by Nick Estes
On June 25, 1876, an alliance of Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos blew out the candles on the United States’ birthday cake. A week before celebrating one hundred years of “liberty,” at the Battle of Greasy Grass the historic Indigenous alliance wiped from the earth lieutenant colonel George A. Custer, a less well-known Civil War officer, and more than 250 of his men of the Seventh Calvary. Knocked from his horse by the Northern Cheyenne warrior woman Buffalo Calf Trail Woman and killed while running away, for his bravery Custer was promoted to the rank of general after his death and inglorious defeat.
Natives made Custer famous by killing him. To empire’s chagrin these same nations still celebrate this historic victory as a declaration of their prior and continuing independence, a week before the US’s own self-described “independence” from the British Empire. But a false image of Custer making a heroic last stand still lingers and does important political work. A last stand reverses the role of invasion and self-defense. It’s as innocent as playing cowboys and Indians, right? Who wants to be the Indians? (Put your hand down, Johnny Depp.)
Settlers often see themselves as victims, who are, just like Custer, surrounded by hostile, dark nations. Such depictions litter the genre of Western films. But a move to innocence isn’t harmless Americana. It’s the founding doctrine of the US and its counterinsurgency programs. It has been the justification for slavery, genocide, and war. We only need to read the Declaration of Independence to understand the origins of this clever inversion of history where aggressors become victims and where colonialism looks like self-defense.
The Declaration of Independence is an unlikely yet foundational location for US counterinsurgency doctrine. In the same breath that the “founding fathers” condemned arbitrary rule by an overseas sovereign, they called for the defense against those whose bodies they stole and those whose lands they took or intended to take. King George, they wrote, “has excited domestic [slave] insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes[,] and conditions.”
By recasting Indigenous resistance and slave revolts as criminal, the fledgling US viewed its secession from Britain and the theft of lands and lives as lawful. Since Indian warfare spared none, the founders argued, Natives operated outside the law of “civilization” and thus none of their lives could be spared. The US waged war upon the entire Indigenous population — men, women, and children — not just enemy combatants. The depiction of “merciless Savage Indians” makes invasion look like a just act. Just war is, above all, reserved for “civilized” Christian nations. The same goes for Black slaves: killing one’s master or escaping servitude were unlawful acts.
Counterinsurgency is asymmetric warfare that includes collective punishment; the taking of children; the forcing of communities to choose between their lives or surrendering their kin or ceding their lands; the use of native scouts and auxiliaries that are in the service of colonial governments; the use of reserves as spaces of containment; the imprisonment, assassination, defamation, or removal of leadership; the targeting of socio-economic institutions as the basis for autonomy; and the need to “civilize” in order to pacify or “the winning of hearts and minds.”
This doctrine was also foundational for the Second Amendment. Five weeks before the passage of the Bill of Rights in December 1791, a Shawnee and Miami military alliance under the command of Little Turtle and Blue Jacket annihilated the US army at the Battle of Wabash. Only 45 of the 1300-man expedition under the command of Revolutionary War hero Arthur St. Clair walked away unscathed, making it the worst US military defeat by Native forces — far surpassing Custer’s embarrassing loss.
Fear of mass slave insurrections also spread through the Americas. In August 1791, a former slave Touissant l’Overture led an army of enslaved in open insurrection against white French plantation owners, marking the beginning of the most successful slave revolts in history: the Haitian Revolution. By the revolution’s end, half a million slaves fought for and realized their freedom.
Clearly outnumbered and surrounded, terror gripped white settlers. With the obliteration of a standing army by Shawnees and Miamis, the reclamation the Ohio Valley by Indigenous peoples, and an open slave rebellion in the Caribbean that was sure to encourage others, a “well-regulated militia” of armed settlers was the only thing that stood between white people and slave rebellions and Native nations.
This was the founding doctrine of the first nation born entirely as a capitalist state. It was dependent on stolen lands and stolen labor to declare its “independence.” The project thereafter has been about maintaining what the late Cedric Robinson has termed “racial capitalism.” While we are told to celebrate the line “all men are created equal,” we are conditioned to forget the Declaration of Independence’s counterinsurgency doctrine that helped give rise to armed settler populations.
Frontier defense and the suppression of slave revolts were the impetuses for both the Declaration of Independence and the Second Amendment. Retribution was violent and waged on the entirety of Black and Indigenous societies. The “well-regulated militias” became the irregular settler militias for frontier defense and slave patrols, with each, in various ways, evolving into modern police departments. The counterinsurgency doctrine has also been exported to other parts of the world as part of a US imperialist agenda in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Latin America, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
It should come as no surprise that when the descendants of former slaves and Indigenous nations contest settler rule and demand freedom — whether in Ferguson, Baltimore, or at Standing Rock — their movements and aspirations for freedom are immediately criminalized. After all, the purist version of US history, embraced by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and their successors, has claimed the supremacy of the Declaration of Independence as natural law and the settler nation’s foundational document.
While counterinsurgency has become a dominant mode of domestic policing and tactics employed against civilian populations in the so-called “war on terror,” it is not without resistance. It is because of the long histories of Black and Indigenous struggles that settler colonialism and empire-making are contested and failed projects. Black and Red are, more importantly, political colors that build on traditions of resistance and dreams of freedom of the past that inform the present. They are the ancestors from the before and the already forthcoming that powerfully declare that things need not always be this way. Despite their depictions as such, these were not ill-planned, spontaneous, or disorganized rebellions. And they cannot be jailed, beat, or killed into submission.
If we return to Custer’s inglorious demise, it was because he was surrounded and overpowered that he was defeated. In many ways, the settler’s fears are valid: he is indeed surrounded. That space surrounding the heavily-armed garrison of concrete and concertina wire is far more vast and far more alive than life inside the fort. The good people of the earth clamoring in the surround — whether at Standing Rock, in Palestine, or in the streets of Baltimore — know their vision for liberation is historic, just, and possesses far superior numbers than the guns and money people. Inspiring these overwhelming numbers against the colonial scenario and towards peace and justice is the daring task of every generation.