Following quick on the heels of the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s demise at the hands of U.S.
Special Forces Special Operations personnel, the public has learned more about the top secret operation to find this elusive enemy. One of the most revealing bits of trivia has been that Bin Laden was assigned the code name “Geronimo” by the operation tasked with capturing and killing him. This raises the question, what does a nineteenth century Apache leader have to do with twenty first century Saudi millionaire? Perhaps nothing when viewed from an academic standpoint, it seems more like a non sequitur. But when read as expression of an underlying ideology, one that has legitimated American military action for centuries, the answer is: quite a lot, actually.
In his seminal work Playing Indian, Philip Deloria describes the history of white performance in Indian disguise, exploring the role of the Indian in the American national imaginary. Mainstream American perceptions of Indians are defined by a dialectic of repulsion and desire. The Indian, he writes, is at once “Us” and “Not-Us.”
In this ambivalent relationship, Indians as savages serve as “oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self” (Deloria 1998:3). Yet just as frequently Indians were trotted out as symbols of freedom for they were in possession of “barbarian virtues,” to borrow a phrase from Matthew Frye Jacobson, that deserved to be emulated especially as an antidote to the supposed ills of modernity and city life with its changing gender norms.
This was a uniquely American nationalism: one that saw itself as civilized, yet not European, native born of a society rooted in ancient history and of the natural American landscape. This history shows that Indian play has always “[clung] tightly to the contours of power” (Deloria 1998:7) within U.S. national subjectivity. Indian play, Deloria argues, came to serve a function in the ongoing search for an authentic and meaningful social identity in the face of modernity’s uncertainties. This tradition of playing Indian in the U.S. has wrought a slue of stereotypes in U.S. popular culture including: the Indian as environmentalist, spiritual messenger or guide, team mascot, filmic protagonist, and tourist destination.
Turning now from Deloria’s critical analysis of practices American cultural and literary expression, we can see how Indian play has served a prominent role in helping Americans make sense of war. As a polysemous and highly flexible trope of the U.S. military, Indian imagery in representations of American military conflict constitutes a veritable genre unto itself. Broadly speaking it boils down to two general types that mirror Deloria’s dialectic of desire and repulsion: the Indian as martial ally and the Indian as worthy opponent.
Making Bin Laden into an Indian elevates him. The Washington Post isolates Geronimo’s elusiveness, “[he] was rumored to be able to walk without leaving any tracks,” as the key trait that links him to Bin Laden. This is meant to illustrate some degree of respect the American military leaders have for their foe. It also serves to cast the United States in a better light. We are, after all, magnanimous in victory. By heaping praise upon one’s enemy, likening them to such a worthy opponent as Geronimo, the American military bestows prestige upon themselves. They won the fight by besting a legend.
A little excess social capital couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Playing Indian is a dynamic practice, changing with time as American anxieties change from one generation to the next. Giving Bin Laden the code name “Geronimo” rises out of the need to address the ambivalence Americans have over the value of the current war. By imbuing it with Indians the war is legitimated but it is also made comprehensible. The current war is made legible in terms of previous wars. In fact, the ideology of American/ Indian martial conflict and the contradictory imagery of Indians as Us and Not-Us plays itself out, over and over again, in every American military conflict. This is part of American culture and shows how we make war make sense.
A defining element of the War on Terror has been the theme of “civilization,” the role of the US military in combating “barbarians” and reform efforts to save foreign populations from their backwards cultures. For example when, in April 2004, four Blackwater private security contractors were lynched in Fallujah, Iraq, the following day Paul Bremer, then chief of the Coalition Occupation, addressed a cohort of Iraqi men and women graduating from the police academy. “The men and women who are standing before us today are the line between civilization and barbarism,” he said, “Yesterday’s events in Fallujah are a dramatic example of the ongoing struggle between human dignity and barbarism” (Updike 2004:20).
In June 2004 National Public Radio reporter Nancy Updike aired a collection of stories on the program This American Life centering on the lives of private contractors in Iraq. Most of Updike’s stories center on the aptly named security company Custer Battles, a group she worked with despite having been warned to stay away from. One of her key informants, Hank, admitted, “We got a bad reputation, probably as gunslingers,” (Updike 2004:9).
