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The Carletonian

True Diaries of an American Indian who’s proud to be American

American Indians are killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to CDC data. At a rate 12% higher than Black Americans and three times the rate of white people, it’s a fact that looms over the heads of American Indians all over this country. The amount of American Indian women counted in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women project’s heart-wrenching statistics is nauseating. The hundreds of years of being forced into boarding schools, reservations and death marches, only to be kept away from the land we view as sacred, is a memory that lives in the minds of many American Indians. Despite the depressing nature of our relationship with America, I was raised and surrounded by American Indians who were (shockingly) patriotic and proud to be Americans.

I was having a conversation with another student this week, and the subject gradually turned to the topic of general patriotism and nationalism. I distinctly remember hearing them say “I hate America, I can’t wait to graduate so I can leave this country.” Then the subject turned to me. They asked me when I plan on getting out of the United States. They knew that I’m tribally enrolled, and they knew that I’m very proud of it. I’ll admit that I’m not proud of my response, but I shot back that “I’ll leave this country when I leave this earth.” This is a phrase that I’ve heard countless times from Native role models in my life describing their relationship to this country. The conversation devolved into my informing them of my family’s immense patriotism and my interactions with other people in my tribe. They responded with what might be the best question that I’ve heard in a long time: “Why are American Indians so patriotic?”

I’m going to start by saying that this generalization is just that: a generalization. For every flag-waving veteran on the reservation, you can certainly find a flag-burning tribal member in the cities. American Indians are not at all homogenous, and our opinions reflect that diversity. It has been noted, however, that for an average observer, there seems to be no shortage of “patriotic” American Indians. Go to any powwow in the Great Plains and you’ll find a plethora of American flags with veterans waving them. In many popular representations of us, you’ll see an American Indian standing with the flag and saluting towards what looks like a Norman Rockwell-style family. In these depictions of us, we appear to be a group of freedom-loving warriors who will lay down our lives for this country. And though I disagree with that image as reflective of our universal opinions, I do think that it begs the question about our perceived loyalty to a country that genocided us.

I think there’s a lot to unpack in this question, so let’s get the bad answers out of the way. American Indians are not more patriotic because of “warrior culture.” This is a popular assertion that’s been peddled by defense hawks since Vietnam. The narrative goes something like this: American Indians were a warrior culture before they became citizens in the 20th century, they serve in the military at a higher rate than any other racial group because of this and they bring that patriotism back to their families, tribes and reservations. This narrative is flawed for multiple reasons. Firstly, American Indian culture is not exclusively “warrior culture.” Though wars on the Plains and battles between tribes did happen, the average depiction of American Indian “warrior culture” is warped by Hollywood depictions of us to make it more palatable to Western movies. Second, even though American Indians do serve at a higher rate than any other racial group in the armed forces, the reason isn’t this “warrior culture.” Sure, there are nations like my own (the Oglala Lakota Oyate/Oglala Sioux Tribe) where there is a strange veneration of warrior ancestors, but there are also tribes that were very peaceful that still serve at roughly the same rate as most other American Indian nations. Finally, “patriotism” isn’t exactly something that you can just “bring back” to your family. This sort of spreading of nationalism is hard, and to oversimplify it like that is problematic.

There’s also an explanation for this military service that many leftists use to justify what seems like a complete smack in the face to an anti-American mindset. There’s a popular assertion that American Indians serve more than other groups either because of a socioeconomic system that pushed them in that direction or because of a lack of intergenerational culture leading us to seek meaning in military service. The first of these claims is absolutely a fair criticism, but I think it lacks the nuance of reality. Socioeconomic factors like the draft did push many American Indians into service, but claiming that as the causal reason fails on two grounds. First, in the Vietnam War, 90% of American Indian enlistees were volunteers and not drafted. And second, simply joining the military for socioeconomic reasons doesn’t mean that they can’t still be patriotic. Many men in my family, like my grandfather, joined the military because it offered social opportunities. Does that mean that he’s not patriotic? Many Americans did the same regardless of racial identification and emerged fairly patriotic. So, even though this may explain why they enlist, it doesn’t explain why they continue to be patriotic.
I find the second of these criticisms to be incredibly insulting. To suggest that cultural vagrancy leads to thousands of American Indians dying to find “meaning in their lives” also deprives them of the autonomy of their own choices. Sure, our culture was decimated, but to claim that that’s the reason why American Indians “sell out” is downright hurtful. Beyond this, the line that “American Indians lack a culture and that’s what drives so many to environments like the military, crime and substance abuse” is just a way for modern liberals and leftists alike to shift the blame for this reality from their own privilege that propagates these environments onto an imagined white boogeyman that can take the blame for all the tragedies befalling American Indians past, present and future.

