"Playing Indian" and the US colonial imagination.


A few months ago, The Intercept published an eye-opening investigation into alleged war crimes perpetrated by the famed Navy SEAL Team 6, the elite military unit credited with killing Osama bin Laden. While the report highlights troublesome, often deranged, behavior of individual SEALs acting in accordance with a culture of contempt for Middle Easterners and South and Central Asians, some of the specific SEAL practices reveal disturbing connections between US settler colonization and foreign policy. Those connections have been evident for the duration of US history. We have yet another opportunity to identify and assess them.

The article’s author, Matthew Cole, describes in great detail a troubling culture of playing Indian. SEAL Team 6 is composed of four color-coded units. The Red Unit inevitably uses Indian symbology, with a mascot boasting the age-old visage of an Indian warrior in side profile, simultaneously fierce and stoic.

In its recent exploits in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the Red Unit played Indian with brutal consequences. Cole reports that in 2006 Red Unit leader Hugh Wyman Howard III ordered custom-made hatchets of the type used in films like The Last of the Mohicans. While the hatchets were billed as morale boosters, they “soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.”

Calling this sort of performance “playing Indian,” in the tradition of Philip Deloria, is not to implicate Native cultures in violence. Playing Indian refers to simulated imaginaries wherein the performer in some way acts out the exploits of a mythological Indian. Indigenous peoples are doubly erased in this project, though they are simultaneously vested in the public imagination and thus subject to perpetual reproduction of mascotry.

The use of bastardized Indian themes in US military adventurism is an old phenomenon. From referring to enemy territory as “Indian country” to the plethora of weapons and machinery named after tribal nations, the imagery of Natives as both eternal antagonists and mythical warriors has long been central to battlefield conduct and the moral framing of foreign invasion. That the Red Unit of SEAL Team 6 special-ordered kitsch art and then used it to commit war crimes is a form of appropriation, but it is simultaneously a reaffirmation of deeply-held settler narratives in the United States, in which the Native can survive only in caricature and which reifies playacting as an indispensable mode of state violence.

The hatchets also illuminate how the US colonial imagination affects its conduct in the world:

  • Performing these simulated rites of Indigeneity rationalizes a global military presence originating in the landscapes of North America. The hatchets are a branding mechanism normalizing the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (as in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Standing Rock). Yet they also reinforce the primacy of conquest as an American birthright.
  • In American society, appropriation of Native imagery often positions Indigenous peoples as noble stewards of the environment or as timeless symbols of patience and reconciliation (which confines settler colonialism to the past while absolving its practitioners of cruelty). In military culture, however, that imagery emphasizes warlike qualities, an unsurprising move. Those qualities, though, aren’t paeans to a noble Indian character, but ideations of the optimal American warrior.
  • The imagery suggests that the violence of colonization was in response to the greater brutality of the adversary, that is, a byproduct of the need to subdue the savage Indians. If the American soldier is to emulate the guile and force of the Indian warrior, then we are made to understand that those qualities originate from the Native and not the settler.
  • Playacting as the Indian of settler lore implicitly justifies the brutality fundamental to the work of SEAL Team 6. Red Unit members confer moral responsibility for contemporaneous violence onto stylized antagonists of an unchangeable past.
  • The Indian logo on Red Unit uniforms is tactile while actually existing outside of the world the US endeavors to create through invasions of faraway countries. Or, put more simply, the US allows itself a history by preventing others from deciding a future. The fixed past of US colonization in fact exists in constant transit.

At first glance, some of these explanations seem incongruous, but they all illuminate a specific colonial logic. The most noteworthy feature of that logic is the permanence it ascribes to the conquest of North America. That conquest is enduring and unchangeable. It is, like the violent protection of democracy, a simple fact of history. At the same time, though, the colonial past cannot be discarded. It undergoes regular permutations that reveal themselves in imperialist policies, so that foreign policy conventions can remain steady in tumultuous conditions. These processes occur concurrently to repression of Native nationhood, a necessary subject of our attention.

Given the importance of the colonial past to the imperial present, we haven’t seen nearly enough analysis of the interplay between colonization and imperialism. Much of the work that does exist around military usage of Indian themes, including Cole’s article, treats it as appropriation rather than a foundational aspect of foreign policy. Just as conquest is the basis of US nationalism, so too is it the currency of American reinvention.

In Inter/Nationalism I draw from a wide range of work in Native and Indigenous Studies to advance a conversation about ongoing settler colonization in North America and its importance in apprehending the political landscapes of the world. Only after the book was published did the United States accomplish what many considered inconceivable with the election as president of a buffoonish celebrity animated by racial and sexual belligerence.

Understood from the perspective of colonialism, however, the emergence of Donald Trump wasn’t an aberration, but an inevitability. Slavery and settlement, atrophy and atrocity, displacement and dispossession. What kind of person oversees these traditions? Absent an engagement with Indigenous political and intellectual traditions, analyses of the US polity, sometimes limited to bickering about the ideals of the Enlightenment, will ultimately miss the point.

And what is the point? That we cannot redeem the United States without reproducing the brutalities of settler colonization. Imperialism is one of the most reliable outcomes of even the most earnest attempts at redemption. It’s crucial before setting out to question state violence inside and beyond the United States to scrub away the Indian decals emblazoned on our brains.


Steven Salaita is author of several books, including Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine; Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom; and Israel’s Dead Soul.

“This is a powerful and moving analysis of what it means to decolonize settler societies through an unflinchingly ethical and incisively original notion of inter/nationalism. Steven Salaita is, as always, bold, brilliant, and visionary.”
Sunaina Maira, University of California, Davis

“A welcome work of criticism and analysis from a truly transnational scholar of Indigenous politics and literature.”
Audra Simpson, Columbia University

“Although often specific in its geographical articulation, settler-colonialism is a global phenomena that requires a truly global response. This is the message powerfully hammered home in Steve Salaita’s crucially important Inter/Nationalism. Building on years of research and activism in support of Native American and Palestinian self-determination, Salaita advances a radically transnational view of decolonization grounded in a richly comparative account of Native American/Indigenous solidarity and our mutual struggles for land, freedom, and dignity.”
Glen Coulthard, author of Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition

Leave a Reply