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Book Review: The Earth Is Weeping (Peter Cozzens)

The Earth Is Weeping offers an almost painfully even-handed look at the conflicts between the United States and American Indian tribes after the Civil War.  Of course, given the historiography of the past fifty years, an even-handed look necessarily inverts the traditional narrative.  Here, Team Indian does good and bad, and Team White does good and bad, each according to its own internal dictates of morality and external dictates of practicality and need.  The Sioux are expelled from their land—which they conquered only ten years before by slaughtering the previous inhabitants with extreme brutality.  The white man (and the Mexican, and the white man’s numerous Indian allies) usually breaks treaties and sometimes kills women and children.  Here is no morality tale, but the old and inevitable tale of nomad vs. nomad vs. state—new, perhaps, in Sumer, but not new in 1870.

Cozzens is a well-known expert on American warfare of the Civil War period.  This military history covers the period from 1866, beginning with Red Cloud’s War in Montana Territory, until 1891, the final suppression of the Sioux as an independent nation.  The book is chronologically organized, and within the chronology, focuses on a variety of tribes, some better known than others because of their role in past and present popular culture, from Custer’s Last Stand to Dances With Wolves.  It contains excellent maps that are a great help to the reader, both in understanding the geography of the land and the geography of Indian tribes.  Cozzens’s writing is crisp, clear, and to the point, so although the book is fairly long, the reader never feels like the narrative drags—perhaps, in part, because the reader knows that around the next corner is another tragedy.

This is a history of “the Indian Wars for the American West,” so nothing is said about earlier Indian wars, either with the Spanish in the southern part of what is now the United States, or colonial conflicts with the Eastern tribes such as the Five Nations.  The usual narrative of the Western Indian wars is filled with propaganda and ignorance, in earlier years driven by the call of Manifest Destiny and the myth of the savage, noble or otherwise; in later years by oppression theory and ethnic nationalist movements such as AIM.  Cozzens denies all these simplistic narratives.  In his Prologue he explicitly rejects Dee Brown’s famous and influential 1970 book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which convinced a generation that the Indian wars were exemplars of good vs. evil, with the white man in the role of the Devil, bent on genocide.  (Of course, it is only Western Christian societies that have ever agonized over the treatment meted out to indigenous inhabitants, from Bartolomé de las Casas onwards, so at least Brown is in good company.)  Cozzens passes judgment on Brown by declaring “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.” (Brown’s book thereby resembles Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a propaganda work ideally fitted for its time, in which a core of truth was wrapped in a tissue of emotionally laden lies, thus distorting rational discourse for decades.  But at least Brown’s book didn’t kill millions of people in the Third World, as Carson’s did, by demonizing safe and effective pesticides such as DDT.)  Cozzens’s goal is therefore to offer a “thorough and nuanced understanding” of both the Indian and white perspective, at which he succeeds admirably.

Perhaps the most basic point Cozzens makes in opposition to the traditional narrative is that the wars between the Indians and the United States in the West were actually “a clash of emigrant peoples.”  Almost all of the Western Indian tribes had only recently conquered the territories they held, and therefore their immediate concern was often preventing the attacks of local enemies—the white man seemed small in numbers and far away, until he didn’t.  In this and in every other way the book rejects oversimplification and stereotypes, instead showing the rich texture of personalities created by the individuals involved, with their vices and virtues thrown into sharp relief by what was demanded of them.

Still, certain general types of relevant individuals can be discerned across time and space.  On the Indian side, of those opposed to the white man (many Indian tribes simply accepted the inevitable and did not fight, or fought with the white man), there was always division between the firebrands and the accomodationists, of which the United States easily took advantage.  When they fought, the Indians were “among the best soldiers man for man in the world”—but they did not fight unified, and their tactics were generally poor against regular military units (although their weapons were usually modern, and often more modern than those issued to the Army).  On the side of the United States, there were some (a small but vocal minority, and over-emphasized today) who were effectively in favor of Indian extermination.  The largest group, including most men in Congress and most Presidents, tended to view the Indians as children, and merely wanted the Indians out of the way, with as little ill treatment as possible—but with no actual parental feeling or actions.  And there was another small group (mostly, as with abolitionists, driven by Christianity) who demanded equitable treatment for the Indians—among these were a surprising number of military officers, though they were often constrained by the chain of command to treat Indians in ways they found personally repugnant.

