These Too Died for Their Country

My stepfather’s brother died with other Marines on the beach at Guadacanal during World War II.

My best high school friend was killed in the early days of the Vietnam War.

These men will be honored at next Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies along with nearly a million of their soldier, sailor, marine, coast guard and air force compatriots who gave their lives in military service. No distinction is made between the hundreds of thousands who died fighting in wars most Americans would consider righteous and the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the furtherance of bad causes or died in vain because their criminal or reckless leaders sent them into harm’s way for greed, stupidity or empire. Those who fought in gray uniforms in a war of secession are given the same reverence, the same moments of silence, the same commemoration of sacrifice as those who wore blue into battle.

It doesn’t matter whether they were white boys from the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment who fell in the land-grabbing war with Mexico in 1847, or black soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division fighting Germans in the war to end all wars, or Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team slugging their way through Italy while their relatives lived incarcerated in camps back home.

It doesn’t matter whether their name was Hern├índez, or Hansen, or Hashimoto. Nor whether they caught enemy shrapnel or a bullet from friendly fire. Nor whether they were drafted or volunteered. Nor whether they died fighting for liberty more than 200 years ago at Bunker Hill or crushing it more than 100 years ago in the boondocks of the Philippines. On Memorial Day all American warriors who lost their lives are honored because they did lose their lives.  

With one exception.

My great-great-great-great-great uncle was killed by U.S. soldiers during the Second Seminole War. Other distant relatives were killed during the Third Seminole War. Killed for trying to hold onto freedom, land, the right to self-determination.

Whether they killed warriors and women on the banks of the Pease River in Texas, the Washita River in Kansas, Sand Creek in Colorado, or Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota; whether they fought Shawnee in Indiana, Asakiwaki in Wisconsin, Lakota and Cheyenne in Montana, Chiricahua in Arizona, Nez Perce in Idaho or Modocs in California, the men in blue who were killed in the Indian Wars are among those who will be honored Monday.

But the thousands of warriors they killed – the ancestors of us original Americans – aren’t counted for the ultimately futile but unhesitating sacrifice they made for the freedom of their people. On Memorial Day, they are invisible. Monuments to the Rebel dead can be found in practically every town of the Confederacy. Memorials to Indian resistance are next to non-existent.  

Attempts have been made to correct this. In 2002, the 1909 memorial on the Denver Capitol grounds that honored the 22 soldiers killed as they and their compatriots massacred the southern Arapaho and Cheyenne at Sand Creek got a new plaque to replace the one calling that slaughter a Civil War victory for the Union. Seventeen years ago, the Custer Battlefield National Monument was renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and now, intermixed with the white marble 7th Cavalry gravestones are a double handful of red marble gravestones for fallen Indian warriors. Steps in the right direction. But not nearly enough.

Scores of sites throughout America could display memorial statues commemorating events with succinct plaques: From this site in 17– or 18–, the Anishinaabe (or Comanche, or Alibamu) were removed to reservations in ——- after 50 (or 120, or 350) of their number were killed in a surprise attack by the U.S. soldiers, some of whom cut off breasts or scrota for use as trophies and tobacco pouches. Their lands were turned over to settlers, miners and railroad builders and the city/town of —— was built on their burial grounds.

Monday, when the nation’s war dead are remembered, when we are supposed to put aside political and ethnic divisions for a few moments of introspection, many of our politicians still won’t take a break from the lies – past and current lies – for which too many men and women went prematurely into the ground. Monday, for the eighth time and final time, Mister Bush will be stealing the rubric of patriotism, milking it for all the tears he can. Monday, we will hear from him and many another politicians plenty about liberty, freedom and sacrifice associated with American wars, but nothing about the plunder, rapine and imperial machinations associated with some of those wars, the Mexican War, the Philippines War, the Iraq War, and, of course, the Indian Wars.

Let me be crystal clear. I’m for moving ahead, for transcendence, Indians and non-Indians alike. We live in the 21st Century, and people alive now bear no responsibility and should carry no guilt for what was done more than a century or two ago.

But Monday is Memorial Day, memory day, and, just as we do not forget the men who froze at Valley Forge or took bullets at Fort Wagner or were blown up at Khe Sanh, there is no excuse for the nation to retreat into convenient amnesia and forget the deaths of those who resisted the theft and genocide led by leaders masquerading as divinely inspired messengers of freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Until the nation remembers all its dead warriors, you’ll pardon me if my Memorial Day reverence is tempered with rage.

