The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West
by Peter Cozzens
‘Although scalps were most often taken off the dead, scalping in and of itself was not intended to kill. Unless grievously wounded, victims often survived the ordeal …’
It is about two months since I put the finishing touches, in this space, to my review of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. Reading Wounded Knee, I wrote, requires a strong stomach. I also asked a question: How do we defend the indefensible?
Though approaching the same history from a slightly different angle, Peter Cozzens’s book The Earth is Weeping, demands much the same constitution. He does not defend the indefensible – I doubt anyone can truly do so – but he does have a fair go at explaining it.
Perhaps more than anyone, even the native Americans themselves, Dee Brown gave the ‘Indians’ a voice. As Cozzens acknowledges, Wounded Knee ‘shaped a new saga that articulated the nation’s feelings of guilt’. He accepts Brown’s contribution to the history of the West. However, he also criticises the book’s approach. He argues, while not disputing the facts, that Dee Brown was selective in his presentation of those facts.
Dee Brown, I suspect, never intended it to be otherwise. In identifying his seminal work as ‘an Indian History’, he picks his side.
Peter Cozzens attempts a more balanced approach. Relying partly on native American sources not available in the 1970s, he tells the story from both sides, without favour. The Earth is Weeping begins with an analysis of the training and structure of the two sides in the Indian Wars. For the young tribesman, becoming a warrior was a process begun in childhood. By late adolescence, the Indian male was an expert horseman. He could handle bow and lance with great skill, and was often able to combine both accomplishments in ways that confounded and baffled the white man.
By contrast, in the American army –
‘Not only were soldiers poorly trained but they were also poorly uniformed …. All but the most righteous sooner or later succumbed to one or more of the three moral scourges of the military frontier – drinking, whoring and gambling.’
Moreover, these vices, Cozzens insists, were not confined to the enlisted lower ranks. Many NCOs encouraged and promoted them. It was not unusual for senior officers to be discovered drinking (or even drunk) at their post.
Why, you might wonder – given that scenario, didn’t the Indians drive the white invaders back into the ocean from whence they came? And if that is your question, The Earth is Weeping is a book you have to read in order to understand how it all happened.
‘The fifth peace effort [the Henderson Bill] contained the usual beatific language about remodelling the Indians into the red counterpart of the white man, but its immediate purpose was …. to confine the Indians on reservations well removed from the travel routes….’
This is not a heavy read. Moving rapidly through the 1860s, 70s and 80s, the book introduces us to the army chiefs, the presidents and political figures, the tribal leaders and the agents who lend so much colour to this period of history. We meet again Generals Sherman, Sheridan and Hancock, war chiefs Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, and presidents Grant and Johnson. We are given detailed portraits of others like Generals Crook and Howard, who saw more active service on the frontier than any others. The background, loyalties and even eccentricities of tribal leaders such as Crazy Horse (Lakota) and Chief Joseph (Nez Perce) are all fully described. George Custer gets a lot of space, not to mention his marriage.
Cozzens gives a lot of attention to the various campaigns and to the strategies and tactics of both sides. We can see clearly how, gradually, old rivalries between the tribes and even intra-tribal jealously drove the warriors to take opposite sides in the conflict. The populous and most powerful Indians of the northern plains for example, the Lakota Sioux, were themselves invaders, having coveted the land of the Crow and moved westwards to seize it. Many Crows enlisted for service with the army, as did others such as the Pawnees. It seems clear that, as with other Anglo-Saxon colonisation, the native peoples saw advantages in the white man’s way of life. They wanted those benefits for themselves. Ultimately, divided loyalties contributed to the breaking of Indian resistance.
‘Our chiefs are killed ….. [the] old men are all dead ….. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. I will fight no more forever.’ (Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce to General Howard)
In spite of its different approach, The Earth is Weeping in no way undermines the story Dee Brown tells in Wounded Knee. Instead, it compliments it. The chronicle of events, the battles, the chiefs and generals, the politicians are the same. Where criticism is due of American politics, of army officers or their attitudes, Cozzens can be every bit as scathing as Brown. But we can also see in his critical appraisal of the Indian hierarchy and its war strategy and tactics that the conflict and the reasons for it were anything but simple.
For an outsider with a poor grasp of American history, The Earth is Weeping provides a much clearer picture of the combatants and the conflicts than does its predecessor. The maps are good. They give a better overall view of the geography of the tribes as well as better visual clarity of the individual campaigns than Wounded Knee. The illustrations in The Earth is Weeping are good too, although inferior in respect of Indian portraiture, which in Wounded Knee are full page (in my copy anyway.)
Reading this book was an education for me. Already familiar with some of the names (of places, tribes and individuals), it was rewarding to dip more fully into the historical detail for an understanding of what happened and why. We see how the political in-fighting of the day shaped the struggle: a divided military at odds with the government; mismanagement of the army leading to civil unrest in the provinces; deceitful, self-seeking agents lying to spark wars that need never have been; self-seeking and betrayal among the Indians too. Why is it we are reminded so much of our own age, with its racism and political incompetence? When we read Colorado’s pronouncement that ‘the Utes must go’, we imagine a pre-echo of Nazi policy in 1930s Germany. It is the same cry we would have heard in 15th century Catholic Spain (before Europe even knew of America!), which is oft repeated today in Islamophobic rants.
In The Earth is Weeping, there is mitigation a-plenty but never justification for savagery or cruel acts by either side. And there is little here to change the perception (mine anyway) that the Indians – and their way of life – were systematically shafted, even if some of the blame must be placed on the tribes themselves.
‘Geronimo’s divine protection ran out on a cold day in February 1909….. He was almost home when he fell off his horse beside a creek. Four days later, at age seventy-nine, the man whom no bullet could kill died in bed of pneumonia.’