I visited the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois this week and was surprised to discover amidst the cultural artifacts and ethnographic studies a display case decked out in red, white and blue:
The label read:
The American flag became an important motif in Native American art during the Reservation Period (1880-1910).
Called “the Grandfather’s Flag” by the Sioux, the American flag was considered a protective symbol both because of its association with the powerful US Army and as a means to demonstrate allegiance to the American government. Parallels between the flag and Native religious iconography, like the red and white striped Sun Dance pole, the Morning Star and the blue sky, also encouraged the adoption of the American flag design in Northern plains art.
What the label doesn’t mention is that the Reservation period was a period of great brutality toward Native Americans. Academic Michael Phillips writes that Native Americans were forced in this period to enter reservations that “more closely resembled a concentration camp.” Their minds were “reeling from the loss of their homes, the pain of battling for a lost cause, the pressure of white reformers who wanted to strip away their traditions and faith, and the fear of being under constant surveillance of corrupt and abusive federal agents.”
Why would anyone in this disheartening situation chose to associate themselves with the stars and stripes? The key, I think, is in the label’s mention of the powerful US Army. Native Americans have been active allies of the US military since the war of 1812. The Defense Department notes that, “historically, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.”
The US Census found that more than 82,000 Native American men and women served in the military during the Vietnam era, with the great majority of those being volunteers. Robert Sanderson, a professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas, writes that “For many Native Americans, the Vietnam War presented a way out of the cycle of poverty experienced on government reservations. For others, it was a way of demonstrating patriotic pride, and following the warrior’s path through active military service.”
The warrior’s path for Native Americans in Vietnam and elsewhere involved incorporating indigenous culture with American patriotic symbols like the flag and rally songs. When I was at the Veterans for Peace convention earlier this month, I got to see the product of one of these blends in person.
Three members of the Ho-Chunk Nation from the Four Lakes area came to the opening ceremony and performed Native American service songs for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Unlike the horn-rich marching songs of the US military, these songs incorporated traditional drumming and lyrics in the Siouan language.
I recorded one of the songs, which you can listen to below. Smithsonian Folkways also has a CD available of songs for indigenous veterans which includes all four songs and others written by Native Americans.