Priyanka Kumar is author of the novel “Take Wing and Fly Here” and the writer/director of the documentary “The Song of the Little Road.”
It’s a marvel to witness when history smolders its way into the present and sparks a conversation: Native Americans from some 280 tribes across the country have come together to protest the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that would cut through lands of historic and spiritual significance to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and possibly contaminate its water supply in the future.
Land grabs are as old as civilization itself. The late-19th-century variety in the United States was fueled in part by settlers streaming West and by the discovery of gold in tribal lands. In “The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West,” Peter Cozzens, who has written previously about the Civil War, details how the country’s westward expansion after that war set the U.S. Army on a tragic collision course with multiple Native American tribes. The book, set squarely in the past, is all narrative and short on analysis. The battle scenes, however, are painted with expert brushstrokes on a wide canvas, from the 1860s to 1891. While the book offers a valuable panoramic view and shows us the Army through fresh eyes, its depiction of native peoples is at a certain remove, and we feel their otherness more keenly than we do the injustices perpetrated against them.
In 1970, Dee Brown memorably told us this story in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which relies on treaty council transcripts and other oral accounts by native warriors and chiefs. Cozzens writes that the Indian Wars have been perceived in one-sided ways, with “Wounded Knee” siding with the Indians, and he seeks to “bring historical balance” to the story. His claim is admirable, but it is not entirely realized here. He does draw from “Indian primary sources,” and there is a fine account of Chief Sitting Bull’s spiritual life, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was being fitted into the boots of the Army men. That’s like being made to feel for the poor suckers who are forced to disregard agreements and evict tenants for a flinty landlord.
Native tribes fought for their homelands against a torrent of greed, broken treaties and shifting government policy. Much of the written record is still essentially the white man’s record, and iconic figures such as Gen. William Sherman and President Ulysses Grant need no introduction. A stronger framing of the native past, including spiritual traditions and linguistic diversity, would have helped readers appreciate what was lost when native ways of life were all but obliterated by the end of the 19th century.
It is possible even today to tap into the oral tradition in native cultures to revisit history. To get a broad portrait for the recent book “Moquis and Kastiilam: Hopis, Spaniards, and the Trauma of History,” the editors sent a researcher, a Hopi man, to the Hopi Reservation, where he transcribed oral tales still in existence about the tribe’s encounters with the Spaniards, beginning with Coronado in 1540.
To be sure, Cozzens makes us see the brutality of the post-Civil War land grab. The Homestead Act encouraged settlers to populate states such as Kansas and Nebraska, but it also led settlers to crisscross through lands assigned to native tribes and deplete their natural resources. The native response varied. The “belligerent” 1864 raids by Dog Soldiers, a Cheyenne band, triggered the Sand Creek Massacre later that year. Col. John Chivington wanted action before his Colorado cavalrymen’s enlistment expired, and he overlooked a white flag over Chief Black Kettle’s tepee in favor of killing “two hundred Cheyennes, two-thirds of them women and children.” Retaliation could come with cyclonic energy, unstoppable even by peaceable chiefs.
Even when the government and the Army had good intentions, ignorant or corrupt Indian agents could get in the way of implementing them. A “mentally unbalanced” agent, Nathan C. Meeker, appointed through a political connection, singlehandedly brought on a war with the otherwise peaceable Ute Indians.
Cozzens points out that frontier soldiers lived in ramshackle facilities with poor food supplies, ample guard duty and few drills. Many succumbed to alcohol or gambling. On assignment in Mexico to round up Geronimo and his band, one officer got “ptomaine poisoning from a can of rancid Armour corned beef,” and another almost died of a tarantula bite.
We encounter Gen. George Custer riding double speed across the Kansas plains, thinking less about the welfare of his men and more about his wife, Libbie, until he is court-martialed for a second time. No less clueless was Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who burned abandoned Pawnee villages because he thought they “harbored ‘a nest of conspirators.’ ” The government wanted to “civilize” Indians by getting them to farm, and Hancock’s action is all the more ironic because in addition to hunting buffalo, the Pawnee farmed next to their villages.
A “grand irony” in the Great Plains, Cozzens writes, is that the Army clashed with Indians who had moved there because of “the white settlement of the East” and who had themselves displaced native tribes. So, we are asked to view the Sioux as immigrants, just as the settlers were, and to believe that no deeply rooted way of life was disrupted. This point minimizes that for more than 10,000 years, the Great Plains had been home to pre-contact Native American tribes who would never again be able to return to their native land.
The narrative compellingly weaves in the Grant administration’s Peace Policy, which enlisted Quakers, some of whom tried to “tame” Indians by “kindness,” as Cozzens writes. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills, however, broke the Peace Policy’s back. “It is a sad reflection of the moral cesspool into which the Grant administration had sunk,” Cozzens writes, “that the first instance of real cooperation between the War Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs involved the most egregious treachery ever contemplated by the government against the Plains Indians.” Treachery on such an epic scale can bear many retellings, and this account stands out for its impressive detail and scope.
By Peter Cozzens
Knopf. 544 pp. $35