Turtle Island Project: Prose Meets Policy for Stronger U.S. National Security

The United States has a wealth of ideas and experiences to draw from for sound foreign and national security policy decisions, but it has habitually relied on only a narrow slice of that wealth. U.S. foreign and national security policies continue to operate largely from a monolithic, Eurocentric, Christian, and male perspective.  This narrow perspective frames how the country has viewed problems and the solutions created to address them. For a population of approximately 330 million people, too many experiences that could help strengthen U.S. national security are completely left out of the discourse. For example, COVID-19 vaccines are available and the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect and kill African Americans. Yet, there is currently no tailored plan to help this community overcome distrust in the U.S. healthcare system’s racist policies to receive vaccinations. If stories about the African American community’s struggles with the U.S. healthcare system were more widely known, a targeted policy approach on vaccinations might have been prioritized – saving lives and strengthening the country.

The Importance of Storytelling in National Self-Understanding and Policymaking

In policymaking, stories matter. The more stories of marginalized communities told, the more those stories will make their way into policy discussions. The more those stories make their way into policy discussions, the more often policies will be enacted that consider the impact and well-being of these individuals. Yet stories of non-Eurocentric experiences are consistently de-centered in favor of Eurocentric experiences in the United States. There are several reasons for the relative dearth of attention – a lack of care and focus on these communities, lack of understanding of key differences, and willful blindness among them.

There is a moral imperative to empower and secure these individuals across the nation, and to include their stories in national conversations. But there are also shallow self-interested reasons to embrace the full picture of U.S. society. In order to develop a more proactive and ultimately more successful strategy to further U.S interests in the world, the United States must rely more on the experiences and perspectives of all its communities to shape its international relations, both in cooperation and in conflict.

Sweeping changes are needed to grapple with the demographic and political realities of the United States. These changes must include a clear-eyed examination of the nation’s complete history (such as the fact that 12 of the first 18 U.S. presidents owned enslaved persons), with compensatory attention on the stories of non-European folks. Such attention must include acknowledgement not just of past indifference but also instances where the security of non-European folks was jeopardized or destroyed by the U.S. government itself (such as the assassination of Fred Hampton by COINTELPRO, depicted in the HBOMax film Judas and the Black Messiah released two weeks ago).Grappling with the nation’s past and present also requires the creation of opportunities for Americans to break free of their insularity and narrow viewpoints and the opening of more space for the stories and perspectives of all Americans in the foreign policy and national security policy communities.

The Turtle Island Project

Since the Revolutionary War, U.S. national security policy has focused almost exclusively on foreign threats, while ignoring the domestic threats of institutional racism and white supremacy, which continue to keep African Americans and other marginalized communities unsafe within the country’s own borders. These threats are not just historical. They are present and ongoing.  The Confederate flag was paraded through the U.S. Capitol building in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection attempt – something that never happened during the Civil War. The insurrection attempt was the result of ignoring how deeply white supremacy is institutionalized in the United States and its existence as a persistent threat.

As I have written for Just Security previously, “If the United States is serious about effectively addressing foreign policy and national security challenges and issues, it must do more to acknowledge, accept, and confront its flawed history.” But what would that look like? How can the U.S. concretely do more to acknowledge, accept, and confront its past and present? A new approach that brings those perpetual, uncomfortable discussions into communities through art could spark a new way to consider and discuss national security.

I propose the establishment of site-based and traveling displays across the country where people can delve deeply into the real history of the United States – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Think the Redfordations museums of HBO’s Watchmen meets Smithsonian satellite museums, as available as the local library. The project would spread the wealth of institutions like the Smithsonian outside the Beltway, ensuring that no one would have to travel far for the experience. Given COVID-19, each site would have digital programming to allow for socially distanced enlightenment. The wide distribution of this information could also help offset public school students’ shrinking exposure to history, social studies and civics.

I call this idea the Turtle Island Project. Here’s why: many Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking indigenous peoples of the northeastern part of North America refer to the continent by that name. Naming the project Turtle Island solemnly reminds us of the peoples who have been marginalized, mistreated, and murdered since the first Europeans arrived on the continent. That history matters, and has implications for the United States’ future among other nations. The Turtle Island Project will center that history and other, similarly overlooked aspects of U.S. history, allowing them to be remembered and integrated into the national self-understanding.

