Gap and Mark McNairy’s Manifest Destiny T-Shirt


Recently, I have seen a lot of comments and posts about this shirt that was offered in stores and online by the Gap. Designed by Mark McNairy as part of Gap’s limited GQ collection, it generated a lot of controversy and was ultimately pulled from shelves and stores. I learned about it via Facebook over the weekend and it went viral amongst Natives and First Nations members online.

Today I read an article on Salon (link above, my iPad isn’t the best for writing posts) about it all. Between the responses I’ve seen from Gap and the designer, I don’t really feel like they have offered an actual apology. For instance, Gap apologizes to anyone who “might” have been offended. Well, clearly there WERE a lot of people offended! It just sounds like a watered-down PR approach, not like they are particularly sorry or concerned. Disappointing.


One thought on “Gap and Mark McNairy’s Manifest Destiny T-Shirt

  1. Marlon Brando on ” Manifest Destiny” :

    ” “When’s Brando going to talk about the Indians?” 

    “Isn’t he obsessed with the plight of the American Indian?”

     I bridle at this, more in exasperation than in anger, because I’m confronted with it over and over again from people who, perhaps to please me, mention “the plight of the American Indian” as if it were something that happened on another planet in another era- like a drought in equatorial Africa or the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe, as if the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people were some sort of a historical curiosity, even an act of God, that humankind had nothing to do with and bore no responsibility for. This grates my soul.

    What astonishes me is how ignorant most Americans are about the Indians and how little sympathy & understanding there is for them. It puzzles me that most people don’t take seriously the fact that this country was stolen from the Native Americans, and that millions of them were killed in the process. It has been swept from the national consciousness as if it never occurred- or if it did, it was a noble act in the name of God, civilisation and progress. 

    The number of Indians who died because of what we called Manifest Destiny has always been a subject of debate among scholars, but I believe that the majority of informed historians and anthropologists now agree that between seven million and eighteen million indigenous people were living in what is today the continental United States when Columbus arrived in the New World. By 1924 there were fewer than 240,000 left; their ancestors had been victimized by centuries of disease, starvation and systematic slaughter. 

    If people acknowledged a similar ignorance about the Holocaust, they would be regarded with amazement. But that’s how it is for most of us when it comes to Native Americans. To my mind the killing of Indians was an even larger crime against humanity than the Holocaust; not only did it take more lives, but it was a crime committed over centuries that continues in some ways to this day.

    Ever since I helped raise funds for Israel as a young man, and learned about the Holocaust, I’ve been interested in how different societies treat one another; it is one of the  enduring interests of my life. In the early sixties I read a book by John Collier, a former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs who was responsible for giving the Indians a token measure of self-government on their reservations during the 1930s, and I was shocked at how badly we had treated them. Then I read “The First Americans” by a Flathead Indian, anthropologist D’Arcy McNickle, and was moved. The book describes two hundred years of savage warfare by European settlers against the Indians, the massacres of native peoples from New England to California and how U.S. military leaders like Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan called for the outright annihilation of the race. Indians who escaped being cut down by such predators were killed by disease imported by European settlers, which was followed by forced marches, deliberate starvation and attempts to destroy their culture.

    The book was an eye-opener, and I went to Santa Fe to visit D’Arcy McNickle. After we had talked for several hours, I asked him where I could meet some Indians, and he suggested that I get in touch with the National Indian Youth Council. I went to a meeting of the organization and made many friends, a lot of whom I still know today, and thereafter I became absorbed with the world of the Native American…

    Our government signed almost 400 treaties with the Indians and broke every one of them. These agreements almost always include this language: “As long as the river shall run, the sun shall shine and grass shall grow, this land will be forever yours, and it will never be taken away from you or sold without your express permission.” Yet all of them were broken with the blessing & sanction of our courts. 

    Even when the federal government gave lip service to honoring the treaties, settlers, ranchers and miners ignored them and grabbed the richest valleys, lushest forests, and lands with the most minerals. They squatted where they wanted, then persuaded Congress to legitimize the status quo and abandon the treaties that they were unlawfully ignoring. What would happen if Cuba abrogated its treaty granting American use of Guantanamo Bay, one that can be lawfully annulled only with the consent of both nations? It would be considered an act of war, and smart bombs would rain on Havana. 

    But if Indians even complain about a broken treaty, they are scorned, vilified or put into jail. I don’t think anything equals the hypocrisy the United States has exhibited toward the Native American. Our leaders have called for their annihilation in the name of democracy; in the name of Christianity; in the name of the advancement of civilization; in the name of all the principles we have fought wars to uphold.