The inability of the Indian tribes to act together for their joint benefit, even within a single tribe, is a constant theme in this history.  Most Indian societies (as with all nomads throughout history) were highly individualistic, sharply limiting the authority of chiefs, as well as the length of time they might hold authority.  There was “no common identity—no sense of ‘Indianness’—and [they] were too busy fighting one another to give their undivided attention to the new threat [of the white man].”  Only a few Indian leaders could persuade their own tribe to act together for long, and fewer still had any success in holding multiple tribes together, even those with common ancestry.  The most famous success at an Indian confederation, not covered in this book, was Tecumseh; here, Sitting Bull is the only similarly successful leader.  The Indians also had many cultural differences that exacerbated inter-tribal rivalries and hatreds.  To take only a small example, though one the subject of a common stereotype, Plains Indians were big on risky displays of individual bravery, such as counting coup (even if usually counting coup with a feather or quirt was immediately followed by killing an enemy with a stone club).  But the Apache were not interested in this at all, and preferred to kill by stealth.

Cozzens begins his narrative with a poignant story of the Southern Cheyenne chief Long Bear, invited to Washington to meet with Abraham Lincoln, who treated him politely, if condescendingly, and gave him bronze peace medals and papers attesting to friendship.  Long Bear toured New York City and met various influential men; he was treated with respect, as he expected to be, since he was a chief just as Lincoln was.  He returned to Colorado, and when soldiers approached his village, rode out to meet them, medals gleaming to show his friendship.  They shot him.  As General George Crook, who fought for the Army throughout this period, said, “[The Indians] 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.”  No doubt it was—but, perhaps, in an expansionist society confident of its destiny, it was also inevitable.  Cozzens never says this, but he does frame the conflict thus:  “[T]he 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.”

The book turns first to Red Cloud’s War, one of the very few Indian successes, not coincidentally taking place in 1866, when the United States was still distracted by the aftermath of the Civil War, and white settlement of the Great Plains was just beginning.  Red Cloud was an Oglala Sioux, with ties to the Brulé, each being one of the seven sub-tribes of the Sioux (the Lakota being the most famous today).  (One thing that comes through very clearly is the tiny numbers of Western Indians—the Sioux, for example, never had more than five thousand warriors, even when all seven sub-tribes combined, which was rare in the extreme.)  Red Cloud defeated the Crow, taking from them land guaranteed by a treaty earlier brokered by the United States.  Then, together with elements of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, traditional Sioux allies, he defeated small elements of the US Army, including killing an entire detachment of eighty men, and cut off settler access to the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming, which the Army was trying to keep open.  The United States then made peace on terms that seemed favorable to Red Cloud—using a vague and hard-to-understand treaty which, as so often, was not understood in the same way by both sides, but which kept the peace for a time (and permanently cut off the Crow from their best hunting grounds).

Following chapters focus on the wars with the Cheyenne.  Custer began his Indian-fighting career here, and this set of skirmishes and small battles ended badly for the Cheyenne.  This included the 1868 Battle of Washita, where various outrages were committed by the Army and their Osage allies, resulting in heavy criticism back East.  Criticism was exacerbated by Custer abandoning a group of troopers who had, unknown to Custer, already been killed to the last man, which lowered Custer’s already low reputation among much of the Army.  Next come the wars of the Comanche and Kiowa, inhabitants of the Southern Plains, involving the famous half-white Comanche war chief Quanah Parker (himself the subject of a recent biography).

These wars were conducted under the “Peace Policy” of President Grant, which basically consisted of being reasonably nice to the Indians, offering them “annuities” (money) and rations to substitute for the disappearing buffalo, as long as they showed movement toward adopting the settled ways of the white man, and of being nasty to them if they failed to do so.  As with so much of Grant’s administration, this policy was adversely affected by corruption, particularly in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The BIA proved usually unable to perform its functions, largely because everyone had his hand in the till.  And it vied with the Army for primacy in administering relations with the Indians (who usually preferred the Army to administer relations in peacetime), a split of authority that frequently harmed the Indians.  Moreover, members of the BIA were not above spreading lies about Indian violence where none existed in order to drum up Congressional appropriations, which could then be redirected into the pockets of Indian agents.  At best, United States administration of peaceful Indian relations seems to have been mediocre, and often, it was awful, contributing to unrest among Indians otherwise peaceful, and strengthening the hand of the “war party” that was a major grouping among many Indian tribes.

Cozzens then switches to the Pacific Northwest, where the small Modoc tribe in Oregon fought rather than be forced onto reservations, using the rough volcanic terrain and their superior fighting skills to hold off the Army and kill quite a few soldiers before they were defeated.  The Modoc War, which featured lowlights such as a Modoc chief shooting an American general in the face during a negotiation, for which he was hanged, whipped up anti-Indian sentiment and increased pressure on Grant to take a more aggressive stance toward the Indians in general.  The Cheyenne wars continued, and violence flared up in Apache country, in Arizona and New Mexico.  The latter also involved the Mexicans, because the Apache often raided across the border, or fled from one country to the other to escape the local army—and the Mexicans were even less accommodating of the Indians than the United States.

