Trail of Tears

The sorrowful history of Western expansion

By Stephen E. Smith

During the early-to mid-19th century, an unknown Native American warrior documented his life in pictographs on a buffalo hide. His early years were happy. He owned horses, took two wives, fathered children. Then white-faced figures appear pointing sticks that spit fire. Later, he painted his family dying of smallpox. His last pictograph illustrates the arrival of Jesuits in their black cassocks. There the narrative ends, suggesting, perhaps, that Jesuits are deadlier than smallpox.

Whatever the cause of the warrior’s demise, there’s no denying that the 19th-century collision between Native Americans and westward migrating peoples of European descent was one of the most shameful and tragic chapters in the history of the continent. Peter Cozzens’ meticulously written and thoroughly documented The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West is the latest offering in a spate of recent books that graphically detail how shameful and tragic the winning of the West truly was. (An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, both published in the last year, are also well worth reading.)

Most of these recent Indian histories owe their perspective, at least in part, to Dee Brown’s 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a best-seller that transformed the attitude with which Americans regard indigenous people. Published three years after the founding of the American Indian Movement, Brown portrays the government’s dealings with Native Americans as an ongoing effort to eradicate their culture and religion. Cozzens adopts a slightly more balanced and analytical view of the Indian wars, taking into account the misjudgments and barbarism prevalent on both sides of the conflict.

From the opening chapter, it’s obvious the story Cozzens has chosen to tell is ghastly beyond the power of words. Government policy dictated that indigenous people be concentrated on reservations of ever decreasing size until their will to fight was broken and their cultural cohesion destroyed. The wholesale slaughter of the buffalo was intended to deny food and livelihood to the tribes, and with the arrival of the railroads, the hunting grounds native people had occupied for millennia were opened to white settlement. What resulted was a fight to the death in which the tribes had no chance of prevailing. For white politicians, soldiers and settlers, the primary motivations were greed and racism. Native Americans stood in the way of wealth and progress, and they were perceived as a subhuman species to be dealt with as quickly and as expediently as possible. Even generally peaceable tribes such as the Modoc and Nez Perce were treated ruthlessly.

“The whites were coming now, in numbers incomprehensible to Indians,” Cozzens writes. “They assaulted the Indian lands from every direction. Settlers rolled in from the east, while miners poked at the periphery of the Indian country from the west, north and south and simply overran it when new mineral strikes were made. In Westerners’ parlance, Indians who resisted the onslaught were to be ‘rounded up’ and rendered harmless on reservation land too miserable to interest the whites.” But Cozzens also notes that whites were not solely to blame for the dissolute loss of life and property. “. . . tribes had long battled one another over hunting grounds or horses. Indeed, fighting was a cultural imperative, and men owed their place in society to their prowess as warriors.”

The subjugation of Western indigenous people took place during the 30 years from 1861 to 1891, as the U.S. Army, acting under orders from Eastern politicians, pursued the policy of “mollification and eradication.” Beginning with the Dakota uprising in Minnesota and ending with the tragedy at Wounded Knee and the 1891 surrender of the Oglala Lakotas at Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, the story is one of unremitting atrocity, suffering and death.

Former Civil War generals found themselves incapable of adapting to erratic and uncoordinated tribal uprisings. No less a national figure than William Tecumseh Sherman was inept at managing Indian affairs, and Winfield Scott Hancock, the hero of Gettysburg, found himself unable to negotiate with the Cheyenne and burned their villages in central Kansas. Phil Sheridan, who had swept the Shenandoah Valley clear of Confederate troops, found himself incapable of placating the tribes and conducted the Red River War, the Ute War, and the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, which resulted in the death of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and a sizable portion of his command. (For all his faithful service during the Civil War, Sheridan is best remembered for having said: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”) President Ulysses S. Grant, whom biographers portray as a friend to Indian people, convened a secret White House meeting to plan strategy for provoking a war with the Lakotas. In the late 19th century, the government, in an effort to eliminate further uprisings, outlawed Native American religious ceremonies, and altruistic white civilians established boarding schools where Indian children were required to speak English, study math and religion, and where they were punished for use of their native language and the exercise of their tribal beliefs.

Insofar as it’s possible to condense a 30-year period of national misadventure into 460 pages of carefully crafted text, Cozzens has produced an exemplary history that’s commendably objective, a reference book for the Indian wars. Beyond the intrinsic value of acquiring historical knowledge for its own sake, thoughtful readers may well gain a perspective on contemporary Native American issues — public health, education, gambling, discrimination and racism, the use of sports mascots, and the desecration of tribal lands. More than 100 years after the surrender of the last Indian tribe, suicide, alcoholism and crime remain serious problems on reservations.

Positive edifications notwithstanding, The Land Is Weeping, for all its detachment, allows for only one conclusion: The 19th-century sweep of “civilization” across the territories west of the Mississippi created for the Native American tribes who inhabited the region the cultural wasteland we now call peace.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

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