    From Congress, the White House and human rights groups, we constantly hear complaints about ill-treatment and genocide against this group or that. But no people has ever been treated worse than Native Americans. Our government intentionally starved the plains Indians to death by slaughtering the buffalo because it was quicker and easier to kill buffalo than to kill Indians. It denied them food and forced them to sign treaties giving up their land and future. The Indians were rarely defeated militarily; they were starved into submission… 

    Kit Carson applied a scorched-earth policy that burned the Navajo fruit trees and crops, then chased the Navajos until they were dead or starving. Those who went to reservations and showed any independence were denied food, blankets & medicine, or were given moldy flour and rancid meat that accelerated their annihilation. The government blamed the food on frontier traders, but while the Indians were being given tainted food & starved to death, the soldiers guarding them were well fed. Starvation was used as a national policy; it was an act of intentional genocide. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that when Hitler was plotting his Final Solution, he ordered a study of America’s Indian-reservation system. He admired it and wanted to use it in Europe.

    Starved, degraded and emotionally depleted, in the end the Indians had no choice but to submit. As Chief Seattle said when he surrendered his tribal lands to the Governor of Washington Territory in 1855, ” My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves on a wind-ruffled sea covered its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory…”

    Twenty years later, a great leader of the Nez Perce, Chief Joseph, made many accommodations to settlers while trying to preserve his people’s culture. But as in so many cases, the government reneged on the treaties it signed with the Nez Perce: first it forced the tribe onto a wasteland that whites didn’t want, and then, when gold and other minerals were found there, it ordered the Indians off it. The great warrior took his entire tribe- women, children, tepees and all- and, with another chief, Looking Glass, led it on a desperate flight of over 1,500 miles toward Canada, pursued by thousands of cavalrymen. En route, there were fourteen major engagements with the cavalry, and Chief Looking Glass proved himself a brilliant tactician. When they were finally stopped by the army, less than fifty miles from the Canadian border and freedom, Chief Joseph surrendered in a speech that summarized poignantly how a great and proud people had been devastated by the United States:

    ” I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes and no. He who led on the young men [ Joseph’s brother ] is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are- perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

    After their lands were stolen from them, and the ragged survivors of what the writer Helen Jackson called “A Century of Dishonor” were herded onto reservations, the government sent out missionaries from seven or eight religious denominations who tried to force the Indians to become Christians. It was a clear assault on their religious beliefs and a culture that had thrived for millennia, as well as a blatant denial of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. Missionaries divided up reservations as if they were a pie. They stole Indian children and sent them to religious academies, or to the government school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where the children were beaten if they spoke their own languages. If they ran away, they were subject to severe punishment applied in military fashion. 

    Yet these crimes are almost invisible in our national consciousness. If  they give any thought to the Indians, most Americans project a montage of images from the movies; few conjure up anguish, suffering or murder when they think of Native Americans. Indians are simply a vague, colorful chapter in our country’s past, deserving no more interest than might be devoted to the building of the Erie Canal or the transcontinental railroad.

    After I became interested in American Indians, I discovered that many people, unconsciously at least, don’t even regard them as human beings on the same level as themselves. It has been that way since the beginning; preaching to the Puritans, Cotton Mather compared them to Satan and called it God’s work- and God’s will- to slaughter the heathen savages who stood in the way of Christianity and progress. In the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that all men are created equal, the indigenous peoples of America were called ” merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.” 

    As he aimed his howitzers on an encampment of unarmed Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864, an army colonel named John M. Chivington, who had once said he believed that the lives of Indian children should not be spared because ” nits make lice!” told his officers: ” I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” Hundreds of Indian women,  children and old men were slaughtered in the Sand Creek Massacre. One officer who was present said later, “Women and children were killed and scalped, children shot at their mother’s breasts, and all the bodies mutilated in the most horrible manner… the dead bodies of females [were] profaned in such a manner that the recital is sickening…” The troopers cut off the vulvas of Indian women, stretching them over their saddle horns, then decorated their hatbands with them; some used the skin of braves’ scrotums and the breasts of Indian women as tobacco pouches, then showed off these trophies, together with the noses & ears of some of the Indians they had massacred, at the Denver Opera House.

    The assault on the American Indians continued into the twentieth century, but in different fashion. When I was going to school in the thirties, barely forty years after the army had butchered more than three hundred Oglala Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, most textbooks dismissed the Indians in two or three paragraphs that depicted them as a race of faceless, ferocious, heathen savages. 

