In 1970 historian and novelist Dee Brown challenged traditional views of the Indian wars with his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Now Peter Cozzens, acclaimed author and editor of 17 Civil War and Indian war histories, again rethinks that clash of cultures in his 2016 book The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. Cozzens took time to speak with Wild West about the book.
What’s your opinion of Dee Brown’s book?
I first read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while in high school. I don’t recall too much about the book, except that I enjoyed it. Today I respect Brown for having written a book that ran counter to the tide of many decades of academic and popular work. But in trying to correct the vast record of injustice done the American Indians, he went too far in the other direction. Over the years I came to find it ironic that so crucial a period in our history remained defined by a book that made no attempt at historical balance. Brown made no secret of this. He gave as the stated purpose of his book the presentation of “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West. Brown’s definition of victims was misleading. There was no unified Indian resistance, as his book implies. All tribes famous for having resisted the whites were in fact torn into war and peace factions. And his definition of victims is severely circumscribed. Several tribes, such as the Shoshones, Pawnees and Crows, cast their lot with the whites. Brown dismissed these tribes as “mercenaries.” They, like the Army and government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the “victims” in the story.
What motivated you to write The Earth Is Weeping?
I wanted to write something epic—that is to say, to cover a large swath of American history. I settled on the Indian wars in no small measure because of the absence of historical balance in Brown’s book.
North American Indians fought among one another long before Europeans arrived on the continent. What prompted the conflict between the myriad tribes and the new arrivals?
The search for minerals—most often gold—and land hunger. By 1870 the non-Indian population of the United States had topped 38 million. There was simply no way for the government to prevent the hundreds of thousands of westering whites from overrunning the vast stretches of Western land held by a relatively small population of seminomadic tribes. It was a tragic end to a way of life, but inevitable.
How does one research the Indian point of view?
It was not particularly difficult to get the Indian point of view. Allowing for the vagaries of translation, reliable Indian accounts are quite plentiful. Scores of Indian participants gave their accounts to ethnologists, anthropologists and interested amateurs. Government records, especially congressional documents, abound with Indian testimony. Many Indians also spoke to newspapermen. Although Brown made use of only a fraction of these sources, they have always been available in library archives or special collections. In recent years many have appeared in book form.
What is the biggest misconception about the Indian wars?
So many myths have arisen about them that it’s tough to select the single greatest misconception. But I suppose I would have to say the notion that the Army was the implacable foe of the Indian, that generals were hell-bent on exterminating the Indians, is the most pernicious.
How do you perceive the Indians who allied with whites?
The Crows and Pawnees had long been at war with the more powerful Lakota-Cheyenne-Arapaho confederation and had lost much land to the combined tribes. They saw their alliance with whites in terms of, as the saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Crows benefited substantially, ultimately regaining much land the Lakotas had seized from them. That includes the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Shoshones were led by Chief Washakie, who lived nearly 100 years and calculated that the tribe’s best hope for survival—and to some degree prosperity—lay in accommodation with the whites.
Lakotas massacred Pawnees in 1873. How did that event and the government response affect the tribe?
That was a truly sad moment in Pawnee history. In the early 1870s reservation Lakotas raided Pawnee villages in central Nebraska with the implicit support of Lakota chiefs who had made peace with the government. In August 1873 at least 800 Lakota warriors fell upon a Pawnee hunting party, killing a hundred, of whom half were women and children. Only the timely arrival of the cavalry prevented a greater slaughter. Several years earlier a battalion of Pawnees recruited as soldiers had repelled the Cheyenne and Lakota war parties that had brought construction of the Union Pacific Railroad to a halt. Nebraskans appreciated the Pawnees’ service. They were outraged by the 1873 massacre and demanded the federal government afford the Pawnees protection and give them better weapons. Instead, the Indian Bureau banished the tribe to present-day Oklahoma. It was an unpardonable act of bad faith.
2017 marks the sesquicentennial of Hancock’s War. You write, “[Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott] Hancock knew nothing about Indians and had no interest in learning.” Was that a common failing among officers of the era?
A lack of understanding of Indians was common among officers new to the West. But Hancock stands out for his unwillingness to learn. In light of his stellar Civil War record, his arrogance and incompetence in the West astounded me.
What was your opinion of Colonel John Gibbon?
