In October 1867 various Indians tribes gathered with U.S. army officers in an attempt to reach a formal peace in what became known as the Medicine Lodge Peace Commission. Most of the Cheyennes arrived fashionably late. One Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle assured General Harney that the Cheyennes had a traditional greeting that differed from other tribes, and he should not worry.
When they arrived, they put their horses into four columns on the other side of a creek. A bugle sounded, and the Cheyennes charged across the creek one column after another, roding hard straight towards General Harney, shooting in the air and hollering.
Harney received assurances. Stand still. Everything is fine.
Still, they galloped on towards him. Harney clearly had his doubts but remained unmoved. Other Comanche Indians already present clearly had misgivings and grabbed their own weapons.
Just a few feet in front of the general and the Comanche’s, the Cheyenne horses roared to a halt and bent low in one fluid motion as the Cheyenne warriors dismounted. They broke out laughing and started shaking hands with all present.
Among the hundreds of anecdotes from Peter Cozzen’s excellent The Earth is Weeping, this one stands out for me as most emblematic. When different cultures came together–and not just white and Indian cultures but differing Indian cultures–conflict can seem almost inevitable. The slightest error would mean violence and further mistrust, even if neither side necessarily wanted violence. Here, some patience and personal risk on the side of General Harney and the Comanche’s paid off, but we should not kid ourselves and say that such an outcome was easily obtained or even likely to occur.
Alas, after this auspicious beginning, the conference itself completely failed to produce anything like peace.
For much of our nation’s past we believed in our history. That is, our textbooks taught us that, while we were not perfect as a nation, we were on the right side of history. Older westerns may have shown “good” Indians, but consistently sided with the whites. But with the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the movie Little Big Man, the narrative pivoted almost entirely. Now, just as in Dances with Wolves, the army was the bad guys and the Indians were the good guys. The story we once told about our past no longer convinced us.
Cozzens attempts to redress the imbalance and provide a much more complex view. When one’s work receives positive reviews from National Review and The New York Times, you have probably hit upon something we need for our understanding of this period, if not for our whole culture. One reviewer labeled his work “quietly subversive,” which I think apt. Cozzens will not let us rest with easy categories. I would not call him as attempting to reverse the narrative by saying, “All those bad things you’ve heard that whites did to Indians? Not true!” While he mentions a variety of Indian atrocities against whites and each other, for the most part he blames Americans for the failure to achieve peace.
He takes care to show a murky tapestry and blurred lines. He shows us generals and Indians who respected each other and sought friendship, and those on both sides who hated each other and wanted war. And–we have to find a place for the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” in the narrative. Some tribes turned against other tribes and showed no mercy, and Cozzens admits that the Indians’ version of total war against each other had much more brutality than ours did against them. Some Indian agents had great ideas as well as good intent, others tried to implement grand visions that made no sense and would surely only lead to violence through unrealistic expectations–as some generals took pains to explain. Instead of race vs. race, The Earth is Weeping shows us a web of confusing and shifting alliances. In the end, the main problem seemed to rest not in our official policy, but in that we had no coherent peace policy or any means of enforcing one, which left events at the mercy of violence on both sides.
Thus, Cozzens’ account takes on elements of Shakespearean tragedy, where certain key individuals take action that creates terrible situations. But aspects of Greek tragedy present themselves as well, where it seems almost inevitable that gigantic, unseen forces would certainly frustrate those with goodwill on both sides.
Surely the Indian wars of the West shared in some ways with wars that others have fought across time, but we should seek for what made this conflict unique to our context. Many of the tribes Cozzens writes about had a warrior culture. To earn status in the tribe, a young man had to show bravery and fight. No other path to status existed. Younger braves would surely resent their elders who told them not to fight–easy for them to say, who already had status and power. Of course, various tribes never sought peace at all. Many Indians knew that they had little chance against the army, but . . . better to go down remaining true to your identity.
But, as Tocqueville pointed out, America lacks a warrior elite mentality. Democracies he believed, naturally seek to avoid war, though they become quite formidable if united to actually fight. In time a united democratic force, he believed, would destroy an aristocratic warrior-elite society. But America had no unity on this issue, with political divisions on Indian questions as deep as exist today on other matters, and this begs the question–how then was our victory over the Indians so decisive?
Our political divisions can be separated broadly into “conservatives,” and “liberals.”
Conservatives tend to believe in a limited government that allows its citizens the broadest possible latitude. Self-government means that culture should have pride of place, not law–which comes in only at the margins. Liberals can look at the Indian wars and say, “This is the fault of conservatives. With a bigger and more powerful government we could have had a more coherent policy that we could enforce. If only we had the power to curtail our liberty of movement and actually enforce various laws (with the attendant higher taxes to increase revenue) and treaties, we could have averted the tragedy of the Indian wars.” Gary Gerstle makes this very argument in his Liberty and Coercion.
Liberals tend to believe in bigger government, but what purpose does this bigger government serve? For those on the left, the government exists to protect the right of individuals to do what they want. So conservatives can level a charge akin to, “You liberals care nothing for Law. If you want abortion, you override all law and custom to get it. If you want gay marriage, you will have it. You care little for the boundaries of code or culture–you simply want the government big enough so that no one can stop you from doing what you want to do.” Liberals tend to have a special focus on aiding those perceived to occupy the margins of society. Well, those who moved west certainly were not wealthy, elite, industrialists, the “one percenters.”
What Americans “wanted” in the latter half of the 19th century was the unencumbered ability to move west. No prominent leader of either side questioned this basic premise.