    From dime novels to the movies, popular culture has reinforced our caricatures of American Indians, demonizing and dehumanizing them, and making folk heroes out of Indian killers like Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson and Kit Carson. From its birth, Hollywood defamed Indians in pictures like “The Squaw Man.” John Wayne probably did more damage than General Custer ever did to the Indians, projecting an idiotic image of a brave white man battling the godless savages of the frontier. Hollywood needed villains, and it made Indians the embodiment of evil.

    But our treatment of Native Americans is only a single thread in the tapestry of human depravity. Side by side with man’s extraordinary ability to think, there is an irrational aspect of his mind that makes him want to destroy on behalf of what he regards as his own breed. Darwin described an instinctive need of members of all species to protect and perpetuate their own group, but the human being is the only animal I know of that consciously inflicts pain on other members of its own species.  When I was a young man helping to raise money for Israel, I was amazed by what was then a great mystery to me: how it was possible for seemingly ordinary Germans to machine-gun innocent children or herd people into gas chambers by the thousands. It seemed unfathomable that human beings could do such things to one another. But over a lifetime it has become apparent that we are capable of anything on behalf of our own group; the animus is an immutable product of billions of years of evolution.

    People feel protected and secure in a tribe, as evidenced by the popularity of gangs in cities all over the world. Their members are responding to an atavistic impulse that has nothing to do with current social conditions; it is part of every person and every culture. The Holocaust wasn’t unique: what made it different was its scale, which to a large degree was simply a product of technology and organization. From time immemorial people have responded to similar impulses to exterminate other groups; the Nazis were more efficient at it. Nothing has eradicated our fundamental instinct to kill one another, usually under the guise of what is inevitably called a just and noble cause, religious or secular.

    There is a line in John Patrick’s play “The Teahouse  of the August Moon” in which the American officer assigned to bring democracy to Okinawa says, in effect, ” We’re going to create a democracy here even if we have to kill everyone to do so.” “Julius Caesar” was a cynical play because it reflected how easily people can be manipulated for a supposedly honorable purpose. Brutus announces why he killed Caesar:

    ” If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living  and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him, but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition…”

    Except for Mark Anthony, his friends cheered Brutus.

     Using slightly different but equally effective forms of manipulation, Goebbels’s  propaganda films bombarded Germans with photographs of Jews , then cut to a crowded warren of rats, the juxtaposition implying: ‘these are Jews’. We are all victimized by the incessant manipulation of our minds and emotions in church, at political rallies or while watching television commercials. The repetition of anything eventually effects us and becomes a part of us. The Nazis knew this, and employed it to convince Germans that it was perfectly proper to annihilate Jews. 

    Barely a century ago, American Indians were hunted for sport with Winchester rifles. Their hunters had been conditioned to regard them as less than human, like deer or quail. History is replete with similar crimes: under the cross of Christianity, the Crusaders swept across the Middle East hacking people to death with swords that fittingly replicated the cross; white settlers slaughtered countless thousands of aboriginals in Australia; the Turks slaughtered more than a million Armenians between 1915 and 1918; Stalin exterminated millions of peasants and intellectuals; the Khmer Rouge eradicated millions of Cambodians; during the so-called Cultural Revolution, millions of Chinese heeded appeals by their leaders to kill; and today the Serbs are practicing genocide on the Bosnians. 

    The formula is simple and always the same: make the other group the embodiment of evil, dehumanize it, create an ideology that provides a noble rationale for purging the world of this evil, and seemingly civilized people become enthusiastic  killers. Once another group is transformed into something less than human, it is astonishingly easy to arouse- as Hannah Arendt eloquently pointed out in ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’- the “will to follow”, and to convince ordinary people that they are free to commit terrible acts in the name of what has been mythologized as a moral and high-minded cause. It is a reflection of the fortitude, tenacity and resiliency of the human belief system; a man is far more prone to kill you if you threaten his beliefs than if you rape his wife, because his belief system is the foundation of his sanity.

    We are what we are taught. Get a child when he’s seven, the Jesuits say, and you’ll have him for life. Once these beliefs are planted solidly in our brains, we will do anything to protect them, no matter what they are. Virtually every religion preaches “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” and that you should sacrifice yourself for the welfare of others. Yet many of the bloodiest wars on our planet have been fought over religion. I’ve always thought it was a form of child abuse to take an impressionable child and hammer into him convictions that, even if right, will torment him all his life. A child is too young to make rational judgements, but many religions do this because they want to gain control of the child’s mind. It is all about power.