One thought on “These Too Died for Their Country

  1. Recently I was asked why I fight against America’s foreign wars and speak against them so often. The reason lies in the recent history of my people, I’m a Ponca. My history, like many Indians, is so much different than other Americans that they can not understand where I’m coming from… so, here’s where I’m coming from;

    I oppose the war on Iraq and I am proof that the American excuse of benevolence is condemned by the life of my own small Nation. We too became the target of American “benevolence”. It has lasted three generations with no end in sight and like most acts of genocidal magnitude it was/is and always will be, based in greed.

       In the late 1870’s the Americans decided their treaties with our Nation were mere paper so they sent their army to round up my Grandfather, my Grandmother and all the rest of my relations from the land guaranteed to them forever and made them walk to a concentration camp on the Quapaw rez, close to Baxter Springs, Kansas. Nine died on the walk, all were sickened heart and soul. We stayed there for three years and one third of my family, my clan and my Tribe died before they made us buy another reservation and told us it was ours to live on forever. My Great Grandfather led his family in a great struggle for survival, holding them together as those we had long befriended turned viciously upon us and drove us from our homelands. My Great Grandmother carried four rocks from our homeland on the Niobara River all the way to where I stand today, it was all she could save of the circle of life they were leaving.

     Luckily for me my grandparents survived the death march, my Mother was born on the new rez in Oklahoma. She was the child of genocide and I am the grandchild. Soon after we arrived on our new hot land, the Americans decided we had too much and forced our leaders to accept individual allotment of the land we had purchased in common from the Cherokee Nation (some people think we were given our reservation lands but we bought ours as a Tribe). By holding the land in common, land thieves were held at bay and the Ponca could stave off starvation. Allotment meant individuals could be pinned down by greedy white people and robbed.  All across “Indian Territory” our leaders fought allotment and my Grandfather resisted also, they were jailed, abused and finally defeated again, this time by the courts. Allotment and the white “land runs” happened, suddenly the Ponca were surrounded by jackals in all their hues, just like the ones who had driven them from our ancestral homelands. The land runs created a white majority, this allowed the creation of the State of Oklahoma in 1906 and all powers of self-government were stripped from my people. The Ponca had been reduced from a few thousand relatives to about five hundred or less, and my Grandpa had changed from being a buffalo hunter to a farmer on the poorest dirt America could find. Our family and my people were thrown into the very bottom of the okie melting pot and then the great depression hit what economics we had left and forced even more of our people to sell their allotments, ending even farming.  Need I mention the BIA was busily trading on Ponca misery by stealing the land in collusion with the new, white, Oklahoma powerstructure. My Grandpa still lived then and would not sell our land as long as he was alive but finally he died and most of the land quickly went to whites. It was called “dead Indian land” which meant the BIA would let them buy it from the heirs. My whole Ponca Tribe still lives on the remnants of the original twelve square miles, not much is left.

     Ask yourself, what was your Grandfather doing when he was a young man and what did America do to (or for?) him. You now know what they were doing to mine and to every other Ponca family. While America concerned itself with the world series, world wars and the stockmarket, a small nation of onetime allies was told a superior people had decided to remake them in their image. But first the scourge, before Standing Bear can become a man, god’s work must be done.

     The first whiteman came among the Ponca around 1800, by 1880 we were one half dead from his disease, then by 1930 a third more had perished, and along with them our land was taken from under us twice by the American government. He stole our children and outlawed our religions, he banned our language, denigrated our history and enslaved our mentality. All this during the lifetime of my Grandfather and Grandmother. In 1908 the Ponca Chiefs were forced to put away the sacred Pipe, Sundance and our Clan system. Ten thousand years of Ponca, erased by an “agent”. In 1917 one hundred percent of eligible Ponca men volunteered to enlist for WW1. In return, in 1924 he gave us the right to vote, called us the “first americans” and told us to forget our past.

    This is what my immediate family has lived through in America, each Tribe goes through their “time of horror” when he comes, the Ponca horror was not that long ago and we are not yet whole nor healed, nor assured of a future. Some Tribes are going through it today and I hear their cries every bit as loud as I do 9-11. A hundred thousand Maya, whole villages, follow the Ponca path. My life has intermingled me with their Tribal elders who remind me of my Grandparents, in their gentle ways and in their loss.  I think maybe only Jewish Americans, (whose parents and grandparents went through their own holocaust of death-by-government) can understand why it’s too soon to ask us to trust the people who did this to us, just because they’ve moved on to loot other tribes. History has a way of coloring ones view of America, my history sees that what he has given to his chosen few in rich, white, America, was taken in Red blood and my Grandfather and Grandmother witnessed it, lived it, suffered it, survived it. My history has rendered me unsusceptible to the patriotic brainwashing needed to excuse the killing in Iraq. I am Carter Camp…Ponca.

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