An Indian History of the American West
by Dee Brown
‘The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.’
[attributed to General Philip Sheridan 1868]
I began this book with high expectations and a lot of questions. Most of my expectations were realised, yet some of the questions remained. I know how it all happened, but I still don’t fully understand how it was allowed to happen.
Gratuitous violence is thrown in our faces daily – in the newspapers, on TV, in documentaries and in our fiction, whether written or visual. Is the human species hard-wired for brutality, I wonder. We are possibly the only creatures on the planet who kill for fun – or sport, as it is sometimes called. Hunters pose with smiling faces atop the carcasses of animals they have proudly slaughtered for no reason except that they have a big gun and nothing better to do.
‘The Fetterman Massacre made a profound impression on Colonel Carrington. He was appalled by the mutilations – the disembowellings, the hacked limbs, the “private parts severed and indecently placed on the person.” He brooded upon the reason for such savagery, and eventually wrote an essay on the subject ….. Had Colonel Carrington visited the scene of the Sand Creek Massacre ….. he would have seen the same mutilations – committed upon Indians by Colonel Chivington’s soldiers. The Indians who ambushed Fetterman were only imitating their enemies, a practice which in warfare, as in civilian life, is said to be the sincerest form of flattery.’
When it comes to humans killing humans, we are less proud (maybe) and the smiling faces are absent (usually). Yet we are bombarded with images all the same – race crimes, violence in the name of religion, unspeakable genocide.
In Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, we have the story of subjugation, betrayal and ultimately near extinction of a race of people whose only fault was that they happened to be in the way. The native peoples of North America enjoyed beliefs and a way of life that were fundamentally at odds with the ambitions of another group who believed they had the divine right to go where they pleased. So it is with all colonisation. What makes the Anglo-Saxon invasion of North America so appalling was that the invaders subscribed to a philosophy of which the principal tenet was – and is – love your neighbour.
‘….. after ordering Custer to take the cavalry in pursuit of the Indians, [General Hancock] moved the infantry into the abandoned camp. In a methodical manner the lodges and their contents were inventoried and then everything was burned …..’
Let me introduce you to the new religion. It’s called Manifest Destiny. To paraphrase in cruder language, it was (is?) the belief that Anglo-Saxons are the dominant race. They may do WTF they want, wherever, whenever, however and to whomever they like as long as they get their way.
As the US Constitution puts it ‘… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ (note – only men?)
Oops! Do I live on another planet? Jefferson et al must be squirming in their graves.
Reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee requires a strong stomach. Though not (I thought) entirely ignorant of the history of the United States, I soon discovered my education in that respect was sorely lacking. Turning the pages of this book was no walk of nostalgia back to the days of my boyhood, days of pleasurable playacting as Cowboys and Indians when, unlike the books and movies which we read and watched with enthusiasm, either might win.
I can remember thinking: why do the Indians never win in the movies? Or, if they do, why does the victory seem so hollow and temporary? I can remember, too, cheering silently when Custer got his come-uppance at the battle of the Little Bighorn.
‘[Lieutenant Whitman’s] unpopular defense of Apaches destroyed his military career. He survived three court-martials on ridiculous charges and after several more years of service without promotion he resigned.’
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee recalled to me many of the great names of those boyhood days – Cochise, Geronimo, Sitting Bull and a few others. But there were hundreds of other Indian names I had never heard. A few, it has to be said, were hardly saintly by any yardstick, but many more were men (mostly, but women too) I could admire.
After a brief mention of Columbus (1492 etc) and the British arrival in Virginia (Pocahontas etc), Dee Brown’s book concentrates on the history of the years between 1865 and 1890. Chapters focus on the Indian tribes in turn and the chiefs who led them – the Navahos, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Apache, the Nez Perce and many others. None, it seems, wanted war; they wanted only to be free to get on with their lives as they had always lived them. Many, in the early days, had shown friendship and hospitality to the new arrivals from across the Great Sea. By the end, they had nothing.
‘If any tribe remonstrated against the violation of their natural and treaty rights, members of the tribe were inhumanly shot down and the whole treated as mere dogs …’ [Ely Parker (Donehogawa), first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs]
First published in 1970, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee captures all the injustice and horror of the treatment by ‘whites’ of the ‘red man’. It highlights the greed of colonisation, the indifference of authority and the hypocrisy of so-called ‘Christians’ (including clerics) towards fellow members of the human race. It captures in words and pictures the hopelessness, the despair and ultimately resignation of the Indian tribes as they are slowly but surely driven towards extinction. There were times when I cringed as I read.
So, how do we defend the indefensible? Must we try? The Anglo-Saxons are not ‘bad’ people any more than are the Asians or the Africans. Many friendly white voices were raised here and there in support of real peace and friendship between the races. However, they were lost in the greedy clamour for land and gold, amidst the crack of the rifle, the smoke of gunfire, the roll of the wagon wheels and the thunder of the iron horse. Time after time, the leaders of the nation, the politicians in Washington, the agents and the commissioners caved to the cries of Progress. It seems likely the officials around the country accepted bribes to turn a blind eye. They tore up treaties, pretended they didn’t exist or perhaps that the Indians (or the President?) wouldn’t notice. How else did it happen that the colonists were permitted to swarm over the country, contributing to the near extinction of the buffalo and, less directly maybe, to the decimation of the native population?
** Manifest Destiny Rules, OK? **
‘Meanwhile, [Colonel Henry H] Sibley had chosen five of his officers to try all Santee suspected of engaging in the uprising. As the Indians had no legal rights, he saw no reason to appoint a defense counsel for them.’
Read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee for yourselves. Check the sources if you like, then judge. It all happened, and all the apologies in the world cannot erase history. The best we can ever do is learn from it – but when did homo sapiens ever do that?
Isn’t it time we started? Apologies and reparations are all very well. However, we should always keep in mind that the people alive today are not responsible for evils committed by their forefathers. As fans of Star Trek will know, there is another way. It’s called the Prime Directive! I think the US Constitution, properly applied to men and women and to all races alike, could be adapted to sum that philosophy up very well.
(I happily confess to having included more quotations in this review than I usually do. The author’s prose and style tell the story of the Indians much better than I ever could. Many of the incidents in the book, and the words spoken, are well documented, in no less a place than the library of the US Congress.)