Parts I, II, III and IV.
Part V: 'Nits Make Lice'
For much of their early history on the American continent, white Europeans saw the Enemy as being Wilderness: the implacable, alien, deadly swamp whose subjugation it was their mission to impose.
The European conception of wilderness which white immigrants brought to the Americas was complex and shaded, but it was ultimately rooted, as I discussed in Part II, in a worldview that placed Europe and Christian civilization at the center of the world, the source of civilization and light. The wilderness was the embodiment of sinfulness and evil -- and so were its inhabitants. And their elimination was an essential component of the conquest.
This was true not merely of the human inhabitants, but its animals as well. Threatening creatures -- cougars, bears and wolves especially -- were hunted to near-extinction. Even wild food sources such as salmon were wantonly harvested and their habitat destroyed, especially as dams were erected on every river on the Eastern Seaboard they inhabited. Stocks were not only depleted but intentionally wasted.
Lt. Campbell Hardy, an officer of the Royal Artillery in New Brunswick, observed the mentality in action in Nova Scotia in 1837, where once-plentiful salmon stocks were already plummeting:
- "The spirit of wanton extermination is rife; and it has been well remarked, it really seems as though the man would be loudly applauded who was discovered to have killed the last salmon."
Perhaps even more symbolic was the fate of the grizzly bear, which at one time ruled both the Plains and the mountain ranges of the open West. But between 1850 and 1920, grizzlies were systematically and ruthlessly exterminated everywhere humans came into contact with them, effectively eliminated from 95 percent of their traditional range.
The same was true of the native peoples who dwelt in this wilderness. It was common for colonists to view the wilderness as capable of overwhelming civilized men, even from within, turning them into "savages" and "wild men," while the people who had lived there for centuries were commonly viewed as no less than vile beasts themselves.
This was not uniformly the case, of course. There were white Europeans who believed fully in the Indians' humanity. Some of them even defended them as cultural equals, though not many. Even among the natives' defenders, it was not uncommon, while acknowledging that they were intelligent humans with souls, to still consider them savages whose redeemability was an open question.
One of these, as it happened, was the most renowned Indian fighter, a Civil War hero named George Armstrong Custer, who in his bestselling 1872 book, My Life on the Plains, described as "erroneous" the view "which regards the Indian as a creature possessing the human form but divested of all other attributes of humanity," but also observed:
- We see him as he is, and, so far as all knowledge goes, as he ever has been, a savage in every sense of the word ... one whose cruel and ferocious nature far exceeds that of any wild beast of the desert.
Nonetheless, the prevailing view was that as "savages" they were indistinguishable from beasts. This is reflected in the 1850 Census, which found that there were 19,553,068 white people living in the United States, along with a "free colored population" of 434,495 and 3,204,313 slaves. It also observed that "the Mestizo is the issue of the Indian and the Negro, and has all the disabilities of the mulatto." But nowhere was there an accounting of the native American in that Census, nor in any succeeding Census until 1890, which found that there were 325,464 Indians remaining in the United States and its territories. Until then they hadn't counted. Ten years later, there were only 266,760.
So the actual population numbers of the Indian population in 1850 are guesses at best, though the guesses run to as high as a million and a half people. What we do know is that in that year, fully a generation after the Indian Removal Act, well over half of the land that would eventually constitute the lower 48 states was considered Indian Territory, the vast wilderness officially designated the "permanent Indian frontier." Within 30 years, it was all but gone.
You can see this clearly in the following graphic, taken from The Native Americans:
Whatever sympathy some humanitarian whites may have had for the natives, they were utterly ineffectual in stopping the wave of murderous bigotry that swept away all their good intentions along with the Indians themselves, fueled by the prevailing view of Indians that equated them with the beasts they encountered in this wilderness.
