[This essay is one of the chapters in the monograph “The Dispossession of the American Indian – And Other Key Issues in American History” (Washington, D.C.: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1995).    It also has appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1991, pp. 347-368; and in Conservative Review, December 1991, pp. 31-35.]

 

THE  HISTORIC DISPOSSESSION OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN 

            During the Gulf War the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Wichita presented a ceremony honoring the American forces. The event's highlight was provided by a contingent from the Intertribal Warriors' Council, who electrified the crowd with its costumes, noble bearing and sense of shared patriotism and pride.

            It is now somewhat over a century since the slaughter at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, the last major blood-letting of the Indian wars. No one would wish to understate the difficulties even of the past hundred years. But the ceremony during the Gulf War exemplifies well the emotions of good will and even of love that now bind people whose ancestors fought each other so bitterly.

            This essay will discuss the history of that struggle, seeking to place it in perspective. The discussion can hardly be valuable unless it reflects honesty and candor; and, regrettably, any such discussion will review painful events and realities from the past. In many ways it would be better to leave those things untouched so that the winds of the prairies could throw yet another century's dust on them. But Americans' own understanding of themselves and of their heritage, now so much under attack, demands that we take a long and honest look at our history to see whether it did indeed match our ideals.

            I will tell you my conclusion now: that the glance backward justifies, in my opinion, the pride that Americans have traditionally felt in themselves and their forefathers. This essay will be candid in expressing my reasons for this reaffirmation. I am understandably anxious, though, that this discussion not be misunderstood. Nothing in the history I am about to recount is intended to diminish the affection that exists and that was so apparent at the VFW ceremony. Now, more than a century after Wounded Knee, I and the members of the Intertribal Warriors' Council are fellow countrymen.

The "Culture War": What's at stake in today's debate?

            Lawrence Auster, whose writing has appeared in National Review and Measure, is the author of a courageous and vitally important monograph The Path to National Suicide: An Essay on Immigration and Multiculturalism (1990). In it, he discusses a point made by the nineteenth century French historian Ernest Renan. Auster quotes Renan as saying that "a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things...constitute this soul...One is the common possession of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the present consensus, the desire to live together...."1

            Looking at the tone and content of the current rage within our schools and academic community to advance a program of "cultural diversity," Auster sums up the attack on Americans' traditional view of themselves when he says that "multiculturalism should be understood as an attempt, undertaken in our own schools, to tear down, discredit and destroy the shared story that has made us a people and impose on us a different story which tells us our civilization and past history are essentially evil."2

            One aspect of this damning critique of America's past is the perspective that multiculturalists are giving to the centuries- long process of populating the continent, a process that involved the dispossession of the Indian. Auster quotes a report by the New York State Commissioner of Education that speaks of the "negative values and policies that produced aggressive individuals and nations that were ready to 'discover, invade and conquer' foreign land because of greed, racism and national egoism" (my emphasis).3

            And so it is that these days we are reading such things as the piece by Julianne Malveaux in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 16, 1991: "Eurocentric history books portray a hero 'discovering' a continent, and 'civilizing' it. If history were written from the vantage point of those who saw the Spaniards coming, Columbus and his cronies might be portrayed as war criminals, not adventurous civilizers."

            Let there be no mistake about it. What is at issue in the debate over the American past is something of great current and future importance. It is far from a mere academic exercise; it is a struggle for our heart and soul--for our collective memory and self-perception. An America whose children are taught to despise its past will be a vastly different America.

How we view the past: The interplay of ideals, sentimentality and realism

            In what I have just said, I have cast the debate in contemporary terms: the ideology underlying multiculturalism versus what is still the mainstream society. As important as this is, however, we should be aware that the debate goes back much further. The main culture in Europe and America--middle class and commercial--has been under attack by an alienated intelligentsia for almost two centuries. Virtually everything about that main culture has been excoriated by the literati during that entire period.

            A mental characteristic of many of the opponents of mainstream culture has been to adopt an overweening sentimentality by which to judge (almost always censoriously) all practical conduct. This sentimentality has long been one of the prime ingredients in the damning of America's treatment of the Indian. Today, the outlook it dictates is shared by a great many Americans, who have accepted its premises.

