The Grid of History: Cowboys and Indians

By Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne | Monthly Review, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

The Grid of History: Cowboys and Indians


Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, Monthly Review


We were like Custer. We were surrounded.

--Sgt. James J. Riley explaining why he ordered surrender in an engagement in Nasirlyali, Iraq on March 23, 2003. (1)

At the onset of the U.S. military invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd emotionally queried: "What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomacy when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?"

As a historian, I would have to respond to Senator Byrd that 1776 or thereabouts was when. Many admirable U.S. anti-imperialists have been making the same point as Senator Byrd. An erasure of history is at the heart of some of the most anti-imperialist critiques of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Continuity is hidden, and a small departure is exaggerated. From Gore Vidal to Manning Marable to Michael Moore "lost democracy" is a refrain. Edward Said writes: "The doctrine of military pre-emption was never voted on by the American people or their representatives...It seems so monumentally criminal that important words like democracy and freedom have been hijacked, used as a mask for pillage, taking over territory and settling scores." Said ends his essay by, correctly, stating "Bush looks like a cowboy." (2)

That observation is also common to critics of the war around the world. Although it is meant to be understood as a bad thing, in fact, the cowboy is not a negative metaphor for many U.S. citizens, particularly those who are descendants of the old settler class, as are the majority of the ruling class and officers of the military. How many generations of children now have grown up gleefully playing cowboys and Indians?

Perhaps the fact that I grew up as a child of a cowboy father and Indian mother narrows my view of this metaphor, making it loom too large and out of perspective. Then again, maybe that experience brings with it some insider knowledge.

The Rise of White Supremacy and Imperialism/Capitalism

To allow no dissent from the truth was exactly the reason they had come to America. (3)

Are your garments spotless?

Are they white as snow?

Are they washed in the blood of the lamb?

As this traditional evangelical Christian hymn suggests, whiteness as an ideology is far more complex than mere skin color, although skin color has been and continues to be a key component of racism within the United States. The origins of white supremacy as it is now experienced and institutionalized--and denied--in the United States (and, due to colonialism and imperialism, throughout the world) can be traced to the prior colonizing ventures of Christian crusades into Muslim-controlled territories, and to the Calvinist Protestant colonization of Ireland. These were the models for the colonization of the Western Hemisphere, and are the two strands that merge in the genetic makeup of U.S. society.

The Christian Crusades against Islam/Africa gave birth to the law of limpieza de sangre, cleanliness of blood, which the Spanish Inquisition was mandated to investigate and determine. The Christian Crusades, particularly the Castilian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and expulsion of Jews and Muslims, created the seed ideology and institutions for modem colonialism with its necessary tools--racist ideology and justification for genocide. The law of limpieza de sangre was perhaps the most important cargo on the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, sailing under the flag of Spain.

Great Britain emerged as an overseas colonial power a century later than Spain, and absorbed aspects of the Spanish caste system into its colonialist rationalizations, particularly regarding African slavery, within the context of chosen people/New Jerusalem Calvinism and Puritanism. …

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