Daily Archives: 6 February 2017

U.S. Grant’s New Indian Bureau, 1868

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2321-2341:

The election of Ulysses S. Grant as president in November 1868 seemingly boded well for the army. After all, as commanding general he had defended Sherman and Sheridan’s hardfisted approach to the Indian problem and decried civilian meddling. But President-elect Grant was not General Grant, and to the surprise of the generals he welcomed ideas from the reformers, particularly the Quakers. Embracing their suggestion that religious men replace spoilsmen as agents, Grant gave the Quakers control over the two most critical—and difficult—Indian Bureau field operations: the Northern Indian Superintendency, comprising six agencies in Nebraska, and the Central Superintendency, which embraced Kansas and the “uncivilized” portion of Indian Territory (that is to say, the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho, and the Kiowa and Comanche agencies). The apportionment of these superintendencies to the Society of Friends became known as Grant’s Quaker Policy. To run the remaining superintendencies and agencies in the West, Grant selected honest and reliable army officers.

Grant also wanted to establish independent oversight of the Indian Bureau. To achieve it, he persuaded Congress to create the Board of Indian Commissioners. Composed of wealthy philanthropists, the board was given wide authority to scrutinize the operations of the Indian Bureau in Washington and in the field. And then Grant did something even more remarkable: he appointed an Indian to be commissioner of Indian affairs.

The new commissioner was Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Iroquois sachem from upstate New York and a civil engineer who had risen to the rank of brevet brigadier general on Grant’s staff during the Civil War. Parker was a man of proven integrity. Although he subscribed to the prevailing view that the Indians’ future lay in acculturation, he nonetheless could be counted on to make it as painless as possible. In June 1869, Parker instructed his staff on their duties under the Grant administration: Indian agents and their superintendents were to assemble Indians in their jurisdictions on permanent reservations, get them started on the road to civilization, and above all treat them with kindness and patience. Indians who refused to settle on reservations would be turned over to military control, however, and treated as “friendly or hostile as circumstances might justify.”

Grant saw no humane alternative to his administration’s carrot-and-stick body of principles that the press labeled the “Peace Policy” and its concomitant policies of concentrating the Indians on reservations far from whites and of consolidating small reservations into larger ones populated by two or more tribes, which meant that tribes promised exclusive homes stood to lose them regardless of treaty guarantees.

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Tribe vs. Tribe in the Northern Plains

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 475-495:

The most powerful newcomers before the whites spilled onto the plains were the Sioux, formerly a woodlands people of the present-day upper Midwest. As it shifted west, the Sioux nation separated into three divisions: the Dakotas, a semisedentary people who clung to the Minnesota River; the Nakotas, who settled east of the Missouri River; and the Lakotas, who wrestled their way onto the northern plains. The Lakotas were the true horse-and-buffalo Sioux of popular imagination, and they constituted nearly half the Sioux nation. The Lakotas in turn divided into seven tribes: the Oglalas, Brulés, Miniconjous, Two Kettles, Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs, of which the Oglalas and the Brulés were the largest. In fact, these two tribes alone outnumbered all the non-Lakota Indians on the northern plains.

In their westward march across present-day Nebraska and the Dakotas during the early nineteenth century, the Lakotas gradually allied themselves with the Cheyennes and the Arapahos, who had been pushed onto the northern plains in advance of the Lakotas and had already forged an enduring bond, albeit an odd coupling. Their languages were mutually unintelligible, an impediment they overcame with a sophisticated sign language, and their characters could not have been more dissimilar. The Arapahos tended to be a kindly and accommodating people, whereas the Cheyennes evolved into fearsome warriors. The first contact between the Lakotas and the Cheyenne-Arapaho combination was hostile, because they competed for the game-rich Black Hills country. “Peace would be made,” a Cheyenne chief recounted. “They would hold out the pipe to us and say, ‘Let us be good friends,’ but time and again treacherously broke their promises.” Not until the 1840s did the Lakotas keep their word. By then, many of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, fed up with the duplicity of the Lakotas and lured by white traders, had migrated south, forming the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes and leaving the Lakotas the undisputed suzerains of the northern plains.

The Lakotas and the Cheyennes and Arapahos who remained on the northern plains had the same tribal enemies—the badly outnumbered but hard-fighting Crows of present-day central Montana and northern Wyoming and the semi-agricultural Pawnees who dwelled along the Platte River in Nebraska. The basis of the rivalry was both a relentless drive by the Lakota–Northern Cheyenne–Northern Arapaho alliance to expand their hunting lands and the warrior culture common to all Plains tribes. Geographically separated from each other, the Crows and the Pawnees never formed an alliance, but being badly in need of friends—or enemies of their enemies conceived of as friends—both tribes instead eventually cast their fate with the whites.

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Retelling the Indian Wars in the American West

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 322-354:

A newspaperman once asked George Crook, one of the preeminent generals in the West, how he felt about his job. It was a hard thing, he replied, to be forced to do battle with Indians who more often than not were in the right. “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war. And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do—fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”

That a general would offer such a candid and forceful public defense of the Indians seems implausible because it contradicts an enduring myth: that the regular army was the implacable foe of the Indian.

No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate a changing national conscience.

In the first eighty years following the tragedy at Wounded Knee, which marked the end of Indian resistance, the nation romanticized Indian fighters and white settlers and vilified or trivialized the Indians who resisted them. The army appeared as the shining knights of an enlightened government dedicated to conquering the wilderness and to “civilizing” the West and its Native American inhabitants.

In 1970, the story reversed itself, and the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Americans were developing an acute sense of the countless wrongs done the Indians. Dee Brown’s elegantly written and passionately wrought Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, later that same year, the film Little Big Man shaped a new saga that articulated the nation’s feelings of guilt. In the public mind, the government and the army of the latter decades of the nineteenth century became seen as willful exterminators of the Native peoples of the West. (In fact, the government’s response to what was commonly called the “Indian problem” was inconsistent, and although massacres occurred and treaties were broken, the federal government never contemplated genocide. That the Indian way of life must be eradicated if the Indian were to survive, however, was taken for granted.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee still deeply influences the way Americans perceive the Indian Wars and has remained the standard popular work on the era. It is at once ironic and unique that so crucial a period of our history remains largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance. Dee Brown gave as the stated purpose of his book the presentation of “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West. Brown’s definition of victims was severely circumscribed. Several tribes, most notably the Shoshones, Crows, and Pawnees, cast their fate with the whites. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee dismissed these tribes as “mercenaries” with no attempt to understand them or explain their motives. These Indians, like the army and the government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the “victims” in the story.

Such a one-sided approach to the study of history ultimately serves no good purpose; it is impossible to judge honestly the true injustice done the Indians, or the army’s real role in those tragic times, without a thorough and nuanced understanding of the white perspective as well as that of the Indians. What I have sought to do in this book, then, is bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars. I hesitate to use the word “restore” when speaking of balance, because it is the pendulum swings that have defined society’s understanding of the subject since the closing of the military frontier in 1891.

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