By Gayatri Devi |
The historic and uniquely white American racist slur against Native Americans—”The only good Indian is a dead Indian” – made a recent comeback on 17 May 2020, when Couy Griffin, the District 2 Commissioner of Otero county, New Mexico told an assembled audience at the New Hope Revival Church in Truth or Consequences that “I’ve come to a place where I’ve come to the conclusion that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”
Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump, was speaking at a rally at the church which had received a cease and desist order from the New Mexico State Police for violating the health mandates for public gatherings. Griffin later defended himself by saying that he was speaking about the “political death” of the democratic party, and not the “physical death” of democrats. Griffin also rejected calls asking him to step down as the county commissioner; he believed the request to be “unwarranted.”
On May 28th, Donald Trump retweeted Couy Griffin’s video to his followers with these words of appreciation: “Thank you Cowboys. See you in New Mexico!”
Media coverage of this event has only focused on the dangerously partisan and fractious relationship between the two political parties at a time of a national health crisis. However, this statement exposes the rising trend of the merging of the rhetoric of white nationalism with that of an established political party.
The latest statement by Couy Griffin, and its retweeting by the president of the United States is a public moment of the return of the repressed, in the Freudian sense of the term. It exposes the mainstream blending and broad acceptance of white nationalism in American politics in the post-Obama era.
“The only good democrat is a dead democrat” is an adaptation of a nineteenth century folk proverb, and an official policy of the United States government towards its indigenous people. Folklorists, cultural historians, and paramiologists have by now debunked the popular ascription of “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” to General Philip Sheridan. Indeed, one must look with skepticism at the easy attempts to trace popular proverbs with large cultural currency to any single author. Their widespread acceptance and use across very diverse populations and geographies often indicate that they are distillations of generally held beliefs.
We hear this slur for the first time in a debate on a House Appropriations Bill in 1868 from the mouth of a Minnesota congressman James Michael Cavanaugh: “The gentleman from Massachusetts may denounce the sentiment as atrocious, but I will say that I like an Indian better dead than living. I have never in my life seen a good Indian– and I have seen thousands–except when I have seen a dead Indian.”
Cavanaugh went on to affirm that “I believe in the policy that exterminates the Indians, drives them outside the boundaries of civilization, because you can’t civilize them . . .” The fact that Cavanaugh was not speaking figuratively makes Griffin’s claims about his “dead democrats” comment being figurative rather suspect.
In 1884, you hear the same sentiment from another military man, Major William Shepherd: “On the frontier, a good Indian means a “dead” Indian. The Indian must go, is going, and will soon be gone. It is his luck.”
Moving from military men to men of faith, an English vicar, Alfred Gurney, in 1886, noted in his journal: “The Government of the United States is at length earnestly endeavoring to do tardy justice to the conquered race; but it was distressing to hear again and again from American lips the remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian.”
As folklorist Wolfgang Mieder has pointed out, the proverb thus developed rather prosaically at first before it achieved its current potent and portable form. The most infamous variant of this racist slur was voiced by the original “rough rider,” America’s 26th president Theodore Roosevelt.
Speaking in 1886, in faraway New York, miles away from the western frontier, Roosevelt said, ” I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the western view of the Indians. I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire very closely into the case of the tenth.”
Mieder’s extensive research ascribes a general far-flung geographic distribution to this slur. It was identified in areas as geographically distant as Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada, California, North Dakota and many others. In all cases, the racist slur was deployed as political and cultural affirmation of white nationalism in the United States.
Planning and participating in the attempted extermination of one group of people perhaps makes it easy for white nationalists to prepare and fantasize the extermination of a second group. Thus, a slur against Native Americans was recast in the first half of the twentieth century as a slur against African Americans.
Mieder’s research on the variant evolution of this proverb –“The only good n***** is a dead n*****” – lists George Bernard Shaw’s famous caution against the Ku Klux Klan’s use of the slur as one of its earliest and most prophetic warnings.
That such white nationalist views were part and parcel of the establishment police is evident in the reports that surfaced in the mid 1990s about the LAPD detective Max Fuhrman who had investigated the O. J. Simpson case. Fuhrman was alleged to have publicly used several racist slurs against Simpson including “The only good n***** is a dead n*****.” Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed “Coontown,” a sub-reddit of the popular online forum Reddit, under its hate watch monitor, where this racist slur has found a comfortable home in the twenty first century. As recently as 2015, in the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre, this Reddit forum that routinely features racist slurs against African Americans, Jews, and Muslims saw user posts with the above slur in its headings.
Couy Griffin’s “the only good democrat is a dead democrat” thus belongs to a proverbial racist slur consistently espoused only by white nationalists in the United States in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. The rhetoric of white nationalism makes it evident that it was and continues to be a racist project. It is this slur, sprung from the bedrock of racism, that is currently being spoken and shared around in American social media by an establishment political party.
The public calls for Griffin’s step-down are completely warranted. When an establishment political party panders to white nationalists, the danger it poses to democracy is not from the fringes anymore. Griffin’s comment about “dead democrats” is not about the ideological differences between the Republican party and the Democratic party. It is about racism and its political expression in white nationalism. Whether uttered by a county commissioner, the president, or his party, it is the responsibility of each and every American to focus on the racist bedrock of this comment, and to challenge, expose and publicly condemn any public official’s tacit endorsement of white nationalism.
Gayatri Devi is Associate Professor of English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. She is also a contributing editor to North Dakota Quarterly.