            To understand it for its own sake, let's look at the sentimentality in a wholly different connection. In the 1830s the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay commented on the fashion of the time (and since), which was to condemn the England of the Industrial Revolution and to compare it with a supposedly much more pastoral earlier existence. Macaulay's rebuttal pointed to concrete realities: there was in the England of the 1830s, he showed at length, far better transportation, medical care, sanitation, length of life, food, and general humanity of people toward one another than there had been in the seventeenth century. "On all this misery [of the seventeenth century]," he said, "society looked with profound indifference. Nowhere could be found that sensitive and restless compassion which has, in our time, extended a powerful protection to the factory child, to the Hindoo widow, to the negro slave,...which winces at every lash laid on the back of a drunken soldier, which will not suffer the thief in the hulks to be ill fed or overworked...."4

            By his comparison of the two centuries, Macaulay showed how ridiculous the alienated condemnation of early nineteenth century England was. He welcomed the prevalence of tender sentiments, which he saw as reflecting an advance in civilization. But he also knew that the sentimentality introduced a flight from reality, and so pointed out that "compassion ought, like all other feelings, to be under the government of reason."5

            The unbalanced sentimentality, then, is what in my lifetime people have come to know as "do-goodism." To speak of sentimentality in that way is not to disparage the doing of good, but to perceive the naivete and lack of proportion that "do-goodism," as an exaggerated virtue, embodies. This lack of balance and of historical perspective underlies many of the fads and enthusiasms of our liberal pop culture.

            What we should keep in mind as we compare the competing perspectives of the historic displacement of the American Indian is that an exaggerated sentimentality is far removed from what is most sound either as to compassion, ideals or reality. It blurs our moral understanding. If the sentimentality causes a misassessment and overvaluation of one thing, it engages in what Ayn Rand called "moral counterfeiting"; if it causes an undervaluation of something else, that is "moral embezzlement." Both involve distortion.

The "fish principle": The changing "threshold of compassion"

            There is yet another preliminary point to be made. It relates to the difficulty of one age's judging another. When we look back on the past, we do not wish to, and should not, suspend judgment as to how that past measures up to our own standards. But before we become too thoroughly convinced of our own purity and good intentions compared to people of a past age, we should ask ourselves how we would have acted if we had been in identical circumstances.

            The central point in my perspective about the displacement of the Indians by the immigrating white civilization will be that virtually all human beings, including ourselves, would have done just as the immigrants did. There were countless cruelties, many of them arguably gratuitous, on both sides along the way, but even those were virtually built into the historic equation. The Americans of the seventeenth, eighteen and nineteenth centuries were not befouled; they acted just as one would expect people to act--even people who belonged to the most hopeful and idealistic society the world had ever known. What happened on the frontier was not something totally distinct from what happened in Philadelphia both at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the Constitution.

            This is not to say that most of us today, under today's conditions, would relish doing what the flood of settlers over a three-century span had to do. Speaking for myself personally, I can say that I welcome living on a level of civilization where I can be compassionate toward almost all living things. Ensconced in a comfortable life, which I value, my sensitivities are such that I wouldn't eat lobster, say, if I were the one who had to drop the living animal into the boiling water; I would hate to wring the neck of a chicken or axe that of a turkey. Accordingly, it is possible to say, with some justification and not necessarily smugly (although smugness can certainly enter in), that people in the urban United States today are "on a higher level of civilization," because of these refined sensibilities, than a farmer, say, who has to do those kinds of things.

            I don't feel the same way about landing a trout--and in this there is a lesson. I call it the "fish principle," but others might prefer to think in terms of a "threshold of compassion." I can kill a trout without compunction, and hence he is "below the threshold of my compassion"; I would hate to shoot a deer, and hence the deer is for me "above the threshold."

            A remarkable thing is that the same applies to the compassion people feel toward one another. It has been a tragic but widespread human fact that people can be, and often are, below other peoples' threshold of compassion.

            The threshold isn't fixed, but changes over time and circumstance. At differing levels of civilization, and often within a given civilization among the various groups and individuals within it, people have varying thresholds of sensibility. Among the ancient Greeks there was no compunction against killing all the inhabitants of an opposing city, or pressing them into slavery. The Romans, though a great people, found it possible to crucify seven thousand on the roads outside Rome after the Spartacist revolt. In Otto Scott's excellent history James I we see the increase in sensibility within England in just one lifetime; brutalities that had been common became unacceptable. And Macaulay's history takes it further, showing that early nineteenth century England (yes, even that much- maligned time!) was a great deal more compassionate than seventeenth century England had been.

            The important point is that Americans in the late twentieth century (except our muggers, serial killers, and other sociopaths, whom I mention to show that such developments are never uniform) live at a much higher level of sensibility than Americans did a century ago. At least, we do within the comfort and peace of our daily lives. Given the life-and-death exigencies of a war, we still claw for existence, too--as indeed we must.