These encounters increased, of course, because the "permanent Indian frontier" turned out to be a very flexible concept indeed. As the Americans' thirst for land and for gold grew, so did the borders of the frontier shift ever westward, consumed by treaties that often were mere ruses for outright land theft. A promise made to an Indian was innately nonbinding. The murder of an Indian was considered, if not a non-event, cause for celebration; but any retaliatory murder of whites provoked indiscriminate slaughter and justified the genocide of entire peoples.
Missionaries were often the forerunners of this push westward, establishing trails and outposts that became way stations and provided a kind of social foundation for the pioneer travelers. Most of them were well-meaning humanitarians, but like Custer, they had little to the lowest regard for native culture, and indeed were intent on overthrowing it in the process of Christianizing them. Their view of the value of their charges' souls often depended on their willingness to submit to the missionaries' personal dictates.
These included characters like Henry Spalding, missionary to the Nez Perces who eventually took to whipping and beating his converts. His friends, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, were similarly high-handed, and their clumsy mishandling of relations with the local Cayuses resulted in the notorious Whitman Massacre of 1847, committed by a small band of angry Cayuses who blamed the Whitmans for the smallpox epidemic that had ravaged their tribe.
That in turn, as Alvin Josephy detailed in his landmark text The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest, provoked a wildly disproportionate response from the newly arriving whites who now claimed these lands as their territory. The Cayuses were stripped utterly of all their lands and dispossessed; and in ensuing years, the remaining Northwest tribes systematically stripped of their lands as well, most often through intentionally provoked wars and resulting treaties that were themselves later intentionally broken.
Fresh on the missionaries' heels were waves of settlers, many of them in search of free land, others trying to strike it rich by finding gold. The Oregon Trail and California Trail were especially popular after the discovery of gold in California in 1848.
Fairly typical of the settlers' views were those voiced by Robert A. Anderson, a California rancher who lived in northern California in the 1860s. Like most of them, he equated the "savages" with the wild beasts they also encountered. Theodora Kroeber describes him in her account of the Yana people in Ishi: In Two Worlds:
- He matched wits and physical prowess with Indians and grizzlies alike; both, in his opinion, "infested" the region and should be cleared out. He and Good, Anderson says, used to argue at length about how the clearing out was to be done. Good was for leaving the women and children alone; Anderson believed that immolation was the only effective way to be rid of Indians, and grizzlies too, no doubt.
Anderson, together with his longtime companion Hiram Good, organized a systematic program of extermination of the Yanas from their traditional lands in 1863-65. Some bands of the Yana, finding their traditional food sources being wiped out by invading settlers, had attacked whites in force in 1862, and had been committing lesser depredations, including the murders of several ranchers and their wives and children.
The ranchers in response, led by Anderson and Good, who had become expert trackers, embarked on a program of complete extermination, built on a paid bounty for Yana scalps that were then obtained by self-proclaimed "guards" who were essentially local riffraff hired to hunt down and kill any Yana they could find. Kroeber describes this campaign in some detail in Ishi [pp. 74-77]:
- [I]t was the murder of two women, Mrs. Dirsch and Mrs. Allen August, 1864, somewhere in the vicinity of Millville and Balls Ferry, which triggered the unwontedly concentrated and bloody activity of Anderson and Good's men among the Yana.
In a space of less than five months, between August and December, 1864, three quarters of the remaining task of extermination of the Yana was accomplished. To this end two fully armed companies of guards combined the ridges, streams, and meadowlands from Deer Creek in the south to Montgomery Creek in the north. One of Waterman's informants recalled the year 1866, but this date was from oral memory fifty years later. The 1864 date has the confirmation of Jeremiah Curtin whose account is detailed and circumstantial as far as it goes, and was gathered and written down only twenty years after the events it describes ...
Curtin's account has to do with those Central and Northern Yana who were by then on a wide and exposed front vis a vis white settlers, and who, whether willingly and freely or not were in fact working for white ranchers and drawing pay for their work. Many of them lived on the ranches where they worked, sometimes in the ranch house itself as domestics, or in near-by bunk houses if they were field workers or were the old people occasionally attached affectionally and familially to younger workers.