Tentatively, I suggest that herein lies the root of U.S. unity in the Indian wars, and perhaps our unity as a culture at large. We believe that we should have what we want. With this unity, our democratic society would surely defeat the more “aristocratic” Indian tribes.* Perhaps unity was subconscious then, and perhaps it is subconscious now, but both liberals and conservatives seem to want the same thing–doing what we want–via different means. Thus, neither a large government or a small one, neither a conservative or liberal policy, would have made much difference. If Americans wanted to move west, and if they believed that they should have the freedom to move west, it was bound to happen.
Perhaps this is the Greek element of this part of our history.
For the Shakespearean, I offer a variety of quotes below from The Earth is Weeping.
*We tend to think of the Indian tribes monolithically, but Cozzens shows that no real unified sense of “Indianness” existed among the tribes until the very end of the conflict–when it was far too late. This lack of unity among the tribes (perhaps common among other warrior-elite societies, like ancient Greece?), must also be a factor in this war.
We have heard much talk of the treachery of the Indian. In treachery, broken pledges on the part of high officials, lies, thievery, slaughter of defenseless women and children . . . the Indian was a mere amatuer in comparison to the “noble white man.”
- Lt. Britton Davis, US Army
I knew that the white man was coming to fight us and take away our land, and I thought it was not right. We are humans too and God created us all alike, and I was going to do the best I could to defend our nation. So I started on the warpath when I was 16 years old.
- Fire Thunder, Cheyenne Warrior
If the lands of the white man are taken, civilization justifies him in resisting the invader. Civilization does more than this: it brands him a coward and a slave if he submits to the wrong. If the savage resists civilization, with the 10 Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.
- Report of the Indian Peace Commission, 1868
You have asked for my advice . . . I can say that I can see no way in which your race can become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except if you live by the cultivation of the soil [instead of roaming and hunting]. It is the object of this government to be at peace with all our red brethren, and if our children should sometimes behave badly and violate treaties, it is against our wish. You know, it is not always possible for a father to have his children behave precisely as he might wish.
I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when the Indians see their game driven away and their people starve, their source of supplies cut off . . . that they go to war. They are surrounded on all sides, and they can only fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.
An army officer once asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe made war on the neighboring Crow tribe. He responded, “We stole land from the Crow because they had the best hunting ground. We wanted more room for ourselves.”
The savage requires a greater extent of territory to sustain themselves than is compatible with progress and the just claims of civilized life, and must yield to those claims.
- President James Monroe, 1817
I feel pity for the poor devil who naturally wriggles against his doom, and I have seen whites who would kill Indians just as they would bears, all for gold, and care nothing for it. Such men have no regard for treaties. But the savage is slothful, and is in need of discipline.
- Gen. Wiiliam T. Sherman, 1866
The Great White Father sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road. But the White Chief goes with soldiers on the road before we say Yes or No.
Disease, drink, intertribal warfare, the aggression of lawless whites, and the steady and restless emigration into Indian hunting lands–all of these factors endanger the very existence of the Plains Indians.
- The Senate’s “Doolittle Commission,” 1867
The Indian is the best rough rider, the best soldier, and certainly the best natural horseman in the world [white scalps counted for little in Indian villages, as little honor was to be had from killing whites, viewed as inferior opponents].
When Congress offered to build homes for the Indians upon reasonably good land where they would stay, Cheyenne warrior Satanta replied,
“This building of homes for us is nonsense. We don’t want you to build homes for us. We would all die. My country is small enough already. If you build us houses, I know that our land would be smaller. Why do you insist on this?
- Medicine Lodge Peace Commission (MLPC) talks
I was born on the prairies, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. i live like my fathers before me, and like them, I live happy.
- Comanche Chief Ten Bears, MLPC — this speech did not please those from other tribes, however, as they accused Ten Bears for his “womanly manner” of “talking of everything to death.”
You think you are doing a great deal for us by giving us these presents, yet if you gave all the goods you could give, still we would prefer our own life. You give us presents, then take our lands. That produces war. I have said all there is to say.
- Cheyenne Chief Buffalo Chip
At the conclusion of the MLPC meeting, there was this exchange between General Sheridan and a Congressional Indian Agent:
Agent: When the guns arrive [guns were promised to the Indians as part of the peace negotiations] may i distribute them to the Indians?
Sheridan: Yes, give them arms, and if they go to war with us, the soldiers will kill them honorably.
Buffalo Chip: Let your soldiers grow long hair, so that we may have some honor in killing them.
The more I see of these Indians, the more I become convinced that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers. Their attempts at civilization are simply ridiculous.
- General Sherman, said after continuing incursions by Arapaho and Cheyenne on the “Smoky Hill” region left 79 dead civilians, 13 women raped, and thousands of livestock destroyed or scattered
The white man never lived who truly loved the Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man.
- Lakota chief Sitting Bull
When Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” raided white settlements (including kidnapping and execution of white women), Sheridan used Pawnee warriors to help track them down. They caught them at a place called Seven Springs, and the Pawnee killed the Cheyenne indiscriminately without mercy. One Cheyenne survivor of the raid said, “I do not blame the Pawnee for killing our women and children. As far back as I remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child we found of the Pawnee. Each hated the other with savage hearts that know only total war.
Modoc Indian raiders were captured. Some Modocs went on the “warpath” after some Oregonian settlers had killed defenseless Modoc villagers. When arrested, the leader of the band, “Captain Jack,” said, “If the white men that killed our villagers had been tried and punished, I would submit to you much more willingly. Do we Indians stand any show for justice with you white people, with your own laws? I say no. I know it. You people can shoot any Indian any time you want whether we are at war or peace. I charge the white people with wholesale murder.