            This means that we are faced with peculiar difficulties in judging the conduct of our forebears a century and more ago. As they struck out into the wilderness, cutting the trees to make a clearing for planting, or as they headed west in wagon trains across the prairies to Colorado or Oregon, they faced unspeakable uncertainty and difficulty. The possibility that they might be attacked by Indians, scalped and mutilated, was for them one of the more terrifying realities among the many hardships they faced. They bore up under it with a hard-bitten edge, often with a cruelty that someone in long-settled New England or with our late-twentieth century sensibilities would find more than a little distasteful.

            Nor was their difference from today's Americans limited to meeting the perils of Indian attack. In 1882 the residents of Lake City, Colorado, stormed the jail and hung the two proprietors of a local brothel from the bridge at the north end of town after the proprietors murdered the sheriff.6 It was a no- nonsense age. (We sometimes think of lynching as limited to the South and to blacks; it wasn't.)

            If we lack a sense of historic progression, or if we lack appreciation for the struggles of those who got us to the comfortable civilization we now enjoy, it is an easy matter to turn our backs on our great-great-grandfathers and mothers, and to acquiesce in the perception that they were befouled. We might as well resign from the human race as do that.

White versus Indian: a conflict between levels of civilization

            It is commonplace to say that the centuries-long struggle between American Indians and the incoming, burgeoning white society was a "conflict between cultures."

            It was more than that, and unless we understand this we will have difficulty understanding the nature of the forces at work. It was a confrontation between a European civilization, extended to this continent by an unending stream of immigrants, that had been out of the Paleolithic Age for some 8,000 years, and a variety of Indian cultures that for the most part had never ascended to, much less passed through, the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages.

            In his The Loom of History, Herbert J. Muller speaks of "prehistoric peoples who lived in southwest Asia, in or about Mesopotamia. It was apparently here, some eight thousand years ago, that occurred the first great revolution in man's life -- the 'neolithic revolution,' or discovery of agriculture, which transformed him from a food hunter or food gatherer into a food producer, and centered his life in the village."7

            The settlers who came to this continent beginning in the early seventeenth century were the offspring of a high civilization that knew its Cathedral of Notre Dame, its Galileos, Ciceros, Euclids, and Newtons. True, they still had a long way to go up the ladder to full human maturity (as we do today), but the fact remains that they sprang from an enormously cultivated civilization.

            Compare Notre Dame with a wigwam; and compare a settled countryside full of a bustling population with its towns and villages and farms to a limitless expanse of forest and uncultivated prairie committed to the support of a vastly thinner population of hunters and warriors.

            The difference was so great that the European settlers never thought of the New World as an inhabited continent. Nor did the average settler think of the Indians as owners, much less as rightful owners. The wilderness in its vastness was there to be subdued for the support of life and family. The Indians were there as an incidental fact. When their presence was a reason for stark terror, as it often was, the Indians were hardly seen as human.

            The reality was brutal: that they were perceived by the settlers much the same way as a pack of grizzlies would be by settlers in a remote area of Alaska.

            For the most part we share this perspective even today. When my children were young I read them a book about Lincoln as a child. His family moved from Kentucky to Indiana and then to Illinois. When they moved to Indiana Lincoln's father hacked a clearing in the forest and had time to build three sides of a cabin before winter set in. They kept a fire burning in the open fourth side all winter to keep from freezing to death. This was an inspiring story of people persevering against all odds. Reading that story, we never dreamed of thinking of the Lincolns as racist marauders who out of greed were seizing the lands of the few Indians who hunted in that forest. Unless our attention is drawn specifically to the Indians, the movement westward into the wilderness seems as natural to us as it did to the settlers themselves.

            What I have said about the difference in levels of civilization is disputed by those who make themselves special champions of the Indians (and that includes many of our social commentators since the early nineteenth century). The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau popularized the idea of "the noble savage," the unselfish Natural Man from the "state of nature" who he postulated existed before civilization introduced its many "warpings." This was picked up by the Romantic movement and now in the late twentieth century by the type of environmental enthusiasts who see the Indian as "so much more in harmony with nature than is our exploitive civilization." In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown says that Indians have been "stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages" and speaks of them as "a people who were true conservationists."8 Those who assert the moral equivalency (or even superiority) of Indian culture with (or to) that of Europe cite the few examples of how Indians had adopted agriculture and village life; but this smacks of a less than candid selection of evidence to make what was not typical seem the norm.

