry (now U.S. Senator Kerry) delivered this critically conscious, non-cryptic message to the American public on behalf of one Indigenous soldier who was able to recognize the contradictions (and perhaps the horrors) of his actions: killing other brown, poor, oppressed, Indigenous Peoples like himself. This young man’s statement, however, is by no means unfamiliar to many Indigenous soldiers, tribal government leaders, and communities members who have asked ourselves this same distressing question: Why do our people serve in the military of the United States of America and assist it do to others what it did to us? The answers to this question are difficult at best for many of us. But for the sake of our own tribal humanity, and that of all others we share this planet with, it does require us to answer this question in an in-depth, precise, just, and honorable manner.

Some common responses such as the “lack of employment on the reservation,” “to uphold our warrior tradition,” “because it’s a family or community custom,” “to serve my country,” “to get the military education benefits for college,” or “because I need discipline,” appear remarkably insufficient when one considers the carnage, suffering, and horrors produced by war. These responses seem even more inadequate when we find out that the “enemy” we signed up to fight did not attack us, did not pose any threat, and was invented to serve the interests of others. Painfully and conspicuously absent are justifications as, “we have proof they plan to attack our reservation,” “because they blew up our tribal government building,” “we have proof that they are planning to steal our lands and children” or they have outlawed our languages and traditional tribal ceremonies.”

Below are three documents I wrote focusing on Indigenous Peoples (Native American) and the Iraq war. I had hoped that each paper would help to ignite numerous formal, open debates in tribal communities regarding the participation of Indigenous soldiers in this war. So far they haven’t had the desired effect.

The first paper, We Oppose the continuing U.S.-led War Against Iraq: A Statement from Native University and Tribal College Professors, was written in April of 2003 shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq. At the time I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on sabbatical leave from my faculty position in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. The statement, published as a quarter-page ad in the tribal newspaper Indian Country Today, stressed that our role as Indigenous academics is to contribute to the intellectual conscience of our tribal nations and the world community “by providing honest and intelligent assessments of what is truthful and just, and what is not.”

In our assessment of this war we concluded that there was no compelling moral or political justification for it and, in fact, it was an illegal, unprovoked, and inhumane attack upon a sovereign nation. We asked “our tribal nations to join us in condemning and resisting all future unjust, illegal wars and aggressions and instead use the wisdom of our tribal traditions to promote policies of peace and diplomacy throughout the world.” While fifty Indigenous professors from several different universities across the US and Canada signed on to this statement, it received little response from the general Indigenous public.

The second paper, written and sent out shortly before the Fourth of July, 2006 celebrations in the United States, is an open letter to all Indigenous Peoples entitled, Why Are Indigenous (American Indian) Soldiers Serving in Iraq? The major aim of this work was to strongly urge “all of our nations to hold critical and independent discussions on why we are committing our young people to serve the U.S. military in its occupation of Iraq.” I was hoping that the shocking, brutal war crimes (murder, torture, and rape committed by American soldiers), in addition to all the other illegal, wasteful, arrogant, and unjust aspects of this war that I discussed in this letter would be enough to get tribal leaders and communities to immediately launch critical dialogues assessing the participation of Indigenous soldiers in the Iraq war. My greatest hope was that our tribal leaders would exercise their sovereign powers to deploy our people out of this war and “impose a moratorium upon any further enlistments of our young men and women into the U.S. military.”

With the help from friends and colleagues this letter was sent to several Indigenous and non-Indigenous websites, listservs (email mailing lists), and individuals who were asked to forward the document to their family, friends, and tribal representatives. I put my email address on the letter in the hopes of hearing from tribal leaders and representatives. To my surprise and delight many individuals, veterans and non-veterans, Indigenous and non-Indigenous from around the world wrote me to express their appreciation and support for this statement. Several posted it on their organizational websites, some posted it and discussed it on their blogs, and others posted it on their personal pages in venues such as the popular social networking website - MySpace.

Of the group that I hoped to hear from most, elected tribal political leaders, only one individual wrote me - telling me that he was a veteran and he would not hold discussions in his community on this topic because it did not support the troops. He said that being a warrior (which constituted serving in military) was the ultimate achievement for Indigenous men and women and this letter did not respect that. He also so told me that since I was not a veteran I had no right to talk about this topic, which created a flurry of emails between us. In the end, I told him that I was not interested in changing his worldviews, but merely hoped that tribal leaders would read the letter and hold formal meetings with their constituents to hear what they had to say about the participation of their tribal members in the Iraq war, given all that I discussed in my letter. Again, he told me he would not do that and we ended our string of email conversations.

A shortened version of this open letter was published in one magazine and two tribal newspapers (see: Indian Country Today (

The final text is a BROWN PAPER (short version) expressing the need for Indigenous communities to take a formal position on their participation in the U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq (support or condemn). The paper points to several problems with this war, including that it is illegal and unjust, has caused intense suffering for the Iraq people, has made the world more unsafe and Iraqis want the U.S. out of their country, and that it has very little support. It briefly proposes solutions such as the importance of debating Indigenous participation in this war and calls for tribes to create and implement tribal just war principles and war powers within their individual tribal constitutions. The longer version BROWN PAPER (is available upon request) discusses each of these topics in more detail, including the role of tribal citizens in community debates and the creation of just war principles and the steps that can be taken to gain a critical perspective of this and future wars. (For longer version write to me at


Cankpe Opi said...

This is great. Well intentioned however expectations are a little far fetched. At one time I was a co-host of a very progressive radio show on the Pine Ridge Reservation, using research from the internet our show was able to call the nexts steps of the advancement to war by the bush administration. We were talking about such topics such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, the ongoing air campaign against Iraq and it's people clear through the decade of the 90's, scott ritters analysis of the WMD issue. We talked about it all, if it had to do with occupation, decolonization, imperialism, real democracy, we discussed it. Plenty of positive feed back, however when requesting to visit in the communities there was no response at all. I myself went door to door with letters and anti war books (addicted to war) and DVD's yet no response for discussion. The letter simply requested discussions on U.S. Foreign Policy, still nothing. Our radio show fizzled out in 05 due to other commitments, i think it is time to rekindle it.

Anonymous said...

Friday, June 15, 2007
Indigenous War Talk

"My greatest hope was that our tribal leaders would exercise their sovereign powers to deploy our people out of this war and “impose a moratorium upon any further enlistments of our young men and women into the U.S. military.”

Why would you want to take away the opportunity or free will of any volunteer soldier? I am a college graduate, American Indian, and find this comment troubling. Moreover, I am also an Officer in the Army, who grew up on the Reservation with both parents that are very anti-war. I respect your position and dialogue, as it is needed. However, to suggest that our tribal leaders--who are often corrupt, speaking from first hand experience--strip the free will, and choice of men and women is just plain wrong.