Indian prison has lessons for modern Guantanamo
By Chuck Raasch, Gannett National Writer
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The ghosts of 1875 are all around.
Beginning that year and continuing off and on into the 1880s, American Indians suspected of terrorizing white settlers pushing West were confined in a prison here not unlike the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The country struggled to define the Indians' legal status. Were they criminals, prisoners of war, or agitators who needed to be confined to stop them from attacking again?
It must be stated clearly: There are vast moral differences between Native Americans fighting for ancestral homes and Islamic fundamentalist terrorists bent on mass murder of Americans in their homes and cities.
But British statesman Edmund Burke's famous admonition, "Those that don't know history are destined to repeat it," seemed especially poignant during my tour this month of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, one of the oldest European colonial forts in North America.
From 1875-1878, this facility – by then known as Fort Marion– became a prison camp for 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Caddo and Arapaho leaders and their families. In the 1880s, hundreds of Apaches were confined here.
Some early captives had survived the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado in 1864, a military attack on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment in which more than 400 died.
The status of the prisoners was left to the attorney general's office to sort out, said Brad Lookingbill, a professor of history at Columbia College in Missouri, and author of a 2006 book, War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners.
"Are they criminals, warriors, treated like soldiers?" Lookingbill said. "They left it open. They didn't resolve it."
This was pre-Geneva Convention, there was no ACLU to defend the prisoners, and there had been no declaration of Indian wars. They were imprisoned in Florida, away from their tribes, "because they were potential troublemakers," Lookingbill said.
Two years after the Sioux wiped out Gen. George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, this first group of prisoners was allowed to either return home or go to school.
They had become a tourist attraction and a cause for wealthy New Englanders. Fort Marion's commander, Army Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, cut the men's hair, made them wear uniforms and drill, and dressed the women and children in skirts and pants.
A Cheyenne leader, Medicine Water, was a Sand Creek survivor who had killed settlers and surveyors in the Oklahoma Territory. He told his family that he was held in a small cave and interrogated.
"They wanted to know who was helping him, where they were, so they would be able to go get them," said Dolores Subia BigFoot, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma's Health Sciences Center. "And he would never tell. And this was the story that was handed down through the generations, starting in the 1880s."
BigFoot had ancestors held at Fort Marion. Her late husband, John Sipes Jr., a Cheyenne chief and great-great grandson of Medicine Water, began recording the history of the Fort Marion prisoners in the 1990s.
Fort Marion can provide some lessons for Guantanamo.
Some paths out of captivity do not lead to violence.
Some Fort Marion prisoners ended up at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where Pratt tried to convert Indian students to Christianity. One of Carlisle's largest contingents was more than 1,000 Sioux from the Dakotas, who had been scattered, pursued and pushed back to reservations after Custer's defeat.
Over the school's 40 years of existence, some Carlisle graduates assimilated into white culture, some ran away, some died on campus, and some graduated into a netherworld between tradition and the dominant culture.
Making Medicine, one of the fiercest Cheyenne fighters held at Fort Marion, went to Carlisle and became Episcopal Bishop David Pendleton Oakerhater.
An unrepentant Medicine Water went straight home to Oklahoma and hauled freight for the government that had imprisoned him. Generations later, his descendants fight to defend his actions during a time when Native Americans were considered the terrorists.