            This sanguine view isn't the way the settlers who faced the Indians across the tomahawk saw them. Duane Schultz, in a recent book Month of the Freezing Moon, says that "Cheyenne boys were taught to fight and die gloriously, and their goal was to become the bravest of warriors." Sounds splendid, doesn't it? Well, he tells us just two pages later that "scalping might be just a way of keeping score, but mutilation was also practiced out of tradition and habit. It was not uncommon for a Cheyenne warrior to cut off the arms of an enemy and preserve the severed limbs as trophies. Strangers captured by the Cheyenne faced a gruesome fate. Captives were stripped and spread-eagled over anthills, their hands and feet lashed to pegs driven deep in the ground...Sometimes the Indians heaped twigs and branches atop their victims and burned them alive...A captured woman became the common property of the war party, to be raped by all until they returned to camp...."9

            In 1833, one of our greatest presidents, Andrew Jackson, argued in support of the policy that Jefferson had inaugurated to move the Indians west of the Mississippi. He said of the Indians that "they have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire for improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition."10 President Benjamin Harrison spoke of them in 1889 as "an ignorant and helpless people."11

            These were strong words -- and some argue that they were based on ignorance of the true nature of the Indians. But the truth of the words seems confirmed by the fact that when Indian chiefs came to Washington to see the president, they spoke to him as "our Father," while he addressed them as "my children." All parties, white and Indian alike, accepted the fact of vast difference.

Context of the cruelties

            The extent of the chasm that separated the two sides helps us understand the cruelties of both. The history of American Indian policy shows a continuing paternalistic concern, colored by a great deal of slippage in the execution. But out along the frontier where the terrors were very real the "fish principle" came into play. From time to time each side slaughtered the other indiscriminately--including women, children, young, and old. In 1622, "in the space of a single hour," Edward Ellis tells us, "three hundred [white] men, women and children were massacred, and eighty flourishing plantations planted along the James were reduced to six."12 In early eighteenth century Massachusetts, William T. Hagan says, "two captive white women and a boy (spurred on by indications of the treatment awaiting them in the Indian villages) tomahawked ten of a party of twelve Indian men, women and children while they slept during a break on the trail to Canada. Hannah Dustin, one of the women, then scalped their victims and returned to Haverhill with her bloody trophies and claimed the bounty offered by the colonial government."13

            There has been much bitter controversy about Sand Creek (1864) and Wounded Knee (1890) as to whether they were indiscriminate massacres of Indians. I will discuss each of these later, since they are important as symbols in the current debate, but it is worth noting that even if the "massacre" version of each were true the atrocities of total warfare on both sides had been part (though not all) of the pattern for centuries. We might desperately wish that that had not been so-- and the New England reformers came to deplore it after their own part of the continent had long since been pacified--, but it was part of the clawing struggle for existence, and of the psychology that went with it, that both sides experienced.

A question each of us must answer: Was the displacement of the Indians justified?

            The whole issue is left in the realm of inchoate sentimentality unless each of us answers the question for himself, directly and without equivocation: Was the displacement of the Indians justified, or was it an act of spoliation?

            Let us consider the argument that is asserted today with such high-minded sensibility that it was an aggression out of greed, racism and land-lust. When examined, this position appears ridiculous both morally and practically.

            It means, in effect, that the Puritans, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Germans, the Czechs, the Mennonites and the many other peoples of Europe (often the poor and the persecuted) who chose over three centuries to leave Europe to come to America should have paid heed to a philosopher (if there had been one) who would have shouted out for a halt, imploring them: "Look, the New World only appears to be an empty wilderness available to your settlement; in fact, it is occupied by hunters and warriors whose paramount right you have a sacred obligation to respect!"

            There was no such philosopher -- as well there ought not to have been, since he would have been wrong.

            Here again it is necessary to take note of the chasm between the peoples. Who can say that Paleolithic Man had a moral right to claim a vast continent to sustain a primitive hunting culture as against the spread of European civilization? The answer is nowhere written in the sky: it is a matter of values. Men of good will must look into their hearts for an honest, not necessarily the most sentimental, answer. And if we do that virtually no one can say with real sincerity that the Indians had more than a partial claim.

            Our imaginary philosopher would also have been ignored. Irrelevant to the actual life of his contemporaries, he would have retired to his study, listened to by no one. Do we expect, then, that the statesmen of the day should have based their policy upon him rather than upon the felt needs of millions of people? This question becomes compounded when we think of political decisions in America rather than in Europe; in a representative system of government, who could win election to office, and thereafter continue to maintain the support of the electorate, if he insisted on a policy so contrary to the instincts of the overwhelming majority?

