The White House’s choice of Carlisle Barracks as the venue for the President’s May 24 speech is no doubt as complex and it is intriguing.
No one would have guessed from either the content or coverage that the American Indian history of the place had any bearing on the subject, which was "a free and self-governing Iraq" and "a humane, well-supervised prison system."
On the surface, it was a logical choice to deliver the address at Carlisle Barracks, the site of the U.S. Army War College, where the nation’s military leaders have studied war since the 1950s.
It made political sense, too, being in that part of Pennsylvania - a state rich in electoral votes - where George W. Bush and the war are still popular.
The President predicted that the rise of a free Iraq "would be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power, and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world."
"Civilization" was the message
The message just beneath the surface and all around its edges was "civilization." That’s where the location of the speech comes in.
Carlisle Barracks, from 1879 to 1918, was the site of the first federal Indian boarding school. Thousands of children of famous Indian leaders were taken there as hostage students, in order to keep their families down on the reservations. Many never made it back home.
My mother’s grandfather, Thunderbird (Richard Davis), and his sister Elsie Davis were among the first Cheyennes at Carlisle. They were taken hostage because their father was Chief Bull Bear, who was also a Dog Men Society leader. The War Department wanted to make sure that he did not "roam off the reservation" or resume the life of a "hostile."
At the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1893, Elsie Davis died of "consumption" according to the school paper, and Thunderbird became a model student.
Headstones and remains of Elsie and some few other children who died in the school’s early years were relocated to the present small cemetery. The original grave yard and the remains of other children who died at Carlisle were plowed under for a sports field and grandstand.
Both the school and town of Carlisle are big on sports. As recently as 2002, the town was the summer training camp of the Washington professional football team with the name most Native people despise.
"Kill the Indian, save the man"
The Carlisle Indian School was a "well-supervised prison system" that was rarely "humane." The motto of its founder, Captain Richard H. Pratt, was "kill the Indian, save the man." This meant that the Indians would become "civilized" - read, deculturalized - or else.
The Carlisle kids were forced to speak English only, practice Christianity and work for no or low wages. Indian slave labor in 1887 built the very building where the President read his speech about Iraq. It’s a gymnasium which was named after Carlisle alum Jim Thorpe, the great Sac and Fox athlete who won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics.
But, no one would ever guess that. Bush did not acknowledge Thorpe or Carlisle or the Indian "civilization" policy the U.S. adopted when extermination wasn’t working.
One person tried to alert reporters and producers about the connections between U.S. policies in Iraq and at Carlisle, and the irony.
Barbara C. Landis, author of the Carlisle Indian School Research Web pages, e-mailed the television networks and National Public Radio, asking, "Does anybody in the Bush administration realize he will be speaking in a venue that was designed and implemented to become the benchmark of the assimilation of American Indians?"
In her May 23 e-mail, Landis pointed out that the War College is "smack dab in the middle of the old school grounds ... I wonder at the lack of foresight in presenting a major foreign policy speech designed to spin the failed policy of this administration - in a venue that for many Americans, represents the failed assimilationist policies of a century ago."
Only ABC’s Nightline responded, said Landis, but just to thank her for the information. There was "absolutely no reference to Carlisle … on any news shows I watched ... The gym was disguised to look like a blue velvet-draped presidential sealed room, which is what it became. The audience was hand-picked to represent cheerleaders for Bush’s policies."
History of the Carlisle
Perhaps White House staffers intended for Iraqis to slowly uncover the harsh history of the Carlisle cradle of U.S. "civilization" policy. Perhaps some wanted to send a message that bad beginnings can produce good results, such as Thorpe and other extraordinary Native people (the ones who lived through it, that is), and that Native nations today are self-governing.
It is possible that the White House intended to send these cautionary notes and optimist messages. It is also possible that no one in the White House - which is not known for subtlety - was told anything about where they were.
Whatever subsurface message was intended, the history and lessons of Carlisle and "civilization" are there for all the world to learn. A decade before the end of the official Indian "civilization" policy, Indian people were made U.S. citizens, on June 2, 1924.
After 80 years under the Indian Citizenship Act, Native peoples remain the most economically impoverished segment of American society, with all the attendant problems of poverty, notwithstanding significant gains made through gaming. And, Indian nations are subjected to threats that Indian gaming will be outlawed unless greater amounts of revenue are turned over to the federal, state and local governments.
Native people have yet to attain full voting rights and there are organized anti-Indian groups that advocate abolishing treaties and other legal Indian rights and authorities. Despite repatriation laws, Native American graves and sacred objects continue to be robbed and desecrated.
Native people are the only people in the U.S. who do not have full religious freedom rights and cannot defend threatened sacred places in the American justice system. And Native peoples alone are targeted, mascotted and humiliated in sports nationwide.
This is the status of Native America after eight decades of citizenship and more than a century of "civilization." For us, these are serious matters of sovereignty and human rights. These also are family matters.
We know what the White House says it intends to do to free Iraq. The question at home is what will the White House do to help Native Americans transition to freedom?
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.