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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Filed under economics, migration, military, nationalism, North America, scholarship, U.S., war

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