            It is appropriate that each reader face this issue squarely. A failure to make a judgment about it is unconscionable, really, in the context of today's ideological condemnation of American history.

The long process of displacement: The phases of American Indian policy

            Speaking broadly, there were three main phases in the whites' Indian policy during the three centuries of conflict, although the first and third were essentially the same.

            First, when the colonies initially began to form, and thereafter as the east coast began to fill up, whites and Indians were side-by-side, in close contact. This gave rise to much conflict and some cooperation. Adjustments, essentially makeshifts, were arrived at as the necessity arose, with new treaties being struck, followed always by rapidly changing conditions. One of the greatest migrations of all time, of Europeans to America, was having the effect of gradually pushing the Indians back or of confining the erstwhile vastness of the forests available to them. For a while, it was possible to promise the Indians that "you'll have the other side of the mountains," or whatever. But soon even that became impossible.       

            Second, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened an enormous new territory, most of which whites believed they would never settle. The "Great American Desert" of the prairies was good for hunting, but not, it was thought, for agriculture. So Jefferson proposed the policy of removal. The Indians were all moved west of the Mississippi, with promises that that land would be theirs forever. Two peoples whom it was felt could not survive next to each other were separated, and it was thought that the makeshifts were over and that a permanently satisfactory solution had been found. This policy was followed from 1803 until approximately 1850.

            Third, the explosion of white population burst even these seams, flooding westward. Another enormous expanse of land was added after the war with Mexico; and gold was discovered in California, then at Cripple Creek in Colorado, and later in the Black Hills. The population of the United States, 31 million in 1860, more than doubled to 62 million by 1890, a mere thirty years. These millions flooded across the plains, unrestrained by a series of necessarily half-hearted efforts on the part of governments "to stop the settlers' encroachment on Indian lands." At first, wide avenues of travel such as the Santa Fe and Oregon trails were opened up and protected (as much as possible) from Indian attack, and the intercontinental railroad got underway. This forced the Indians (and each step was confirmed by treaty in another fast-moving series of makeshifts) into large areas such as the Dakotas and the "Indian country" of Oklahoma. But as settlers established their ranches and farms (or, first, as gold was discovered in the Black Hills), the population pressures grew unbearable and the Indians' possession of expansive hunting grounds was reduced to ever smaller reservations until the process essentially came to an end in the 1890s.

Broken treaties: A history of bad faith?

            The process was marked by what seemed an unending series of broken treaties. Sometimes it was the Indians, or often the less controllable braves within a tribe, who broke a treaty. But most often it was the whites. On the part of the whites, the initial violators were almost always the more rugged, pioneering elements such as the miners or the advance guard of settlers. The government often tried to stop this encroachment. But then as the countryside filled with thousands of others, the government would face the new reality; it would step in on their behalf and negotiate a new treaty, moving the Indians. Needless to say, these treaties were only colorably voluntary on the part of the Indians, despite the Indians' eagerness for the "gifts" that the negotiators brought with them. The real impetus behind the treaties was population pressure, backed up ultimately by the military strength of the United States.

            In our fatuous understanding of all this today, it is common to speak of the "bad faith" with which the whites treated the Indians and to point to the broken treaties with righteous scorn.

            But, again: What precisely would any other people have done? And was it wrong that the promises of one century or decade were broken on behalf of the exigencies of the next?

            Let us assume that you, the reader, had been a leader among the settlers of the Virginia Colony in the early seventeenth century. What sort of treaty would you have made with the Indians? Would you have thought it wise or necessary, or would you even have had so fanciful an imagination, to try to work out a grand solution that would meet the needs of all time, telling the Indians that they should recede to reservations in the Dakotas and Arizona because, after all, 62 million people (and after that many millions more) were on their way? Anyone who had approached the problem in that way would have been fit for counseling, if they had any in the seventeenth century.

            No, what you would have done was just what the people of that day did: to propose an accommodation in light of the situation as it existed at the time and in the reasonably foreseeable future. "Here's where you stay, and here's where we'll stay; and let's agree not to kill each other." That was the sum of it.

            When a few years later the white population was five or ten times what it had been earlier, what then would you (or, by that time, your grown children) have done? You'd have struck another accommodation. Who among you would have felt compelled by the local ethicist's (again, if there had been one) observation that "we can't do that; all these new settlers just have to stay in our little community; we promised the Indians a few years ago that the vast lands to the west would be theirs."

