Convicted traitor Clayton Lonetree wept as he described his upbringing on an Indian reservation orphanage and with his father, a brutal alcoholic. The Marine Corps was, he said, a way out of his misery, although his principal reasons for joining were patriotic. The military jury, unmoved by his arguments and those of his celebrity lawyer William Kunstler, sentenced Lonetree to 30 years. Why they didn’t make it life—and why they couldn’t make it death—is one of those mysteries which, if you had the answer to it, would go a long way toward explaining what is wrong with our country.

Lonetree’s version of the events—true love with a Russian girl and a heroic plan to trap a KGB agent—was never taken seriously. He had to be stupid to make up such a tale, but then his predicament was itself a sign of imbecility. Retaining Bill “Chicago 7” Kunstler as counsel in a treason case was only the last straw. The Lonetree case is still more interesting than other recent spy stories. It is a kind of parable of American history. As the American republic swelled into a continental empire, the only resistance it met came from the impoverished savages on the plains. The Indian wars are the heroic period of America. If we treated them with brutality and indifference, they paid us back in full with rape, torture, murder, and perfidy. To excuse their acts of habitual brutality on the grounds of cultural differences is really to indict an entire race. For nearly a hundred years, we celebrated the frontiersmen and soldiers who fought in the Indian wars as heroes. It was a standing joke in Hollywood that the Indians always lose—although they did in fact lose everything—and the most important white loser, George Armstrong Custer, was treated as a heroic martyr.

It is a pardonable mistake to celebrate the virtues of a defeated enemy, but the role-reversal of cowboys and Indians is a sign of a very deep sickness in American cultural life. Now it is the Indians who always win—or deserve to. The difference between a film like They Died With Their Boots On and Little Big Man is the difference between two Americas; and the decline from Custer the white knight to Custer the degraded moron represents a vast change in our attitudes toward our own manhood and leadership. In the same transmutation, the Indians went from savages to saints, the masters of a secret wisdom that was in harmony with nature. Castaneda’s Don Juan initiated American students into a sci-fi world of shamans and demons, while Chief Dan George (the real star of Little Big Man) provided an Indian folk wisdom somewhere between Will Rogers and Myron Cohen. (I suspect the real Dan George is more like the engaging loser he portrayed in The Outlaw Josey Wales.)

After all is said that can be said against them, the Indians of the plains were brave and able opponents and deserved honorable treatment—either freedom or death. Instead, we instituted an experimental welfare state in the form of reservations and gave them neither incentives nor opportunities to escape from bondage. Anyone could have predicted the results: a culture of dependency in which men without honor neglect their families, get drunk, and waste their lives tomcatting. The “conservative” response has usually been, “Get a job, make something of your life.” Some do, and it is to their credit that they have escaped. But many more do not. Like most of us, the failures lead lives bound by the community norms in which they grew up. Such a man is Clayton Lonetree.

The strange part of Lonetree’s story is not his background but his treason. Prosecutors tried to establish a motive of Indian resentment against the white man’s country that had enslaved his people. While there are such Indians, especially among the young smart alecks who have listened to some community college teacher as he recites the record of their sufferings, more often Indians have proved to be unusually loyal Americans. They also make good soldiers—as if they still dimly remembered that courage in battle is a primary requirement of manhood. If you go to an Ojibwa powwow, as I did several years ago, the one thing that stands out is the patriotism of the men. In the midst of the phony Indian art (made by Navaho a thousand miles away), the foul smells of frying venison and human waste, the men are introduced on the dancing ground. One after another is announced, giving his rank, his branch of service, his regiment, his decorations, and always the main fact: combat veteran. In addition to their tribal ensigns, the men carry American flags and stand proud, basking in their deserved honor as combat veterans. I have never seen such sentimental pride in the American military as I have witnessed among Indian veterans.

Lonetree has done more than betray his country and his uniform; he has also betrayed his people, whose poverty, misery, and dependence should stand as a stern reminder of the fruits of all empire. The red men were our first conquest, and the hypocrisy we have lavished upon the very real problem they present (both for themselves and for the nation) is a good indication that we are not yet ready to play in the major leagues of international politics. (TF)