Curtin estimated from the figures given him that in January, 1864, there some three thousand of these Yana, counting the women, the old, and the children, and that by the end of the same year their massacre was complete except for the remnants of families or bands, or for single individuals. ...
Curtin's account of the massacres agrees with Waterman's composite story obtained between 1911 and 1914 from old timers ... In both, the murder of the same two women is alleged as the inciting cause; both mention the organization of a second company of guards; Waterman notes that the organization meeting was again held at Pentz's ranch; both say that no effort was made to fix guilt for the murders, and that extermination was the objective. Curtin tells more about the guards below the leader level. They were, he says, a miscellany of the foot-loose, the semicriminal, the hangers-on of saloons and bunk houses. Anyone who wanted to come along was taken, so that among the ragtag of both companies drunkenness, looting, and violence for the sake of violence obtained and were tolerated. His account emphasizes the wantonness of the killings and the opposition of most of the ranchers to it.
The guards stole and sometimes literally tore children and half-grown girls from the arms of their white friends or employers, murdering them in view of anyone who was present except when enough men were at home and heavily enough armed to beat them off. "We must kill them big and little," one of the guards is quoted as saying, "nits will be lice." Curtin recounts some unpleasantly specific details of these encounters. They are of this sort: three Yana men were murdered out of hand while at work in a hay field belonging to a rancher who regularly employed them but who was not at home at the time. His pregnant wife could do nothing to save the Indians, but when the guards came to the house to get their wives the rancher's wife threw herself in front of the three women. The opposition even at its most rash hesitated to get three further victims at the cost of manhandling a white woman. Later, the rancher and his wife managed somehow to secrete the three women in a place of safety; how they did it or where they took them they never told.
... Sadism entered into the violence also. There was one young Yana woman, unusually popular with the white people who knew and employed her, who was dragged by force out of the white man's home where she lived. Her old aunt and uncle who were there with her were also taken, and the three of them pumped full of bullet holes on the spot. Curtin's informant had counted eleven bullet holes in the breast of the young woman. The man who killed her, and who was well "likkered up," was not satisfied. "I don't think that little squaw is dead yet," he is reported as saying. To make sure, he smashed in her skull with his revolver.
The record piles up -- an Indian woman and her baby killed here, three women at another place, twenty Yana of both sexes in the settlement of Cottonwood, and three hundred who were attending an autumn harvest festival at the head of Oak Run. Curtin's informants estimated the number of surviving Yana of pure and mixed blood to be about fifty persons by the time the avenging parties were through with their work in December.
The extermination continued unabated until the last surviving bands were tracked down and massacred. The culmination, as Kroeber details (pp. 84-85], occurred late in 1864:
- Neither Robert Anderson, Hiram Good, nor any other of the guards participated in the final mass massacre of Yahi. A party of four vaqueros, J.J. Bogart, Scott Williams, and Norman Kingsley, were camped at Wild Horse Corral engaged in a roundup of cattle from the Yana hills. One morning toward the end of the roundup they came on a trail of blood. Guessing that it was a wounded steer, they followed the blood trail which led them in the direction of upper Mill Creek. They found a broken arrow and, a little beyond, the remains of the carcass of a steer. The hunters who had killed the steer had been too pressed to skin it in their usual fashion, and had instead hurriedly hacked off chunks of meat, as much as they could carry, and thrown the rest into the brush to be retrieved no doubt if there was opportunity later.
Having found this much, the vaqueros went back to their own camp, but the next day, with dogs this time, they picked up the trail again and followed it into Mill Creek and upstream to a large cave. In this remote and seemingly safe spot were gathered more than thirty Yahi including young children and babies, well supplied with food, even to fresh and dried meat. They were helpless against the four armed men who forthwith killed them all. Norman Kingsley, as he explained afterwards, changed guns during the slaughter, exchanging his .56-caliber Spencer rifle for a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, because the rifle "tore them up so bad," particularly the babies.
