Interviews

The Indians and the American West: What Really Went On?

The Fight for the Pony Herd by Frederic Remington

Peter Cozzens has written and edited sixteen acclaimed books on the American Civil War and the Indian Wars of the American West. His most recent book, The Earth Is Weeping, is a gripping narrative of the Indian Wars for the American West. Cozzens describes the book as a response to Dee Brown’s 1970 book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The Earth Is Weeping brings much-needed balance to the history of the Indian Wars, digging us out of the frankly inaccurate narrative of whites versus Indians. Below, Cozzens shares his thoughts on his research and writing process, what got him interested in the Indian Wars, and the differences between Indian warriors and white soldiers.

SIGNATURE: What was your research process like, and how did you balance your research with crafting a vivid narrative?

PETER COZZENS: The vast scope of The Earth Is Weeping presented me with unique research challenges. I had to make sense of over a dozen distinct major conflicts involving a multitude of Indian tribes spread across the entire West over the course of nearly three decades. The story was necessarily kaleidoscopic, but I needed to make sure my presentation wasn’t simply episodic.

My research process was unorthodox, at least for me. Normally I research the entire story and then turn to the writing. With The Earth Is Weeping, I researched each proposed chapter or related chapters and then wrote the narrative before going on to research and write the succeeding chapter(s). I then went back and created the narrative threads that wove it all together.

Throughout I tried to ensure that I balanced Indian with white (government and army) primary sources so as to tell the story as objectively and grippingly as possible.

SIG: What got you interested in the history of the Indian Wars?

PC: I came to the Indian Wars indirectly by way of the Civil War. Working on a biography of Union General John Pope, who subsequently served as a department commander in the West, I was struck by his humanitarian views on Indian affairs and empathy with their predicament – I never expected that from a senior army commander. Pope even advocated sending troops to break up illegal buffalo-hunting establishments and, in effect, help the Indians save their land and resources. He not only shared the ideals of civilian reformers but also had a far more realistic understanding of the impediments to realizing them. Among his trenchant observations were the following: “No races of men are in a condition to profit much by the lessons of kindness and charity taught by well-fed apostles whilst they themselves are suffering from want and hunger.”

Intrigued, I dug deeper and found that the majority of generals in the West were of like mind in empathizing with the Indians and finding their duty to make war on them distasteful at best. Realizing that I was a victim of one of the many myths about the Indian Wars – that the army was hell-bent on killing Indians – I felt compelled to take on the entire subject.

SIG: You touch on the one-sided approach to history that you found in Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. To what extent, if at all, do you consider your own book a response to his?

PC: I absolutely regard my book as a response to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the one-sided approach to history that it represents. Brown made no effort to disguise his intentions. His stated purpose was to present “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West.

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Brown’s definition of victims was extremely circumscribed, leaving out tribes such as the Shoshones, Crows, and Pawnees, who cast their fate with the whites. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee dismissed them as “mercenaries” and made no effort to understand them or their motives; they became, like the army and the government, mere foils for the “victims.”

This kind of approach to history serves no good purpose. I would argue that it’s impossible to understand fully and truthfully the injustice done the Indians or the army’s role in that tragic era without a complete and nuanced understanding of the both the white and Indian perspectives.

This is was what I have tried to accomplish in The Earth Is Weeping – to bring balance to the story of the Indian Wars and confront the many myths, misconceptions, and falsehoods surrounding them.

SIG: Can you speak to the lack of common “Indian identity” felt between tribes in the 1800s? How did American misconception of intertribal relations, and Indian life in general, perpetuate the Indian Wars?

PC: There was no sense of “Indianness” among the tribes in the West. Every tribe considered itself to be the chosen people of the Creator and saw its relations with other tribes in absolute terms – other Native peoples were either allies or enemies. There were tribal alliances, such as that between the Lakotas and the Cheyennes and the Kiowas and Comanches, but they were hamstrung by the fact that none of these tribes, nor any tribe for the matter, was ever united for war or peace against the whites. Intense intratribal factionalism was the rule. And intertribal warfare continued throughout the Indian Wars. While the whites were edging onto Lakota land from the east, for instance, the Lakotas were preoccupied with driving the Crows further west.