    As observed previously, one of the unique characteristics of the human animal is suggestibility. Another is the urge to create and believe myths. The British author and philosopher C.E.M. Joad wrote that people have ” an imperative need to believe,” and that the ” values of a belief are disproportionate, not to its truth,  but to its definiteness. Incapable of either admitting the existence of contrary judgements or of suspending their own, they supply the place of knowledge by turning other men’s conjectures into dogmas.”

    In one of the saddest chapters of American history in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War took the lives of 58,000 Americans, and I don’t know why. Our country embraced a litany of myths about the threat of communism, the ” domino theory ” and the menace of a Sino-Soviet bloc that didn’t exist. None of these threats ever existed. Intelligent people had at their fingertips enormous resources and information that were dead wrong. They weren’t evil men, but until it was too late they could not see through the beliefs that imprisoned them. They were certain they were right, and millions of Americans unblinkingly accepted what they said. We could honestly believe that a people ten thousand miles from our shores were our dangerous enemies- so dangerous, in fact, that we had to lie that an American ship had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese. It took ten or twelve years of a horrific war and tens of thousands of squandered lives to change this perception- though even now I sometimes hear people insist that we made a mistake by withdrawing from Vietnam when we did because we did so without “honor.”

    In short, we lose control of reality easily. We treated the American Indians in the same manner that Serbian people are treating the Muslims, that the Turks treated the Armenians and that Hitler treated the Jews. But we refuse to think of ourselves as a nation that committed genocide. 

    Our paratroopers jump out of airplanes yelling “Geronimo”, and the Pentagon names its helicopters “Navajo” and “Cherokee.” In this perverse fashion, we glorify the American Indian, but the minute he makes justifiable demands, he is ignored by a nation that prides itself on being a champion of human rights, the right of self-determination, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The cavalrymen and settlers who slaughtered the Indians weren’t inherently evil; they were responding to a culture that demonized them. But this does not excuse our country’s refusal to settle a debt that is long overdue. 

    With the exception of the United States, virtually every colonial power that stole land from its indigenous peoples has at least started to give some of it back to its rightful owners- often kicking and screaming because the United States has goaded them into doing so. However, if you ask anybody in our government or a western rancher to give up even a square inch of land to Native Americans, he will look at you in bemusement. I’ve met a lot of these ranchers, and when the topic of the American Indian’s ancestral ownership of the land comes up, they’ll state: “I own this land because my grandfather established this ranch; my father lived here all his life; and I intend for my children to live here on their own land.” If I point out that Indians were living on “their” land long before their grandfathers , they will always find a way to rationalize it: “Well, maybe, but I didn’t take their land, so why blame me for it?” Or ” You don’t seriously expect me to get off my land, do you? Maybe it was taken from the Indians, but we were the ones who settled it, who built it into something, and who planted the crops. We’ve earned this land.” 

    The rationalizations are unending. One of the strangest government policies is that largely because of the political influence of Jewish interests, our country has invested billions of dollars and many American lives to help Israel reclaim land that they say their ancestors occupied three thousand years ago. But if anyone tries to apply the same principle to the Native Americans, whose ancestors were here at least fifteen thousand years before the Europeans arrived, the reaction is that it is too late to turn the clock back now. It does no good to be logical about it; people do not respond to logic…
    The American Indian Movement did much to inspire Native Americans and raise their cultural pride, though it never won many tangible victories in the struggle to redress centuries of wrongs. However, I don’t think the story is over. Although Indians who ask for equity are still branded as rabble-rousers and dangerous militants, things are changing; maybe I’m overly optimistic, but history seems to be on the side of native peoples. 

    In Canada the government has begun giving back tracts of land to its indigenous peoples; Australia is doing the same; even in the United States there have been small victories-court rulings that uphold some Indian fishing rights- and in Hawaii the return of some resources to native people. 

    American Indians say that they realize that the descendants of the European settlers who took their land aren’t going to get back on the ships that brought them here and return to Dublin, Minsk, Naples or wherever they came from; all they want is the return of some of the stolen native lands to shelter themselves and their children and to provide them with a future. They say that at least we should give them a small cut of the pie that we’ve stolen. 

    I believe it is inevitable that the Indians will succeed. A society cannot continue to claim that it favors expanding women’s or gay rights, or spend its wealth helping a country like Israel reclaim its historical lands, and yet do nothing for its own native peoples.”

    Marlon Brando, 
    (excerpts from “Songs My Mother Taught Me” , 1994) 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s