This pattern repeated itself almost endlessly. Rather than even endure contact with "savages" they fully expected to turn against them and murder them, the settlers moving westward in the end always chose to act preemptively and slaughter Indians as they found them. This was particularly the case wherever gold entered into the picture.
And always, this spasm of eliminationist violence was preceded by eliminationist rhetoric. Before there was action, there was talk. And the talk not only rationalized the violence that proceeded, but actually had the function of creating permission for it.
The same year the Yana were exterminated, settlers in Colorado, where gold had been discovered in 1858, embarked on a similar program. In this case, the tribes against whom they were arrayed, particularly the Cheyenne and Sioux, were considerably larger and more warlike than the Yana. Thus the conflicts with whites were even more inevitable, and again, the pattern repeated: depredations by whites provoked violent, often murderous retaliation from Indians, which in turn sparked wanton slaughter of any Indian in the vicinity.
The Rocky Mountain News in Denver led the campaign to wipe out local Indians, editorializing in March 1863: "They are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth." After a series of skirmishes and killings, the News, in August 1864 proclaimed that August 1864 settlers and troops must "go for them, their lodges, squaws and all."
Enter John Chivington, a Methodist minister and self-proclaimed Indian hater, who helped Colorado Gov. John Evans organize a "volunteer militia" constituted once again of "concerned citizens" whose characters were formed more by saloons than by churches. As Dee Brown notes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Chivington made a public speech in Denver while organizing this militia in which he "advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants: 'Nits make lice!' he declared."
With his volunteer army in place, Chivington set out "on the warpath," as he put it, ordering his men: "Kill all the Indians you come across." When Indians attempted to negotiate, he was implacable, saying that he was not instructed to make peace, but only war.
When Cheyenne chief Black Kettle's peaceful band (which included some Arapahoes) traveled through Colorado en route to their new reservation in Oklahoma, they reported to Army officials at Fort Lyon, intent on avoiding conflict. Encamped at a site along a stream called Sand Creek, Black Kettle himself traveled to the fort in mid-November in hopes of securing their safe passage. The fort's new commander, Major Scott J. Anthony, met with Black Kettle in what appeared to be a friendly exchange.
As Brown describes it, "Several officers who were present at the meeting between Black Kettle and Anthony testified afterward that Anthony assured the Cheyennes that if they returned to their camp at Sand Creek they would be under the protection of Fort Lyon."
Whether Anthony was aware of Chivington's intentions or not -- and the evidence suggests he was -- his assurance had the effect of making Black Kettle's band sitting ducks. So certain were they of their security that they did not even set out watchmen to guard the camp at night.
Geoffrey Ward, writing in The West, describes what happened next:
- Chivington and some 700 volunteers arrived at Fort Lyon on November 26, 1864, eager for a fight before their hundred-day term of enlistment ran out. Some officers protested that to attack the peaceable encampment would betray the army's pledge of safety. "Damn any man that sympathized with Indians," Chivington said. "I have come to kill Indians and believe it right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven ..."
At dawn on November 29, 1864, Chivington and seven hundred men, many of them full of whiskey they had swallowed to keep them warm during the icy all-night ride, reached the edge of Black Kettle's sleeping camp. "Kill and scalp all," Chivington told his men, "big and little; nits make lice." His men needed little encouragement.
One of William Bent's sons, Robert, was riding with them, commandeered against his will to show the way to the Cheyenne camp. Three of Bent's other children -- Charles, Julia, and George -- were staying in it. George Bent watched the soldiers come:
From down the creek a large body of troops was advancing at a rapid trot ... more soldiers could be seen making for the Indian pony herds to the south of the camp; in the camps themselves all was confusion and noise -- men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at the sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms ... Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn ...
All the time Black Kettle kept calling out not to be frightened; that the camp was under protection and there was no danger.
