Shot through with Contradictions: Reflections on Native America, Guns, and the Modern United States

David Silverman
Seminoles Attack

Seminoles Attack. Sudden attacks by camouflaged Seminole gunmen on exposed American positions, military trains, and forts, like the one pictured here, characterized the Second Seminole War. The Seminoles’ skillful use of the swampy Florida terrain to launch hit-and-run raids, and their cultivation of multiple international sources of supply for military stores, enabled them to drag out the war far longer than most Americans expected and to extract important concessions from Washington. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Throughout the research and writing of my most recent book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, friends, family, and colleagues asked me repeatedly how it would speak to current public debates over the Second Amendment. My editor, in particular, emphasized that this question was bound to come up whenever I gave a public talk or interview on my work. Despite such counsel, I was reluctant to frame the book in such terms. As readers of this forum are likely aware, most historians agree that indigenous gunmen had little or nothing to do with the Second Amendment, regardless of whether that phrase is interpreted as an individual right or a right of the states to regulate their own militias.[i] I did not (and do not) want our understandable preoccupation with what to do about the current scourge of gun violence to overshadow my book’s focus on a major historical development: the emergence of guns, powder, and shot as military necessities for Native people and the dynamic ways Indians shaped their cultures and politics to address this condition. A number of reviews of the book on popular websites catering to gun enthusiasts expressed positive surprise that an academic from an eastern, urban university (none of them explicitly mentioned the ethnicity of my name) wrote a book on firearms without using it as a political bludgeon.[ii] Yet as my inner circle predicted, I have found it neither possible nor desirable to cordon off considerations of my findings from our current politics. Over the course of more than a year of giving public book talks, I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern of my appearances coinciding with American mass shootings at schools, offices, night clubs, concerts, and churches, never mind smaller-scale shootings in my home city of Philadelphia and workplace of Washington, DC. Our urgent need to talk to one another across our partisan divides, and for historians to shed whatever light they can on this disturbing moment, has led me to reflect more openly in public settings about what we might learn from Native Americans’ historic experiences with firearms. I expect neither the political left nor the right will be fully satisfied with my conclusions.

Opponents of gun control who argue that it would be next to impossible for the federal government to control illegal arms trafficking, and that suppression of gun ownership would embolden governmental tyranny, will find evidence for their arguments in my book. During the nearly three centuries of history which I explore, colonial, imperial, and national authorities were utterly incapable of preventing gun runners, including their own people in times of war, from supplying the Native American market. The demand was just too high and the potential profits (in the form of furs, wampum, slaves, and land) too great. Indeed, numerous government and military officials themselves got in on the act. Such roguish behavior, combined with Native savviness at cultivating multiple suppliers, meant that early modern states were rarely able to cut off Native people from arms and ammunition. Of course, this is not to say that the modern state would prove equally inept if given sufficient resources.

Second Amendment advocates also contend that investing government with such power would be inimical to liberty, that a government that does not fear the people is at risk of becoming tyrannical. Native people’s history certainly bears out such thinking. To the extent that Indians successfully defended their land, lives, and sovereignty from colonial states between the seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, it was largely because they represented a military threat. Once the government had successfully disarmed Plains Indians, it began confiscating their territory with even greater impunity than before and even seizing their precious children for abusive re-acculturation. Echoes of that past resonated during the American Indian Movement’s 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee to protest a host of injustices committed by white Americans against their indigenous countrymen and women. What really made the public—and federal agents—take notice was the protestors’ showcasing of their arsenal, which turned out to be far more meager than they made it appear.[iii]

Poster showing Bobby Onco, a Kiowa, and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), holding up rifle. Photograph was taken after a ceasefire agreement between AIM forces and federal marshals at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, 1973. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

The common argument against gun control, that the best way to oppose “bad guys” with guns is “good guys” with guns, often lampooned by the left, actually has some support in Native American history. Thundersticks traces a pattern in which tribes that managed to seize temporary control of an emerging gun market became predatory raiders who exploited lesser armed peoples for captives, slaves, hunting territory, wampum, and tributaries. These attacks ebbed only when the distribution of arms became more even, or, in other words, when the victims had the means to fight back.

Yet the greatest lesson Thundersticks has to offer our own time is that when everyone is armed, lots of people die from gun violence. True enough, Native people needed firearms to defend themselves against armed outside aggressors, indigenous and colonial alike. Yet that circumstance created a world of endemic gun violence in which men were likely to lead short lives and women and children lived in constant terror of enemy gunmen taking them captive and selling them into slavery, if they did not shoot them down first. I have been immersed in that historical world for several years, and it is not one in which I would wish to live. Unfortunately, many of my fellow Americans do live in conditions approximating it. For decades, gunfire in the streets has been a fact of life in number of America’s poorest, urban, disproportionately black and brown neighborhoods. Recent studies have found that some young people living in these environments have levels of post-traumatic stress disorder akin to soldiers returning from war. Now that white people, particularly their children, are beginning to feel vulnerable to gun violence in the places where they live, study, worship, and seek entertainment, public opinion for government to “do something” is building to a pitch.[iv]

Whatever that something is, the history of Native America teaches that it will be rife with contradictions. If we are going to be free from the tyranny of gun violence, we will be more vulnerable to governmental tyranny, a threat which many on the left have only recently recognized because of the treasonous collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia and the Trump administration’s flagrant disregard for the separation of powers, civil rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, press freedoms, and truth. If government cracks down on easy access to guns, it will certainly give rise to new forms of criminality and official corruption. Not least of all, we should consider a point made to me by some of my Native contacts and black Philadelphian neighbors: that among people of color with long histories of abuse at the hands of white America, there is a body of opinion that guns are the last line of defense, even as everyone recognizes that guns in white hands have served as tools of oppression.[v] That’s a point with which both the left and right need to reckon.


[i]A recent, forceful argument against that consensus is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (San Francisco, 2018).

[ii]See, for example, 7/2/18).

[iii]On AIM and Wounded Knee, see Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee(New York, 1996); Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, new ed. (New York, 1991).

[iv]On the links between civic gun violence and trauma, see Eboni Morris, “Youth Violence: Implications for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Urban Youth,” National Urban League Policy Institute Report (2009), 7/2/18); Lois Beckett, “The PTSD Crisis That’s Being Ignored: Americans Wounded in Their Own Neighborhoods,” Propublica, Feb. 3, 2014, 7/2/18); Lois Beckett, “The Best Reporting on PTSD in Children Exposed to Violence,” Propublica, Sept. 19, 2014, 7/2/18).

[v]For a sampling of the range  of opinion on this issue in Indian country, see Gary Bernally, letter  to the editor, Navajo Times, Apr. 27, 2017, 7/2/18); Kimberly Greager, “Pine Ridge Girls Walk Out for Gun Reform,” Native Sun News, Mar. 22, 2018, 7/2/18);  Ruth Hopkins, “Indian Country and the Second Amendment,” Indian Country Today, Oct. 3, 2012, 7/2/18); 7/2/18). For a sampling of recent discussions about African Americans and the right to bear arms, see Ameer Hasan Loggins and Christopher Petrella, “Why Killer Mike is Right: African Americans Should Own Guns,” Washington Post, Apr. 11, 2018, 7/2/18); David A. Graham, “Do African Americans Have a Right to Bear Arms?” Atlantic, Jun. 17, 2017, 7/2/18).

13 August 2018

About the Author

David J. Silverman is professor of history at George Washington University. He is currently working on a book for Bloombury Press provisionally titled No Thanks: The Wampanoags, Plymouth Colony, and Thanksgiving: A Mourning Story.

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