            Even this latest accommodation would be shattered by peoples' spreading out beyond the lands that it made available. What then would happen? The Indians, knowing full well what was happening, would explode, as they did in 1644 when 500 whites in the Virginia Colony were killed in surprise attacks by the Indians, who hoped in their desperation to drive them into the sea. But the whites, now far too numerous and much better armed, would prevail, and you would send the Indians packing--westward, across the mountains.

            This process was marked by atrocities and terror on both sides--and by treaties broken primarily by the whites. Again, I'll ask you the reader to search inside yourself: Who, precisely, was at fault? At what juncture would you have tried the white settlers for breach of contract, much less have put them on the scaffold for genocide? No, it was people doing what people know how to do, which is to live and to provide for themselves and their families. No leader would have been electable or would have retained any authority who did not live and breathe that reality.

            There is significance in the fact that in Pennsylvania the Quakers felt a special sensitivity to the situation of the Indians and about whites' obligations to them -- and that it wasn't long before the Indians were expelled anyway.

But so many atrocities? Who was to blame?

            It is hard to imagine how this three-century process of filling a continent, thereby displacing its primitive population, could have taken place without enormous frictions and violence. On the one side, why would the Indians acquiesce in their dispossession? On the other, why would pioneers and settlers not keep their rifles by their sides as they cultivated their fields? Even if everybody had followed the Marquis of Queensberry's rules, the process and the result would have been much the same.

            Because of that, I am not sure that the killing of women and children and the elderly--committed from time to time by both sides -- really counts among the process's "gratuitous violence." It was often total warfare, with no prospect or desire to be selective. As tragic as it was, this seems "built into the equation."

            Torture and the mutilation of the dead, of course, were gratuitous. Enormities of this sort sprang from the context itself: from the nature of the people involved, the rage they often felt toward their enemy, and the psychological separation that I discussed earlier. The Indians, most of them, were indeed savage; and the whites on the frontier were often of the roughest, toughest, least educated sort.

            Duane Schultz, though in the main heavily favorable to the Indians, tells us that "Cheyenne women could be as vicious as their men. A U.S. Army captain described how after a battle Cheyenne squaws helped 'scalp and torture the wounded, shooting arrows into their bodies and cutting off fingers and toes, even when they were alive.'" During the 1862 Minnesota uprising by the Santee Sioux, he says, more than 700 white settlers were killed and many others captured. He includes a quote about "families burned alive in their cabins, children nailed to doors, girls raped by a dozen braves and then hacked to pieces, babies dismembered and their limbs flung in the mother's face."14 One reason some Indians mutilated the dead during the Plains wars was a religious belief that the spirit of their enemies would carry the wounds into the afterlife.

            Whites, too, were often gratuitously violent. Dee Brown tells how after Indians had killed four whites in 1641 the Dutch in what is now New York massacred "two entire [Indian] villages while the inhabitants slept. The Dutch soldiers ran their bayonets through men, women, and children, hacked their bodies to pieces, and then leveled the villages with fire."15 And it was not only the Indians who scalped people: Hagan says the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam "is credited with offering the first bounty for Indian scalps," and says that "generations of frontiersmen...excelled their tutors at scalping."16 We will see later than many of the Indian bodies at Sand Creek were scalped. Indians sometimes even scalped their own dead to prevent whites from getting trophies.

The slaughter at Sand Creek

            I will discuss two episodes in particular because they have long been made symbols of white brutality. It is odd that these--Sand Creek and Wounded Knee -- have become ideologized, since there is genuine dispute in each case about whether the Indians really were wronged. There is ample proof of white atrocities elsewhere (just as there is of Indian atrocities), so it seems something of an accident of perception and ideology that these two incidents have been given primary attention.

            There are widely varying versions of what happened at Sand Creek, located near the Kansas line in eastern Colorado. Commentators all agree that a major force of Colorado volunteers -- the Third Colorado Cavalry commanded by Col. John M. Chivington -- made a surprise early-morning attack on a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on November 29, 1864, after a grueling winter's march from Denver. That is about all that is agreed upon.

            Several officers and men who were present described it as a battle that continued from dawn until nightfall. Their accounts say the Indians quickly took refuge in already-prepared rifle pits, that many women and children escaped, and that other squaws (with some children) fought alongside the men, dying with them. One officer said that he counted 450 Indian dead (out of a variously estimated 600 to 1,000 in the village). Col. Chivington thought the Indian dead close to 500 or 600. The Third Colorado Cavalry lost fourteen men.