Robert Bent was watching it too:
I saw the American flag waving and heard Black Kettle tell the Indians to stand around the flag, and they were huddled -- men, women, and children. This was when we were within fifty yards of the Indians. I also saw a white flag raised. These flags were in so conspicuous a position that they must have been seen ... I think there were six hundred Indians in all ... [T]he rest of the men were away from camp hunting ...
The volunteers began firing into the lodges. Warriors did all they could to defend their families. "I never saw more bravery displayed by any set of people on the face of the earth than by these Indians," a regular soldier recalled. "They would charge on the whole company singly, detemined to kill someone before being killed themselves ... We, of course, took no prisoners."
"After the firing," Robert Bent remembered,
the warriors put the squaws and children together, and surrounded them to protect them. I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all. I saw one squaw lying on the bank whose leg had been broken by a shell; a soldier came up to her with a drawn saber; she raised her arm to protect herself, when he struck, breaking her arm; she rolled over and raised her other arm, when he struck, breaking it, and then he left her without killing her. There seemed to be indisriminate slaughter of men, women and children. There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were killed. ...
"In going over the battleground the next day," a regular army lieutenant testified later,
I did not see a body of a man, women, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner. ... I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman's private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another say that he had cut the fingers off an Indian to get the rings on his hand; according to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J.M. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them; I heard of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in a feedbox of a wagon, and after being carried some distance left on the ground to perish; I also heard numerous instances in which white men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in ranks.
Chivington and his men returned to Denver in triumph, claiming to have killed five hundred warriors -- instead of ninety-eight women and children and a handful of mostly old men. The Rocky Mountain News pronounced it a "brilliant feat of arms." "All did nobly," Chivington said, and one evening during intermission at the Denver opera house, one hundred Cheyenne scalps were put on display while the orchestra played patriotic airs and the audience stood to applaud the men who had taken them.
As word of these atrocities got out, there was a perhaps predictable outcry from white Americans with some vestige of human decency; but their outrage, as always, had no effect. The killers were downright gleeful about their "victory." David E. Stannard, in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, notes that the Rocky Mountain News declared that "Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east."
Still, there was an outcry in Congress, and a Senate report eventually declared Chivington's "battle" what it really was: "a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty." As Stannard notes [p. 134]:
- One of them, a senator who visited the site of the massacre and "picked up the skulls of infants whose milk-teeth had not yet been shed," later reported that the concerned men of Congress had decided to confront Colorado's governor and Colonel Chivington openly on the matter, and so assembled their committee and the invited general public in the Denver Opera House. During the course of discussion and debate, someone raised a question: Would it be best, henceforward, to try to "civilize" the Indians or simply to exterminate them? Whereupon, the senator wrote in a letter to a friend, "there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield -- a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house -- 'EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!' "
The committee, apparently, was impressed. Nothing was ever done to Chivington, who took his fame and exploits on the road as an after-dinner speaker. After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt said later, the Sand Creek massacre was "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."
Trusting the word of such men was obviously a foolhardy proposition, but the Indians had little choice if they chose not to fight. As Black Kettle had found, making peace and trusting the word of white men was a mistake with broadly fatal consequences.
Incredibly, Black Kettle managed to survive the Sand Creek massacre, and his wife managed to survive nine gunshot wounds. But four years later, in 1868, they did not manage to survive their encounter with General Custer.
It was Custer's first venture out West, serving under General Phil Sheridan, who was leading a campaign to battle Cheyenne depredations in Kansas. Some of the warriors had come from Black Kettle's band. After orders were made for all non-hostile Indians to move to a designated area along the Washita River, Black Kettle moved his camp there, hoping to be designated a friendly band.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of Sand Creek, the chief had traveled to Fort Cobb to seek the protection of the army under the command of Gen. William B. Hazen; Hazen, according to Brown, "assured Black Kettle that if his delegation would return to their villages and keep their young men there, they would not be attacked."
