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Confronting the Indian war's 'many myths, misconceptions and falsehoods'

Sioux chief Sitting Bull and General George Armstrong Custer. Photo/Getty Images/Alamy

New material seeks to bring historical balance to the story of the wars against the Native Americans. 

In his “epic story of the Indian wars for the American West”, Peter Cozzens takes a stance that might be considered even-handed. The government and army of the decades after the war came to be seen as wilful exterminators of the native peoples of the continent’s western plains, he says, but “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.”
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Arguably, to destroy a way of life, to forcibly turn roving hunters and warriors into Christian farmers and corral them on tiny “reservations” often far from their ancestral grounds, is much the same thing as genocide. The pernicious nonsense of Manifest Destiny, coupled with diseases to which the whites had spent centuries developing immunity, ensured the majority of Indians would die.

Cozzens knocks Dee Brown’s 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for being “one-sided” in favour of “the victims”. He’s far from unsympathetic, but with the help of Indian primary sources that have become available in the past 45 years, he says he can “bring historical balance”, telling the story from both perspectives and addressing the “many myths, misconceptions and falsehoods” surrounding the Indian Wars.

As an account of the running war from the 1860s, when Indian tribes still ruled much of the western half of what is now the US, to the closing of the military frontier in 1891 and the memorable characters (Custer, Sherman, Sheridan, Captain Jack, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse) on both sides, Weeping is estimable. Employing deft and often pleasurable writing, it puts the reader in the saddle as one group stalks another, as they engage in merciless battles, hold peace talks, sit around campfires.

The book reminds us of the many often conflicting forces at play: the President, the Congress, the army’s generals and officers – who ranged from sympathetic and duplicitous to hotheaded, brutish and drink-sodden – and the tribes themselves. Some tribes made peace, some preferred battle; a few sided with the newcomers, seeing merit in the white man’s ways or a chance to be protected from or to murderously rout their foes; others negotiated treaty by broken treaty. But factionalism ruled.

Intertribal conflict was in part the consequence of a fact that the Plains wars “represented a displacement of one immigrant people by another, rather than the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life”, though the current clashes, he accepts, were “precipitated by the white settlement of the East”.

It’s this aspect that, for me, the book fails to address effectively. Even if claims to lands, motives and allegiances were doubtful, effectively passing them off as just some groups displacing others does nothing to address the overall injustice to a people who failed to embrace the idea of “Indianness” until it was too late and lost more than 1.5 billion acres of their traditional lands to seizures by treaty and executive order.

The Earth is Weeping, by Peter Cozzens (Allen & Unwin, $55)

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.