Catherine A. Corman: "Homeland Security . . . Fighting Terrorism Since 1492"

Roundup: Historians' Take

Catherine A. Corman, at Common-Place (Oct. 2004):

[A nonresident fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University, Cathy Corman lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and eleven-year-old triplets and is completing two book manuscripts, one about Indian literacy during the removal era, the other a series of profiles of successful adults with Attention Deficit Disorder.]

... we had snickered the previous evening when we had seen a particular T-shirt at a Los Lobos concert. Bracketing a silk-screened reproduction of a nineteenth-century photograph of Geronimo, armed, alongside three Apache warriors, the writing on the shirt read"Homeland Security . . . Fighting Terrorism Since 1492." Wildly popular in Indian Country ever since U.S. troops invaded Iraq, the shirt was only beginning to make the rounds in December 2001. Even then, we got the joke. Seen from Indian Country, the folks at the Department of Homeland Security are the hypocritical descendants of terrorists, themselves.

Thinking about the T-shirt and seeing that flag poster up at Acoma, I wondered what Indians were saying about 9/11. That question stuck with me. A few conversations and emails later, I have learned that, like many other minorities in America, the Indians I spoke to are struggling to negotiate multiple identities that leave them to work out their relationships with patriotism and oppression. I have also learned that there is something uniquely Indian in the quality of this struggle, something that other groups, no matter how disenchanted or disenfranchised, cannot share.

A T-shirt with a message: Geronomio and Chiricahua Apache warriors. Courtesy of Matthew Tafoya and www.nativesovereigntees.com.

It is hard to understand how Indians can simultaneously fly flags, said Robert Holden, Choctaw, and view the federal government as an occupying, terrorist agency. But that is just the way it is."This is still our homeland," said Holden, a specialist in radioactive waste disposal on Native land for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C. To illustrate Indians’ position, Holden reminded me that during World War II the Iroquois confederacy, seeing itself as a sovereign nation, declared war on Germany and Japan. Nowadays, even when they know that the U.S. government has contaminated their lands,"Indian people still go and fight for this country." The National Congress of American Indians does not have figures yet for how many Native peoples are fighting in Iraq. It estimates that eight thousand Indians fought in World War I, twenty-five thousand fought in World War II, and forty-three thousand fought in Vietnam. Maybe the hard part for non-Indians to understand, Holden said, is that Indians do not entirely see the homeland they are defending as either American or Indian."We are going to stand with our allies and protect our homeland."

Matthew K. Tafoya, Navajo, who designed the original homeland security T-shirt and marketed it through his Albuquerque company, Tribal Sovereign Tees, is far more blunt. To Tafoya, Indians who fly American flags are"brainwashed" and"not thinking for themselves." Indians do not join the U.S. Military, Tafoya said, because they are flag-waving patriots. With unemployment on Indian reservations hovering between 60 and 70 percent, Tafoya said,"the military is the only sure way to get a paycheck."

Tafoya came up with the design and slogan for his homeland security T-shirt a few weeks after terrorists flew jets into the Twin Towers. He recalls thinking,"That’s right. Now they know how it feels." Tafoya said that the shirt has been extremely popular with Indian veterans of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, who–ironically–show up at his booth at flea markets wearing worn-out, government-issue combat fatigues. He suspects that when Indian vets see his shirt, they are thinking,"We’re completely screwed over by the government, and we’re also lucky to be alive."

"Traditional culture can promote entry to the U.S. military as an extension of the ‘warrior tradition,’" wrote Ben Winton, editor and publisher of The Native Press, which also markets a homeland security T-shirt. In an email responding to my questions about Indians, patriotism, 9/11, and military service, Winton wrote that young Indians"are protecting their families and their traditional homeland (what little of it remains under tribal control, anyway)." He mentioned the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II as a group that wanted to protect Indian Country and U. S. soil."Assimilation and acculturation allow for many people to feel a sense of dual identity/citizenship," Winton wrote."They feel both proud as an ‘Indian person’ and proud as an ‘American’."...

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David Frier - 1/14/2005

The link to "native sovereign tees" is inappropriate. Matthew Tafoya's company is "Tribal Sovereign Tees." A later link in the article is correct.

(proud owner of two of Matthew's sweatshirts)