Black Kettle returned to his camp on the evening of November 26. The next morning, Custer's troops attacked, in what came to be known as the Battle of the Washita.
James Welch, in Killing Custer [p. 62], describes the massacre that ensued:
- The "battle" in the village was short, barely fifteen minutes. The soldiers drove the people from their lodges basefoot and half naked, shooting them in the open. Many of the warriors managed to reach the treees, where they began to return fire; a few of them escaped, but after a couple of hours, the firing ceased and 103 Cheyennes lay dead in the snow and mud. Custer reported that they were fighting men, but others said that ninety-two of them were women, children, and old people. Black Kettle, the sixty-seven-year-old leader of the band, and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, who had survived nine gunshot wounds at the Massacre of Sand Creek four years before, had been shot in the back as they attempted to cross the Lodge Pole or Washita River. Their bodies, trampled and covered with mud, were found in the shallow water by the survivors.
In Montana, 200 Piegans were massacred in a similar manner in 1870 in the so-called "Battle of Marias River," in which soldiers once again descended upon an unsuspecting camp comprising mostly women and children, the warriors once again away at the hunting grounds, and fired upon them mercilessly.
The massacre was widely reviled in the eastern press (the Chicago Tribune called it "the most disgraceful butchery in the annals of our dealings with the Indians") while the local press widely celebrated it for its "salutary effect on the other tribes."
This effect included an eagerness on the part of most Indians to attempt to make peace, often in the form of abject surrender. But this only invited more contempt from whites, which was often voiced as a wish to simply exterminate.
After the Washita massacre, as Brown describes [p. 166], many of the warring tribes completely submitted to Sheridan. His response became famous:
- Yellow Bear of the Arapahos also agreed to bring his people to Fort Cobb. A few days later, Tosawi brought in the first band of Comanches to surrender. When he was presented to Sheridan, Tosawi's eyes brightened. He spoke his own name and added two words of broken English. "Tosawi, good Indian," he said.
It was then that General Sheridan uttered the immortal words: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Lieutenant Charles Nordstrom, who was present, remembered the words and passed them on, until in time they were honed into an American aphorism: The only good Indian is a dead Indian.
This implacable racial hatred, combined with their dim view of the Indians' intelligence and skill at battle, led to further tragedies for both sides. George Armstrong Custer, who returned to Indian wars in 1874 after gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, also happened to believe -- given his experience in such "battles" as the Washita massacre -- that Indians could not withstand a charging cavalry and would retreat under such an attack every time. So it was with such hubris that, in 1876, he charged the largest encampment in the history of the Plains Indians -- over a thousand Indians -- with a force of about 600 men, including his own detachment of about 200, in what was to be the most famous of all the Indian battles, the Little Bighorn. Custer and his men were entirely wiped out.
But the defeat only further inflamed the whites, who over the course of the next year tracked down and defeated or captured nearly all of the Indians who had been involved in the battle, including the chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
However, trying to accommodate the whites, as Black Kettle and many others had found, was no guarantee of safety. Even the most famous peacekeeper among the Indian chiefs, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, whose tribe had aided Lewis and Clark and who had a long history of cooperation with whites, found himself on the wrong end of settlers' ambitions. In 1877, they found themselves at war with the U.S. Army, and Joseph led his band of some 800 Nez Perce on a remarkable retreat that nearly succeeded before they were caught just short of the Canadian border.
The last of the Indian wars, the Sheepeater War of 1879, was scarcely even a skirmish, and arose under the sketchiest of circumstances. Having seen the profits that came to the Oregon towns of Lagrande and Baker City for having hosted the Army's campaign in the Nez Perce war, a number of ambitious merchants in the newly opened Yankee Fork mining district in central Idaho decided an Indian war might help them prosper as well. So when a group of Chinese miners -- whose presence was widely hated by whites anyway -- were found massacred, it was initially blamed on the Sheepeaters (though it was later established the killings were by whites, not Indians), which became a pretext for calling in the Cavalry. The ensuing chase over the rugged mountains of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River proved so exhausting that the Army nearly gave up before it finally located a ragtag band of Indians they then took prisoner. The commanders declared victory and packed for home.