The government was well aware of both the intertribal animosities and the factionalism within tribes, and they used both to great advantage.

As far as Indian life in general went, even the most ardent advocate of Indian rights saw nothing worth preserving in the Indian culture; “Christianizing and civilizing” the Indians was their guiding principle.

SIG: The male Indian upbringing was vigorously centered on being a warrior. How did the Indian Wars, and the end of the Wars, influence this way of life?

PC: The Indian Wars did not fundamentally change the manner in which Indian males were raised, nor did the wars really alter the intricate system of war honors that dictated a male’s status within the tribe. The Indians who fought the army considered soldiers inferior enemies to their traditional tribal foes and so personal exploits in these battles counted for less than those in raids or skirmishes against other tribes.

The end of the Indian Wars, however, shattered the warrior’s world. Hemmed in on reservations, with the buffalo gone, they could no longer make war on enemy tribes nor engage in the hunt. Men lost their purpose in life. Many adapted and turned to cattle ranching or farming, but the means available to them were limited; tragically, many others fell victim to alcoholism and despair.

SIG: In a similar vein, can you speak to the extreme contrast between the upbringing and training of the Indian warrior versus that of the American soldier?

PC: Warriors were rigorously trained from boyhood for a life of struggle. Fathers raised their sons to aspire to great martial deeds, which were the surest way to status – and to attracting the most eligible young women – in the tribe. At age five or six their training began with long-distance runs and food and sleep deprivation, with a view to toughening their bodies. At age fourteen boys participated on their first raids in the role of mascots or menials. By age eighteen he was expected to have obtained war honors, such as stealing horses or taking scalps.

By contrast, the army of the Indian Wars era was composed of the most inferior brand of soldier in United States history. Many were illiterate, unskilled laborers who enlisted simply for a free ride west in order to desert when better-paying work (privates made only ten dollars a month, as opposed to thirteen dollars during the Civil War) became available, or to drift to gold and silver mines. Nearly a third of the frontier army consisted of recent immigrants, many of whom had a shaky command of English at best. Training was minimal, and target practice was almost nonexistent. The desertion rate ran at around eighty percent.

As one general observed, while the army had a greatly improved rifle over that used in the Civil War, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to use it.”

SIG: Where was the place of empathy in the Indian Wars? Did it have a place?

PC: As I pointed out with respect to John Pope and other leading army figures, it certainly did. Even General William T. Sherman, who after army defeats was guilty of several infelicitous utterances about exterminating “hostile” Indians told a graduating West Point class that it was their duty to bring the Indians to bay as humanely as possible.

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General William T. Sherman

I’ve always been particularly taken with this thoughtful observation by Colonel John Gibbon, who was one of the leading Indian-fighting figures in the West. On the eve of the Great Sioux War of 1876, he wrote in the Army and Navy Journal:

“Put yourself in [the Indian’s] place and let the white man ask himself this question: What would I do if threatened as the Indian has been and is? Suppose a race superior to mine were land upon the shores of this great continent, trade or cheat us out of our land foot by foot, gradually encroach upon our domain until we were finally driven … into a small corner of the continent, where to live at all it was necessary to steal and perhaps to do worst …. I have seen one who hates an Indian as he does a snake … on having the proposition put to him in this way, grind his teeth in rage and exclaim, ‘I would cut the heart out of everyone I could lay my hand on,’ and so he would, and so we all would.”

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Colonel John Gibbon

SIG: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

PC: Well, I’m sort of moving in reverse chronologically and geographically. I hope to return east of the Mississippi River and write a book on the life and times of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who dedicated his life to creating an Indian confederacy against white encroachment on Indian lands in the Old Northwest (the modern Midwest) and who lost his life fighting with the British in the War of 1812. He was a true visionary and a towering figure in his day, even among whites, who commanded much broader followings than Indian leaders better known today, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.