By Dan Cryer
November 3, 2016
When I was a boy playing cowboys and Indians in the backyard, I invariably signed up with the cowboys. I knew darn well who the bad guys were. I knew which side represented civilization, and which, savagery. Later, as a serious student of history, I knew better. America’s treatment of the continent’s native inhabitants had been no less shameful than its treatment of African slaves and their descendants.
After all, how “civilized” could perpetrators of genocide be?
While in no way minimizing the devastating impact on Native Americans, Cozzens contends, contrary to revisionist works like Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1970), that official U.S. policy was never genocide. It was cultural assimilation. Indians were pushed and prodded to shed traditional ways, adopt Christianity and be transformed into settled farmers and ranchers. Though some may regard this as cultural genocide, a distinction without a difference, the author disagrees.
Confronted with the reality of fierce Indian resistance, Army officers learned to respect their enemies’ martial skills. The Lakota were unmatched horsemen, the Apaches masters of lightning guerrilla strikes. Their courage was never in doubt. Tribal unity, however, was their Achilles’ heel, not only among tribes but within the same one. Resisting wiser voices counseling restraint, youngbloods sometimes lashed out in fury and hurt their own cause.
The troops arrayed against them tended to be underfunded, poorly trained, badly paid and undisciplined. Only the overpowering force of greater numbers, the devastation of the buffalo herds, the railroads that knifed through Indian territory and the unstoppable in-migration of white settlers (fueled by the Homestead Act of 1863) allowed the soldiers to prevail. Using a divide-and-conquer strategy, the Army split off one group from another, and eventually saddled up Indian warriors to ride side by side with bluecoats.
Treaties, Cozzens notes, were “mere legal veneer to conceal wholesale land grabs.” As whites poured into the West, as gold was discovered, pacts signed but not fully understood by the tribes were overruled by government agencies. Once Indians were corralled onto reservations, the granting or withholding of rations proved an effective tool of pacification. If the only options were to acquiesce, depart in search of vanishing game or starve, tribal leaders usually knew what they had to do.
Without implying any false equivalence, Cozzens emphasizes history’s tangled complexity. Outbreaks of violence were sometimes provoked by Indians, sometimes by whites. Neither side had a monopoly on cruelty.
General Phil Sheridan represented the majority Army view, imposing a blame-the-victim interpretation on every misunderstanding between whites and Indians. Yet even Gen. George Crook, who battled Indians for decades, turned advocate for their rights. “All tribes tell the same story,” he wrote late in his career. “They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing to do — fight while they can.”
Not all tribal leaders chose to fight. Cozzens sees dignity in two great Lakota chiefs: Red Cloud, who concluded that accommodation was the only path to survival, as well as Sitting Bull, who fought as long as he could. Likewise, Cochise of the Chiricahua Apaches laid down his arms after a decade of struggle, while Geronimo kept eluding his captors by slipping away to Mexico until his luck ran out.
Cozzens excels at crisp, muscular prose that offers clear pictures of men at war. (Numerous maps also aid our understanding.) His account of the Battle of Little Big Horn, for instance, portrays with scorching vividness the doomed George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry: “Calhoun’s men were easy targets. They knelt or stood, silhouetted along the barren hilltop. Arrows rained down on them. Bullets kicked up dust or entered flesh with a sickening thud.”
If individual battles are described with clarity and brio, the reader’s overall sense of things can nonetheless be blurred. So many tribes and chiefs, so many Army officers and Indian agents parade across these pages in pursuit of each other that it’s hard to keep them straight. The book is heavy on action, light on personality. Just when we think we’ve grasped a figure, he is whisked offstage and others take over.
One can’t help thinking, by way of contrast, of S.C. Gwynne’s masterful “Empire of the Summer Moon,” whose focus on the Comanches in Texas and Oklahoma made for a scintillating reading experience.
In the final analysis, “The Earth Is Weeping” doesn’t seem that far removed from the spirit of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Both throb with the pain of Indian defeat and humiliation; both honor varied Indian cultures; both grieve at the inevitability of cultural clash.
Cozzens’ account begins and ends with massacres by U.S. troops. At Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864, some 200 Cheyennes, including women and children, were killed. Never mind that Chief Black Kettle had raised a white flag. Col. John Chivington did not want any prisoners.
At Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, Army cannons raked over a band of Miniconjou Lakota led by Big Foot preparing to surrender their weapons; 82 men and 64 women and children were killed.
Dee Brown has been updated and improved, but hardly countermanded.