Torture Authorization Based in Part on Indian Wars

Dear Editor,

If you have been following the national debate on the torture of prisoners then you know one side says it is OK to protect American lives while the other side says that it is above our ethical standards.

What you may not know is that US Dept of Justice lawyer John Yoo, based his argument for the legality of torture in no small part on the treatment of American Indian prisoners during the Indian wars of the 19th century.

If there ever was a case for the need to have Native American studies, the heretofore hidden aspects of the case for torture cries out for the need of all Americans to know American Indian history, especially the general background of exactly how the dispossession of Indians took place.

Torture of Indian people started not long after Columbus' second voyage. Sailors from ship Santa Maria, sunk off the coast of Hispanolia (modern day Haiti) and a small group were left behind as a temporary colony. When Columbus returned on the second voyage, he found that all members of the colony had died in a punitive raid. As retribution for the death of his men, and in attempt to exploit the small amounts of gold to be found on the island, Columbus required that all Indian males over a certain age had to produce some quantity of gold every month as tribute. Failure to produce the gold resulted in the Spanish severing the tendons in one or both feet of the Indians who did not comply.

There is also no word on what happened to the Indians kidnapped on the first voyage and it is likely they were sold into slavery.

Getting everyone to agree on a definition of torture is a tricky thing, but certainly should include beatings and the use of psychological or physical means to induce compliant behaviors in those held against their will.

Thus, the American Indian boarding and residential school system could be said to have practiced torture until well past the middle of the 20th century.

Indian children were routinely taken from their homes, carted hundreds of miles away against their will, subjected to beatings, isolation, and forced to eat soap for speaking their Native language.

Think about it.

Here is the link to Michigan State University College of Law website with a link to the complete Yoo memo. The relevant section citing the treatment of Indian prisoners during the Modoc War of 1873 is on page 7.

Johnny P. Flynn, Ph.D., Department of Religious Studies, IUPUI, Indianapolis, Indiana

News From Indian Country, “Letters to the Editor,” May 18, 2009