She shares a rumor that the Custer Battles team had engaged in a gunfight at their hotel, “and when the smoke cleared, it turned out they had been firing at each other the whole time” (Updike 2004:9). Hank clarified that something like that did happen, their hotel was hit by a rocket powered grenade and Custer Battles retaliated by expending 3000 rounds of ammunition out the hotel windows and into the surrounding neighborhood. With no clear consequences for private contractors acting recklessly because of their ambiguous legal status, Hank was prompted to address the issue from his own worldview.
People shooting people and not being held accountable for shooting people? Oh, I suppose there’s a lot of that going on. And I think in this brief period of time just like in the Wild West, you control your own company. You assert a little bit of control in your own little world. (Updike 2004:9).
Hank has found a way to make sense of the chaos of the situation by reckoning the current war through a common myth of the American past that is informed by the representation of war in popular culture.
We can learn more about this notion of the “wild west” by considering Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and its legacy in U.S. popular culture. In order to elevate the story of the American west into something on the scale of a Barthesian myth, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hero needed an enemy worth his mettle: the cowboy needed an Indian as his foil and Cody found his greatest financial success when he employed real Indians (including such luminaries as Sitting Bull and Black Elk) to play the part. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West made an enduring impact on popular memory and popular culture through its shaping of the Western genre as a nationalist narrative by which Americans could imagine their relationship to a world of non-American others.
Joy Kasson argues in her Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory and Popular History, that over its lifetime the Wild West show changed in relation to the development of modernity. Thus in the early days of the 1880s when the frontier was “open” and war with the tribes was raging,
Audiences understood that its spectacle was fiction but approved its claims to authenticity… Buffalo Bill’s frontier was contemporaneous but spatially distant; it existed right now on the Great Plains, and Buffalo Bill had just arrived to tell his audience all about it (Kasson 2000:221).
After the Massacre at Wounded Knee brought armed Indian resistance to an end and railroads expedited commerce and travel to the Pacific coast, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that the “wild west” still existed and whereas Buffalo Bill’s performances had once been imagined as coeval with its audience, his later days are best described as fomenting a nostalgic denial of coevalness. Kasson writes, “In the early days, the claim to ‘realism’ rested on physical remoteness, but after 1890, the Wild West made its best case for authenticity by invoking temporal remoteness” (Kasson 2000:222).
When Cody’s narratives shifted from reportage to historical reenactment he also began to imagine future wars as repetitions of the Indian wars. For example with the advent of the Spanish-American war, Cody proposed a unique strategy for dealing with the Spanish in a newspaper piece titled, “How I Could Drive the Spaniards from Cuba with 30,000 Indian Braves.” Indians, those malleable national symbols, were here fashioned into bellicose warriors, a stereotype his show had helped to create, in order to re-imagine the same as a secret weapon for the U.S. military. Kasson offers a compelling interpretation, “Cody projected the capture of Havana as if it were already an act in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West; he imagined war imitating the re-enactment of war and, in particular, modern war replaying the Indian wars” (Kasson 2000:249).
In the early twentieth century Buffalo Bill’s success gradually gave way to cinema and the birth of the genre of Western films. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick’s Celluloid Indians identifies an important filmic device of Westerns: our white hero is somehow able to out Indian the Indians, “becoming a superior form of native fighter and supplanting the ‘vanishing’ Indian” (1999:43). Beginning with the silent films themselves drawing on Buffalo Bill, Indians were represented as icons of conflict and violence.
Then during World War II, an interesting thing happened. Indians, who fifty years earlier were still at war with the U.S., were now enlisting in the military in droves and a complicated nationalist mythos emerged to claim these definitively American soldiers —think Ira Hayes and the Navajo codetalkers. In 1944 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes described the advantages of having Indians among the U.S. soldiers. Thanks to their “inherited talents,” Indians have,
…endurance, rhythm, a feeling for timing, co-ordination, sense perception, an uncanny ability to get over any sort of terrain at night, and, better than all else, an enthusiasm for fighting. He takes a rough job and makes a game of it. Rigors of combat hold no terrors for him; severe discipline and hard duties do not deter him (Finger 1991:108).
It would seem that Secretary Ickes had seen a great many Westerns because these qualities are more frequently displayed by fictional characters than real people. And this fictional role of Indians as fighters in the American national imaginary had consequences for soldiers who happened to be Indian.