            In his 1990 book about Sand Creek, Duane Schultz gives a substantially different version -- the one that expresses the view, which has become the conventional wisdom, that it was a massacre rather than a battle. (James Michener presented it this way in Centennial.) Schultz says that the Coloradans exaggerated the victory, and that, in contradiction to the larger count, "more than one hundred Indians were dead" (whatever "more than" means). (His reduction of the count doesn't affect his perception of it as a massacre.) He says that when the attack started Indians "quickly dug holes and crude trenches" -- but didn't have prepared rifle pits to go to. He relies heavily on the testimony of Major Edward Wynkoop, an enemy of Col. Chivington's, who said that "two thirds of those killed were women and children."17

            In my own analysis, I don't think this conventionally-accepted version holds up. Let's pay attention to the details and do some math. Two-thirds of a hundred, if that's what the number of dead was, would be sixty-seven. That would leave only thirty-three warriors among the dead. Some warriors were killed in the first few minutes of the assault when there was still the element of surprise. Thus, this account, which contradicts the testimony of several eye-witnesses, expects us to believe that perhaps as few as fifteen to twenty warriors, fighting without benefit of pre-prepared defensive positions, were able to conduct an all-day pitched battle against more than 700 cavalrymen on horseback.

            What difference does it make? Simply that determining whom to believe is essential in deciding which version to accept about not only these details but also about how many women and children were killed, under what circumstances, the extent to which scalping and mutilation occurred, whether the Indians' chief put up an American flag and a white flag at the beginning of the attack, etc.

            It is strange that Schultz, whose book was published in 1990, seems unaware of William R. Dunn's 1985 book I Stand By Sand Creek.18 He neither mentions it nor includes it in his bibliography. Nor does he identify the speaker or source when he quotes statements critical of the attack.

            In a short space, I cannot hope to review everything about Sand Creek. I would urge readers, before they decide to stay with today's standard view that it personified white brutality, to read Dunn's book and compare it to Schultz's.

            Before we leave the subject, however, let's note some often understressed but crucial background facts:

.That Denver and the white settlers all along the front range of the Rockies were left defenseless when Army troops were withdrawn to go fight in the Civil War.

.That the Minnesota uprising in 1862, with almost 800 white settlers killed, filled Coloradans with terror.

.That in early 1863 a U.S. Indian agent reported to the governor of Colorado, John Evans, that the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne had formed an alliance for a war of extermination against the whites.

.That Evans then traveled to several places on the plains to meet with the Indians to prevent war, but the chiefs refused to meet.

.That during the months preceding Sand Creek a total of 208 whites -- men, women, children, and soldiers--were killed by the Indians in a series of raids and battles. In June 1864 the bodies of the Hungate family, killed on a ranch twenty-five miles southeast of Denver, were brought to the city for burial, with the children's throats cut so severely that their heads were barely attached to their torsos.

.That Indian representatives came to Denver in September 1864 seeking peace in keeping with a pattern of conducting warfare all spring and summer and then arranging a peace for the winter, but were told by Governor Evans that they would have to seek peace from the military. The Indians at Sand Creek had no basis for the claim that is now made that they were "under government protection."

.That the evidence confirms that the Indians at Sand Creek were among those who had attacked the settlers: a number of white scalps were found in the village.

Wounded Knee

            A romantic halo has been placed around the Indians who died at Wounded Knee, the last major confrontation of the Indian wars, which occurred at Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. In keeping with this, Dee Brown named his book about the Indian wars Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. In the Jan.-Feb. 1991 issue of Mother Jones, one of America's further-left periodicals, Ann Leslie Davis, who teaches English at Gleska College on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, claimed that the American Seventh Cavalry "opened fire on the unarmed Lakota."19

            On the 100th anniversary of Wounded Knee a feature story appeared in newspapers around the country written by Eric Harrison of the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post Service. The article was full of pathos about the "massacre." Among other things, it reported that "last October, the U.S. Congress for the first time issued a statement of 'deep regret'...." Harrison indicated that for the survivors' descendants, though, "'regret' is not enough." They've demanded an apology, restitution, the erection of a monument, and the revocation of the Medals of Honor that the United States awarded to eighteen soldiers.

            Perhaps not surprisingly, the article slid over the specifics of what happened at Wounded Knee. All it said about what started the conflagration was that "a commotion broke out. A shot was fired...."

            This is hardly an honest telling of history. The plain fact is that the American public is being propagandized. Motivated by goodwill and sentimentality, we are allowing the history to be rewritten in line with the romanticizing of the Indian and with the view, so much pressed upon us today, that whites' behavior was depraved.

