Reservation Iraq

Commenting on U.S. federal policy in “Indian country,” the legal term for federally held and administered tribal lands, D’Arcy McNickle, a Salish/Kootenai Indian who during his life was an administrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a Native activist, and fiction writer wrote: action, “however benign in intent, if it originates in sources of power and purpose outside of a community can only destroy that community.”

We might take this quote to heart in thinking about current U.S. policy in Iraq, which in very specific ways seems to be repeating the history of the U.S. invasion, conquest, and colonization of American Indian communities. It is this history, as Richard Drinnon has elaborated in his book Facing West: the Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire- Building that was the paradigm for U.S. foreign policy in the Mexican War (1846), the Spanish American War (1898), and Vietnam.

The cornerstone of U.S. policy in Indian country was and continues to be the reservation system, which in its original conception was the prototype of the twentieth century concentration camp, ghetto, and Bantustan. The system was developed in California in the 1850s, in the wake of the take over of that territory in the Mexican war and its subsequent incorporation as a state. The purpose of the reservation was initially the containment in a single administrative unit of an alien population who had initially resisted invasion and was therefore understood as “hostile.” Community members, whom the invading force had reason to deem “friendly,” were appointed as tribal leaders, and so a semblance of self-government was imposed on reservations.

Beyond the immediate issue of physical concentration and containment of potentially hostile populations and the opening up of Indian lands to U.S. exploitation, a long term plan of “civilizing” these populations began to develop in the late nineteenth century, manifested particularly in a federal sponsored program of boarding schools, where the forcible cultural conversion of Indian children to Western values was the agenda. The boarding-school program itself was the ideological underpinning of the General Allotment Act of 1887, which in the next forty years resulted in the expropriation of 93,000,000 acres of Indian land under the stated agenda of turning communally-based peoples into the sacrosanct U.S. model of the individual property-holder. The result of this privatization was devastating poverty with its attendant social catastrophes.

While Allotment was brought to an end with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Act itself, though well-intentioned, furthered the U.S. civilizing mission by instituting Western-style constitutional governance on reservations, even though that governance was widely opposed at the grass roots level by Indian communities, which had traditionally governed themselves through direct democratic processes of consensus. As of today, Indian reservations and Indians generally remain the poorest part of the U.S. and Indians themselves remain resistant in various ways to U.S. control of Indian country, where the predominant political program remains that of tribal sovereignty not integration with or assimilation to the U.S. model.

The U.S. should take note of this failed policy in its midst. For U.S. policy in Iraq is no more than a specific historical continuation of U.S. Indian policy. The current official language of “liberating” Iraqis matches the language of “civilizing” Indians used to justify invasion and the establishment of the reservation system. In both cases, this language masks an agenda of extending power over territory and control of natural resources. In both cases this agenda expresses its contempt for, through its ignorance of, the cultural practices and histories of indigenous communities. And in both cases, the sources of power and purpose come from outside the community, ignoring its sovereignty, and so can only destroy that community and perhaps be destroyed themselves in the process of destruction.

It took over three-hundred years from the Puritan wars against the Indians in the seventeenth century to the U.S wars against the Plains tribes, the Navajos, and the Apaches in the nineteenth for armed Indian resistance to be defeated. We are already witnessing persistent armed resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its imposition of a governing council that does not represent the Iraqi people. To believe that this resistance is simply the activity of Saddam loyalists or Arab terrorists from other countries is to misunderstand profoundly the history of indigenous resistance movements to U.S. imperialism. In addition to the violence it spreads globally and locally, such historical misunderstanding will cost the U.S. much more than it can afford.

This originally ran in the November 2003 edition of Indian Country Today.

Eric Cheyfitz is a professor of American and Native American studies at Cornell University. His latest book is The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States.