I do think there is a sliver of truth to both of these claims. Serving in the military does probably make you likely to be more “patriotic” than someone who didn’t. I think that there is also some truth to the exchange of this patriotism from one generation to the next if you consider some values widely held by many American Indian communities around the United States. In many, but not all, respect for elders is a crucial part of family live. If that means that your great-grandmother goes first in line for food at Christmas, or your grandmother wants to talk on the phone or you’re just in the presence of an elder, then you show respect. I think that this transfer of values can potentially be attributable to an association between veterans who happen to be elders and generally more “patriotic,” and younger generations who are taught reverence for elders who happen to fit that description.

But I think the actual reason that I think that American Indians are “patriotic” is simply because this is still our land. Drive through the Black Hills of South Dakota or Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Beautiful for sure, but to many, it’s a different degree of wonder and awe. The Lakota view the Black Hills (Pahá Sápa) as a sacred site — so sacred that there’s not really a good English word to translate its significance. Vine Deloria Jr. explained that there is an inherent connection between the Lakota and the land that is key to our significance as a people. To many American Indians, enlisting in the military, flying American flags and general pride may be interpreted the wrong way. To some, the flag and America represent the larger land that we still have an association to. To those of us that feel this way, the flag isn’t a symbol of a racist, white-supremacist state; it’s a symbol of the land that we venerate. When I tell people that I’m a “proud American,” I don’t mean that I’m proud of the history of our genocide, slavery and injustices. I mean that I’m proud to be living in the same country that shares the same geography that my ancestors worshiped and had an inherent connection to through their identity. And I would bet that there are many other American Indians who would otherwise be defined as “patriotic” who feel the same way.

I know that, for me, this interpretation is one that I grew up with and was raised on. My grandpa Darrell, who served in Vietnam, has influenced a lot of my thinking on life. He walks proudly at powwows with the other veterans, he describes his relationship with the world through his relationship with the land and being an American Indian veteran has shaped much of his life. For me, being a pasty and very white-passing American Indian has always made me self-conscious of my thoughts on the matter. I’ve never been pulled over for having darker skin, I’ve never been profiled by the police and I had the privilege of living in the land that my people were exiled from. But my grandfather strengthened my resolve on these matters. Darrell is very Native-presenting. He has had confrontations with the police and he has been outright discriminated against due to his skin color. Despite this, my grandfather describes himself as extremely patriotic. He views his service in Vietnam as protecting the land of the ancestors. For me, seeing him as a role model who happened to be a veteran and who showed it proudly in Native spaces clearly impacted how I view America, the military and the land.

None of this is to say that I condone the actions or even want to ignore the terrible relationship that the government and the states have had with us or any other group. To say that I’m “proud to be an American” to me means that I’m proud to live in a land that my ancestors lived in for thousands of years and died for. I’m proud to live in a country to which the Creator or the Universe gave beautiful land, fertile soil and so much more. I’m proud to be an American in the sense that I’m proud to be where I am, and I’m proud of my heritage’s relationship with this land.

Because of this, I don’t think that “patriot” is the right word to describe the relationship that “patriotic” American Indians have with the United States. For one, the word “patriot” invokes an image of the very people who almost genocided us out of existence. And furthermore, I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of American Indians who feel this way particularly associate with the government or the genocidal history of the United States. I think they associate with being proud descendants of the seven generations before them and want to protect the future of the next seven generations. So instead of “patriot,” I choose to refer to myself as an American Indian who’s proud to be an American.

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About the Contributor
Bax Meyer
Bax Meyer, Managing Editor
Hey, all! I'm Bax (he/him), and I'm a junior Econ major with a Middle East Studies minor. I love talking about Middle East politics and American Indian Treaty Rights. I'll always send you good book or movie recomendations. You can probably find me on campus wandering the arb, on 1st libe, or at step areobics. I like dad jokes, American Indian Treaty Rights, shawarma, and publishing my hot takes in the Carletonian anonymously.
Red flags: econ major, will judge you for using the Oxford comma, and hates geese
Green flags: Middle East Studies minor, still uses the Oxford comma, and quotes the Star Wars prequels on the daily
Bax was previously Managing Director and Viewpoint Editor.

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