The coup de grace, as it were, was finally delivered some 11 years later. The mounting misery of the scattered remnants of tribes produced among them a last, dying spate of messianic movements that produced some hope of redemption for their people and their heritage. One of the most prominent of these, involving the ritual of the Ghost Dance, spread widely among the Siouxan peoples of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
But reservation officials feared the movement could become grounds for a last-gasp Indian uprising, and they undertook to suppress it with arrests. The resulting discord culminated in the assassination of Sitting Bull, who had taken up residence at Pine Ridge. Soon, the reservation faced outright unrest, and so the soldiers were called in.
There have been many detailed accounts of what happened then, perhaps none as eloquent as Brown's account in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Peter Nabokov's account in The Native Americans [pp. 365-366] is succinct:
- Along Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Seventh Cavalry Troops, having rounded up a band of Hunkpapa Sioux suspected of potential trouble (fully two-thirds of them were women and children), herded the Indians for the night into a tight group surrounded by five hundred soldiers, their normal armament reinforced with four Hotchkiss guns. In the morning, the Sioux men were culled out, lined up, and disarmed. Someone is said to have discharged a weapon. Immediately, the Hotchkiss guns opened fire, and most of the men were killed in the first five minutes.
The Hotchkiss guns, carefully trained on the milling, terrified people, continued to fire. Some Indians fought back with whatever they had, stones or sticks or bare hands (leaving twenty-nine soldiers dead), while others tried to flee. Within an hour some two hundred Indians were dead or dying. A few women got as far as three miles away before being caught and killed. The rest, about one hundred souls, fled and later froze to death in the hills.
Afterwards, the American Indians were reduced to virtual nonentities. Their children were forcibly shipped off to >boarding schools whose main purpose was to eradicate any vestige of their "savage" heritage and completely "civilize" them; most of these schools eventually descended into horror, and their larger effect only left behind generations of damaged Indians who had been stripped of their heritage.
Even those who had managed to find ways to thrive, such as the Osages -- whose oil rights from their treaty lands in Oklahoma led to tremendous economic riches in the 20th century -- had their wealth taken from them. Beginning in the early '20s, a handful of scheming whites successfully undertook to steal land rights away from the Osages by murdering them. The scheme, which became known as the Osage Reign of Terror, typically involved white men marrying women who held the rights, and then surreptitiously having them killed and their murders officially covered up.
At every step of this systematic extermination, whites justified their brutality with eliminationist rhetoric that referred always to the savagery of the Indians, who indeed were not hesitant to shed blood and to do so in brutal fashion that, as it often was with whites, was intended to send a message. The entire history of the Indians' dealings with American settlers fit this pattern.
Yet even the most avid of the eliminationists among them often recognized that the original fault nearly always lay with the invading whites. Kroeber notes that Robert A. Anderson, who led the extermination of the Yana, nonetheless observed retrospectively in his memoirs the following:
- It is but just that I should mention the circumstances which raised the hand of the Mill Creeks against the whites. As in almost every similar instance in American History, the first act of injustice, the first spilling of blood, must be laid at the white man's door.
Such reflection, however, rarely led to the perpetrators to wonder if their murderousness had been anything more than an unpleasant necessity -- because, regardless of the fault, in their view the Indians were nonetheless savage beasts for whom the only means of "civilization" was elimination.
At the turn of the century, the Indians were no longer a threat to white Americans, and so the eliminationist rhetoric was gradually replaced with romantic "noble savage" mythology that made them seem distant and harmless, which in fact they were. By then, anyway, they had found a new "threat" and a fresh object for elimination: black people.
Next: Strange Fruit