Much of the book is taken up with discussion of the Northern Plains, primarily the Sioux, with, naturally, quite a bit about Custer’s destruction at Little Bighorn.  As with so many Indian victories, however, the Indians were unable to follow up on that success, both because of disunity and because they conceptually did not view “victory” in the same way as the white man.  And also as with any other Indian victory, the effect was to cause the United States to throw huge additional resources at defeating the Indians, and to undermine any nascent movements toward peaceable coexistence.  Of course, incidents such as the Army destroying a group of Cheyenne warriors and recovering “a bag containing the severed right hands of twelve Shoshone babies” accelerated the feeling in the East that the free, or “non-treaty” (i.e., non-reservation) Indian could never co-exist with the United States.  These Northern Plains battles, primarily against the Sioux, in the late 1870s, also featured the famous Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as well as a cast of less famous characters.

Cozzens then switches gears, to the Nez Perce War in what is now Idaho and Montana.  Like the Modoc, the Nez Perce were small in number, but made up for that in fighting competency.  But the end was the same—most of the warriors dying, a few escaping to Canada, and the rest of the tribe becoming “treaty Indians.”  Their leader, Chief Joseph, fought in part to control the land where his people were buried, declaring “A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.”  The story of the Utes, inhabitants of fastnesses in the Rocky Mountains, was much the same.  I don’t mean to make these stories sound boring—they are not.  They are tragic, but each story has a range of well-drawn personalities, each with his own motivations, foibles and virtues, and in their interaction the reader finds both interest and a repetition of timeless lessons about human nature.

Cozzens then returns to the Apaches and the Sioux.  He covers Geronimo, who was widely regarded as courageous, but a nasty and untrustworthy drunk, by both Indians and whites, given even more than most Apaches to torture of children and similar activities marking him out as wholly uncivilized.  And, finally, Cozzens covers the ultimate decline of the non-treaty Sioux, with the spread of the Ghost Dance, how it unsettled the whites, and how a combination of last ditch Indian efforts to retain their freedom and white desire to permanently end the Indian “menace” resulted in 1890 in the murder of Sitting Bull and the massacre of the remaining, decrepit non-treaty Sioux at Wounded Knee, regarded as the end of the Indian Wars.

Throughout this time, of course, white settlement had been rapidly expanding.  This is the backdrop to all the details of fighting—inexorably, in the background, massive settlement had been underway.  Even when they did not directly intrude on Indian territory, their presence effectively hemmed in the Indians and made clear to many of them the inevitable dark future that faced them.  And within a few years, free Indians were merely a memory, difficult to comprehend in a landscape of ranches and farms.

Cozzens covers a variety of controversial topics; he makes no effort to be politically correct.  (He does not even discuss using the dubious and inaccurate term “Native American,” which appears nowhere in this book.)  He discusses scalping to obtain trophies, noting that to the Indians, Indian scalps were more prestigious than white scalps.  Mutilation of the dead was near universal among the Plains Indians, not so much (as their opponents saw it) as a demonstration of rage or savagery, but because of the belief it would cripple the dead in the afterlife and thus prevent them from taking revenge on their killers there.  Rape, including gang rape, of captured women, white or Indian, by Indians was universal (and conversely, nearly unheard of among the Army).  This contradicts Holger Hoock’s claim in Scars of Independence that rape of enemy women was rare by Indians, although his claim relates to earlier wars involving the woodland Indians of the East, so this may simply be a cultural difference among tribes.  Other interesting, though not controversial, facts also crop up.  For example, many Indians took great risks, and hampered their fighting, in order to protect the tribe’s sacred religious objects, and the elaborate dress in which many Plains Indians wore in battle (but by no means all—Crazy Horse, for example, was noted for the simplicity of his dress in battle) was not a method of preening, but so they would look their best when going to meet the Great Spirit.  All these facts make the presentation of what is essentially a military history considerably more interesting that it would otherwise be.

It is impossible for us, at this remove, to not admire the Indians who fought in the West, doomed avatars of a doomed way of life.  Like Roland, the story of the underdog who goes out in a blaze of glory attracts us.  And while the reality is, as always, messier (Roland fought the Basques, not the Muslims, and Geronimo ended up signing autographs on a reservation), there are still salutary lessons, for us and for our children, in the stand taken by the American Indians profiled here–a small group of men who refused to bend the knee, and fought, and died, for the way they and their fathers had lived.  As an Englishman of a more confident age said, of another warrior people, “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?”

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