Well, Gibbon is a mixed bag. While he undoubtedly sympathized with Indians who resisted reservation life and abhorred the necessity of fighting them, his combat record was mixed at best. Without trying to psychoanalyze him, perhaps his feelings for the Indians compromised his battle effectiveness. In any case, he nearly lost his entire command in a poorly executed attack on the Nez Perces at the Big Hole, and his performance during the Little Bighorn campaign left much to be desired.
General George Crook. Good guy or overrated?
A good guy who has been overrated in his Indian-fighting abilities. Crook did extremely well in counterguerrilla warfare against small bands of the Apaches, but when he came up against hundreds of Lakotas and Cheyennes at the Battle of the Rosebud, he essentially froze. Crook never did learn how to fight the northern Plains tribes effectively. Like Gibbon, however, Crook had a strong humanitarian streak, and he often agonized over the Army’s duties. During the height of the Indian Wars a reporter asked him how he liked his job. Not much, replied Crook. It was a hard thing, the general explained, to be forced to do battle with Indians who more often than not in the right. “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war,” Crook said. “And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do—fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”
Historians commonly present Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer as brash bordering on foolhardy. Did your research bear out that impression?
Much about the Custer who emerged in my research ran contrary to my preconceived notions of him. And the commonly held notions that he rode off half-cocked to attack the Indians at the Little Bighorn and that he disobeyed orders in attacking are wrong.
Who among the Indian leaders intrigued you most and why?
Sitting Bull, for his courage, moral and physical, in resisting the whites while doing everything in his power to avoid war with them. And he had a great sense of humor. Here are two of my favorite Sitting Bull quips, uttered to his followers after he returned from a season with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Having been to Washington, D.C., he set his people straight on the “Great Father.” The agents had lied: White men did not hold the Great Father (president) sacred, as the Indians had been led to believe. On the contrary, “Half the people in the hotels were always making fun of him and trying to get him out of his place and some other man into his place.” And judging from the bar scene, white men drank too much. Sitting Bull told Lakota friends, “The soul of the white man is so odored with whiskey that it will have to hang around here on Earth for hundreds of years before the winds and storms will so purify it that the people in the other life can endure the smell of it there and let them in.”
Did any historical figure jar your perceptions?
The Apache war leader and medicine man Geronimo. I found him to be a rather despicable character, albeit possessed with what the Apaches considered great spiritual powers uniquely valuable in war and raiding. As a fellow Chiricahua leader once said of him, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” Geronimo drank to excess, possessed a paranoid streak and didn’t hesitate to deceive supposed allies. His personal following never exceeded a few dozen, but his perceived Power, with a capital “p,” was such that he could command the allegiance of considerably more in times of fighting. He also benefited from the weak-willed Chiricahua Chief Naiche, son of the great Cochise, who fell under Geronimo’s sway.
You cover some 30 years of the Indian campaigns. If you were to write further on a particular episode, which would you choose?
Probably the sad and complex chain of events that led up to the Wounded Knee tragedy of December 1890, the final act of the Indian wars. There was so much misunderstanding, particularly on the part of the government, with respect to the Ghost Dance and what it represented, as well as bad faith on the part of the Lakotas who had visited the prophet and subsequently interpreted the faith to their people.
As a Civil War historian, would you speak to the impact that conflict had on the Indian wars?
The Civil War made possible atrocities such as the Sand Creek massacre. The Lincoln administration’s preoccupation with defeating the Confederacy left affairs in the West largely to state and territorial governors and legislators, who often endorsed extermination of the Indians and gave nearly free rein to butcherers like [Colonel John] Chivington.
What question would you like to answer for readers of The Earth Is Weeping?
The question: How can you maintain that your book is fair and balanced when you seemingly exculpate the government of genocide? My reply: Federal Indian policy during the era of the Indian wars of the American West had at its heart the removal of Indians from overland travel routes and from proximity to white settlements and their placement on reservations, where they would be “civilized and Christianized.” Indians who resisted would be treated as hostile until they surrendered, after which they would be assimilated on reservations. Implementation of the policy left much to be desired—corruption in the Indian Bureau was rampant.…That the Indian way of life would vanish in the process of “civilizing” was taken for granted, so in today’s parlance it would not be wrong to say that cultural genocide occurred. But it was never the intent of the government to physically exterminate the Indian. WW