Peter Cozzens, The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 576 pp., $35.00.
The war in Afghanistan is said to be our longest war, but the war against the Plains Indians was longer, lasting from the 1860s until 1890. Peter Cozzens, a retired Foreign Service Officer and independent historian, has written what he hopes is a balanced account of a conflict that has, for decades, been defined by Dee Browns, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Published in 1970, countless colleges have taught this biased book, and it has never gone out of print. Mr. Cozzens writes that it is unique for so crucial a period of our history [to] remain largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance. The Earth Is Weeping is his carefully researched antidote.
It is a story of inevitable tragedy. I am reminded of the opening words of T. E. Lawrences Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. The Indians were an alien, warlike, and cruel people who stood in the way of Westward expansion, but as Mr. Cozzens shows, the American government never wanted to exterminate them. It tried to civilize Indians by making Christian farmers out of them, but nothing could have been more contrary to their nature.
There had been trouble with Indians ever since 1607. When Andrew Jackson sent the Five Civilized Tribes from the Eastern states out to the Great Plains, he believed it was a humanitarian solution and that whites would never follow them. However, as pioneers settled the West, they found tribes that were even more dangerous than the mostly farming, sedentary Indians in the East. There was never a chance for peaceful coexistence; only a choice between levels of horror.
In the West, Indians had traditionally lived for only two things: war and buffalo hunting. Until 1630, no Indians rode horses, so they hunted and made war on foot, and their most lethal weapon was the bow and arrow. By 1750, all plains Indians rode horses and had begun to use firearms; they became much more mobile and deadly.
Mr. Cozzens describes a way of life that could almost be that of Classical Sparta. He writes:
Fighting was a cultural imperative, and men owed their place in society to their prowess as warriors. . . . Fathers raised their sons to aspire to great martial deeds, and training for a warriors life began early . . . . At age five or six, boys were made to run long distances and to swim streams and were regularly deprived of food, water, and sleep all with a view to toughening their bodies.
By the time an Indian was an adolescent, he was, in the words of Col. Richard I. Dodge, who spent 30 years fighting them, the best rough rider and natural horseman in the world, nothing less than the finest soldiers in the world. No young man could even think of courting a girl unless he had showed courage in battle. Any suitor had to face a mother who grilled him about his record as a warrior. If a young man wasnt a brave, he was nothing.
Col. Richard I. Dodge, from his book, Our Wild Indians via Wikipedia. Col. Richard I. Dodge, from his book, Our Wild Indians via Wikipedia. Unlike the Spartans, who kept serf-like Helots to grow food, Indians hunted buffalo, which only made them better warriors. Women prepared meals, took care of children, and managed households. For many men, weapons and horses were their most prized possessions. They bought the best repeating rifles they could afford, but it was not easy to keep a good supply of ammunition, nor could they repair broken weapons. Corrupt cavalrymen sometimes sold them weapons, which Indians might use against them. Many continued to fight with bow and arrow to excellent effect. One white trooper wrote that braves could hold half a dozen arrows in the left hand and let fly all of them before the first one hit the ground.
Taking scalps was proof of success in battle; an Indian scalp was worth more than a white scalp because Indians were harder to kill. It was common to mutilate enemy dead to keep their spirits from tormenting their killer in the afterlife. Indians were therefore determined to take their dead from the field. They practiced on horseback until they could scoop a fallen comrade off the ground at a full gallop. When the cavalry reported casualties for Indians, they were often just guesses because Indians left so few bodies behind.
Robert McGee, one of the few men ever to survive scalping. (Image via Library of Congress) Robert McGee, one of the few men ever to survive scalping. (Image via Library of Congress) In battle, chiefs signaled to their men by holding a flag or gun tilted in a particular way or by flashing mirrors from high ground. Some blew shrill notes of an eagle-bone war whistle. Many Indians spoke English and when they were in earshot, they taunted and insulted the whites just as they did enemy Indians.
Almost without exception, Indians believed in medicine to protect them in battle. This required ritual objects, incantations, face- and horse- painting, and prayers; some Indians would not fight if they could not prepare their medicine. Men wanted to ride with famous chiefs with strong medicine, but if such a man died in battle, his followers might give up the fight. Indians were afraid of artillery; just a few rounds would usually scatter them.
In most tribes, a warriors career was over by age 35 or 40, or once he had a son to take his place. It was a system of forced retirement that meant every man in the field was young and vigorous. Older men trained the young, and the most respected became chiefs.
Tribes moved with their families and possessions. Time and again, even lumbered with wives, children, and everything they owned, they outmaneuvered and outfought troops of professional soldiers even in temperatures well below zero. Most of the time, the cavalry could not even find the enemy without the help of friendly Indian scouts.
The escape of the Nez Perce Indians to Canada in 1877 was a remarkable exploit. About 250 warriors, along with twice as many women and children under Chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, and White Bird fought off and eluded a force of 1,500 Americans for 1,700 miles. They killed 180 and lost some 150. Mr. Cozzens writes that man for man, they had proved themselves far superior to the soldiers sent out to stop them.
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