            Wounded Knee involved one of the many times that the Army, meeting Indians for the purpose of taking them to an Indian agency, faced the difficulty of disarming them before escorting them in. The Army commander decided to allow both sides to camp overnight before insisting that the Indians hand over their rifles. In a friendly gesture, he placed a stove in Big Foot's tent and had the regimental surgeon attend Big Foot, who was sick. In the morning the Army issued hardtack for breakfast. It was then that Col. James W. Forsyth, the commander, called on the Indians for their guns. When he insisted that they remove their blankets to see whether they had guns under them, a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began a frenzied Ghost Dance and chant.20 After tensions were at a high pitch, another of the Indians, variously called Black Fox or Black Coyote, fired a Winchester rifle at the soldiers.

            The military historian S.L.A. Marshall says that "ever since, Black Fox has been identified as the...villain of the drama, but for whose action it might have gone off smoothly. Nothing could be more erroneous than that... Instantly, as though they had been awaiting a signal, the other warriors did the same, volley-firing into the massed soldiers with rifles theretofore carefully concealed under their blankets."

            Marshall sums it up: "There is no doubt who started that day's fight, though it is often called a massacre... Sioux action, so timed as to indicate that it had been well plotted, initiated the slaughter. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee may be a lovely phrase. It is still a false and misleading statement, dignifying conspiracy and honoring treachery."

            By the time it was all over, "upwards of 170 of the Sioux had been killed" and "sixty of the cavalrymen lay either dead or wounded."21

            Two chiefs told the Indian side of the story in Washington two months later, blaming the Army. But historian Edward Ellis says "their account cannot be fully accepted. That women and children were killed in the desperate fight is admitted; the cause lay in the fact that they were among the fiercest combatants... Captain Wallace was beaten to death and his skull crushed by clubs in the hands of infuriated squaws, after he had fallen helpless to the ground."22

            Again, in a brief discussion I cannot hope to resolve the conflicting views. It is enough to point out to Americans that there is abundant evidence to contradict the sentimental view, and to urge them not to accept uncritically the idea that Americans of a past century deserve our contempt.

Conclusion

            It is hard for Americans who are busy in their daily lives to realize that a relentless ideological, cultural war is being waged in the United States. It is conducted almost exclusively by one side--the side that damns the America both of the past and the present.

            Our most essential national characteristic --  our collective memory and self-image as a people--is at stake. Our perception of American history's treatment of the Indian is just one of the many battlegrounds of that war. The outcome will define what America is in the future. It is time that far more Americans think the matter through and take a stand in that war.

 ENDNOTES


1. Lawrence Auster, The Path to National Suicide (Monterey, VA: American Immigration Control Foundation, 1990), 34.

2. Ibid., 34-5.

3. Ibid., 31.

4. John Clive and Thomas Pinner, ed.s, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Selected Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 335.

5. Ibid.

6. Margaret Bates, A Quick History of Lake City, Colorado (Colo. Springs: Little London Press, 1973), 18.

7. Herbert J. Muller, The Loom of History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 32.

8. Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Pocket Books, 1981), xiii.

9. Duane Schultz, Month of the Freezing Moon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 13, 15.

10. Messages of the Presidents (Washington: Government Printing Office, Vol III, 1896), 32-3.

11. Ibid., Vol. IX, 1898, 45, 117, 202, 326.

12.Edward S. Ellis, The Indian Wars of the United States (Chicago: J. D. Kenyon & Co., 1892), 7.

13. William T. Hagan, American Indians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 17.

14. Schultz, Freezing Moon, 60.

15. Brown, Bury My Heart, 4.

16. Hagan, American Indians, 15, 11.

17. Schultz, Freezing Moon, 139.

18.William R. Dunn, I Stand By Sand Creek (Fort Collins, CO: Old Army Press, 1985.

19. Mother Jones, Jan.-Feb. 1991, 80.

20. Yellow Bird's having started to Ghost Dance was especially ominous. A great many of the Sioux had in 1890 become involved in a religious frenzy begun by a Paiute Indian named Wovoka in Nevada who claimed to be a messiah. In the spring of 1891, according to the belief, dead Indians were to return to life, the buffalo would reappear, and a great dust storm would kill all the whites. In the meantime, if Indians wore "ghost shirts" they would be immune to bullets; and they should dance "ghost dances" until they fell into a trance. As thousands of Indians became involved in this excitement in 1890, the entire country became alarmed that a vast Indian War was about to break out.

21. S. L. A. Marshall, Crimsoned Prairie (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972), Chap. 12 relative to Wounded Knee; 243, 246.

22. Ellis, Indian Wars, 419, 420.