In his oral history of Native American Vietnam veterans, Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls (1996), one of Tom Holm’s informants, a Creek and Cherokee man describes his experience:
I went into the army and to Vietnam because I’d seen the same John Wayne movies as everyone else and thought I was doing an honorable thing, that war was the ‘Indian way’… But when I got to Vietnam, I found that my job was to run missions into what everybody called ‘Indian country.’ That’s what they called enemy territory… I woke up one morning fairly early in my tour and realized that instead of being a warrior like Crazy Horse, I was a scout used by the army to track him down. I was on the wrong side of everything I want to believe I was about (Holm 1996:175).
Upon reflecting on his decision to go to war, this man points to his experience of seeing Indians represented in cinema as an important motivator. He and “everyone else” saw John Wayne in the Westerns. Popular culture helped him envision his enlistment in the tradition of Indian warriors, yet during the war he no longer thought of his participation so romantically.
Over the course of his research, Holm found that the vast majority of Indian vets believe that they were singled out for especially dangerous jobs because they were Indian. This included being assigned to the “point” position or being first in line as a platoon traversed the jungle. A Navajo vet explains:
[I was] stereotyped by the cowboys and Indian movies. Nicknamed ‘Chief’ right away. Non-Indians claimed Indians could see through trees and hear the unhearable. Bullshit, they even believed Indians could walk on water (Holm 1996:152).
Many Indian vets reported being exclusively committed to scouting activities called Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols or Lurps. These were teams of six men that would explore enemy areas and then report back by radio. In 1968 many of these Lurp teams were consolidated and assigned even more dangerous missions as “hunter-killer” teams that would dress as Vietnamese peasants and attempt to execute counter-guerilla operations. American Indians who could “pass” for Asian were frequently used on such missions.
These Indian experiences of war get re-inscribed into popular culture too, for example in the movie Predator (1987), staring Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Dutch” and featuring an Indian character named Billy, played by Sonny Landham. In Predator Dutch leads a team of six men into the Columbian jungle to disrupt Communist guerilla activity, naturally he has an Indian for a scout. Billy’s powers of observation are almost magical: he is able to count the number of Columbian guerillas by their boot prints. Billy walks point. He is first to find new clues and first to leave the group after receiving his orders. Frequently Billy will sense something, he will pause, and the music will tense. He carries a medicine bag around his neck and when he senses the Predator nearby we see him fondle that bag. Billy is a sign that the rest of the commando team reads, they can tell that he is “spooked” and acting “squirrelly” which sets them all on guard.
At the end of the movie Billy is the last fighting character to die before Dutch and the alien go one-on-one. Following Billy’s demise, at the movie’s climax Dutch is only able to defeat the monster by covering his body with mud, to protect against the alien’s infrared vision, and relying on a bow and arrow instead of his machine gun. Thus, with the death of the Indian, Dutch is able to become an Indian with a painted body and primitive weapon. By playing Indian, Dutch is able to become more Indian than Billy because he is able to defeat the alien, something the real Indian could not accomplish.
The myth of “the Indian” and the American frontier should inform our critique of the ongoing war on terror. And I’m not just talking about George W. Bush being called a “cowboy” – although Playing Cowboy opens up whole new fora of analysis to serve as a foil to Playing Indian.
During the Western Indian Wars, White-Indian conflict got represented in popular culture by means of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The Wild West show gave way to cinema, the Western genre, and modern forms of popular culture. The Western genre becomes very popular, such that during the Vietnam era, some Indians claim to have been motivated by the representations of Indians in the movies to join the military. While in Vietnam these Indian soldiers experience racism at the hands of non-Indians that, to their eyes, drew upon the Westerns. Then in the 1980s using generic tropes of the Western, Predator re-inscribes the Vietnam War experiences of Indians into popular culture. Now in Iraq and Afghanistan, we find that private security contractors and the US government are using tropes from the Western genre, that of gunslingers, the wildness of the “Wild” West, and indomitable foes such as Geronimo to make sense of and legitimate their experience of war. A war often rendered in terms of “civilization.”
Maybe Buffalo Bill Cody was onto something when he imagined war imitating the re-enactment of war because narrative devices originating in the Western Indian wars continue to be used in the construction of the meaning of war.
Deloria, Philip Joseph
1998 Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Finger, John R.
1991 Cherokee Americans : the eastern band of Cherokees in the twentieth century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
1996 Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kasson, Joy S.
2000 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West : Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History. New York: Hill and Wang.
2004 “I’m From the Private Sector and I’m Here to Help” : Private contractors in Iraq. In This American Life: NPR.