This idea is inspired by the existing, eye-opening work of The Legacy Museum, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the virtual reality installation Carne y Arena. The Turtle Island Project should specifically illustrate historical incidents in which folks from marginalized communities lost security at the hands of the U.S. government, including but not limited to: Justice Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case, the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, the Tuskegee Experiment, Red Summer beginning in 1919, the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, Executive Order 9066, and the Mulford Act in 1967.

Beyond describing and memorializing discreet incidents such as those listed above, each Turtle Island-sponsored exhibit would create a nexus between domestic and international issues; historic and present struggles. Want to learn how treaties work? One component of every Turtle Island site would feature information about the treaties signed with Native Tribes wherever the Turtle Island sites are located, the great lengths taken to break them, and information (such as from the podcast This Land) highlighting the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that the eastern half of Oklahoma is Native American land. Looking for somewhere to house all the Confederate monuments and statues that need to be removed from places of public honor? Turtle Island sites could be the place to preserve and contextualize them. Simultaneously, the Turtle Island Project would also offer creative individuals new ways to make information visible to wider and more diverse audiences. Mobile exhibits could drive through urban, rural, and suburban neighborhoods alike as frequently as ice-cream trucks – or the exhibits could ride on literal ice-cream trucks themselves. YouTube videos targeted to young people could update the “School House Rock” educational videos, a necessary shift to spur necessary conversations.

To promote discussion, each Turtle Island site or traveling exhibition would also offer visitors the opportunity to share their own stories and reflections in a digital archive that others can consume. Think of expanding the New York Times’ “1619 Project to all facets of the nation’s history and issues, or investing in the StoryCorps project with a specific emphasis on gathering and sharing untold stories of the intersection of the personal and political.

As these examples illustrate, the Turtle Island Project would not be the first or only project seeking to integrate unheard stories into the American self-understanding. For example, the L.A. Times is creating a Salvadoran diaspora project called “#SalvadoranStories to document the stories of Salvadoran folks – folks like my in-laws, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the 1980s, fleeing the U.S.-backed war there.

But these stories should have been part of American history as they were happening, not thrown into the conversation four decades later. After all, Salvadorans make up the third largest Latino population in the United States. If these stories had been widely documented and shared as they were happening, issues affecting El Salvadoran communities might have always been part of national policy conversations, which would in turn shape conversations on, for example, immigration and the impacts of a border wall.

Time to Tell the Whole American Story

Something like “#SalvadoranStories” should not be novel in 2021 – and yet it is. These few examples of existing efforts to remedy underrepresentation prove the need for a concerted national effort. It is far past time to focus on marginalized communities and to target policy solutions on the issues that most impact them. More often than not, such policy solutions would strengthen the nation overall, not just its most vulnerable or underrepresented residents.

The Biden/Harris administration has stated ad nauseam that they desire to unite the divided nation and bring everyone together. The Turtle Island Project is a start, to acknowledge and highlight experiences from marginalized communities, too often ignored in favor of monolithically Eurocentric narratives. Regardless of expected backlash from those used to prevalent Eurocentric narratives and policies (similar to the backlash to HBO’s Watchmen), the focus must remain on the entire nation – the people of “we the people,” the first words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The time to honor those words is long overdue. The United States cannot disregard the unique experiences of its approximately 330 million people, especially as over 500,000 have lost their lives to COVID-19. The nation’s security and foreign policy will be more robust once the concerns, issues, and experiences of each community within it are represented in every policy decision and discussion. This representation depends on visibility – and the Turtle Island Project provides a grassroots means of making visible the too-often invisible stories of the nation’s full diversity.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay received an honorable mention in New America’s Reshaping U.S. Security Policy for the COVID Era essay competition. Readers may also be interested in our series, Racing National Security, on the intersection of race and national security. All articles in the series can be found here. 

Image: RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – JANUARY 15: Michael Fisher Sr., lifts his son, Michael Fisher Jr., to dunk a basketball at the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue on January 15, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. Erected in 1890, and standing 60 feet high, Richmond’s graffitied statue of Robert E. Lee now serves as reminder of last year’s racial justice movement. Art work, graffiti and memorials call out racial equity and takes a stand against social injustice. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Adom Cooper

Operations Planning Specialist, High-Threat Programs (Bureau of Diplomatic Security) at the U.S. Department of State. Follow him on Twitter (@HouseCoop).