THAT'S the way you do it.

Heather Cox Richardson
Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre

In his blurb for HCR’s third book in six years, her colleague Leonard Richards praises a “mastery that brings even her bit players to life.” It’s a great subject, and Richardson tells us a lot of things we didn’t know (the 1890 South Dakota campaign was “the largest military mobilization of the U. S. Army since the Civil War,” for example. Not so surprising, then, how it ended up...). But the best thing, I agree, is the way she brings the story to life. People who want to write good history should pay close attention to the ways Richardson accomplishes this in
Wounded Knee.

The introduction summarizes the massacre in fairly graphic terms. The rest of the book tells the story leading up to the event, and then it’s narrated again, completely, in amazingly close detail. But unlike many of the older histories I’ve been reading recently, Richardson isn’t making these details up. Nearly every paragraph closes with a citation number (no kidding -- turn to any page in the book); even the one in which she speculates about how noisy it must have been. But she’s not really even guessing about that: she has transcripts of eye-witness interviews to set the scene with “hooves hitting hard-packed earth, men calling to each other in both English and Lakota, wagons creaking, horses snorting, spurs rattling, people coughing” (7).

The storm that buried the bodies of the Indian dead (the soldiers remove their own casualties immediately) the night after the massacre “quickly blew east...to Washington...[where] the social season was in full swing” (11). The story is as much about national party politics as it is about the Dakota territory, as Richardson explains how “the Sioux...became crucial figures in the 1890 election” (14). But even when it’s nearly straight-up political history,
Wounded Knee never loses sight of people. As a result, the Sherman brothers are as interesting as Sitting Bull; especially at moments like the one when she shows the aging General congratulating himself that in helping clear the frontier for white settlement “I have done more good for our country and for the human race than I did in the Civil War” (77).

Richardson provides all the background readers need to understand the political stakes, without slowing the pace. The section on economic policy is one of the clearest short descriptions I’ve seen. It could be (note to self) excerpted for an undergrad class: “trusts could not survive without tariffs” (84). And in the midst of what might be dry and impersonal political background, Richardson inserts a description of someone’s physical appearance or a quirk of character that reminds the reader that these are people we’re reading about, not abstract historical forces.

There’s a lot of contingency in
Wounded Knee, but there’s also a lot of venality, incompetence, and malice -- on both sides. But regardless of the mistakes or poor judgments the Indians may have made, this was a massacre; women and children were murdered for no reason, and Richardson is not afraid to say so. The one possible downside of the story’s pace is that it’s difficult to understand when characters change, and what changes them. General Miles’ change of heart with respect to the danger the Indians pose, and his growing tendency to respond with annoyance, anger, and then rage, is one of those moments. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is its aftermath. The way coverup gave way to revisionism, where the Seventh Cavalry was lauded for another heroic victory, is not only interesting and ironic in it’s time. It’s still happening. Not just in the sense of new crises being manufactured to justify or camouflage political machinations in Washington. But in the sense that these fake stories are still believed by many people in the western states where it all happened. Does this suggest that out current crop of manufactured crises might become similarly enduring myths of America?

It might be interesting at some point to study the legacy of the Indian Wars in the upper plains states. I've been to Wounded Knee. Big metal sign on empty land. But, closer to home, what do the people of Mankato, Minnesota know, for example, about the execution that happened on the site of their public library? There’s a big statue of a bison next to the building, and a sign declaring that a few square feet across the street are a “reconciliation park.” You can see it most clearly from the bay windows of the children’s section. “See the pretty buffalo!” you can hear them say to their toddlers -- but do any of the parents know what it is?


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

Chapter Three of this historiography textbook begins with an enigmatic quote: “’I am an Indian,’ wrote Virginia planter-historian Robert Beverley in his 1705 preface to his The History and the Present State of Virginia.” The authors suggest Beverley’s identification with “Indianness” highlights “some of the unique problems in attempting to track the historiography of American Indians.” But the sample readings they provide show how far the study of native cultures and their encounter with “America” still has to go.

“Historians of Indians,” the authors say, bring not only their “political agendas...[but] their personal desires, identifications, and hatreds” to the study. In their chapter introduction, they mention a number of writers who’ve criticized the colonists’ treatment of the natives, beginning with “Bartholeme de Las Casas…
The Devastation of the Indies in 1552.” They quote Puritan leader Cotton Mather’s celebration of the plague that wiped out “Nineteen of Twenty” people among the tribes near Plymouth prior to the Mayflower’s arrival, “so that the Woods were almost cleared of those pernicious Creatures, to make Room for better Growth.” (Mather’s italics) Also quoted is John Underhill’s conviction that “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

These are insane statements, which go a long way toward either undermining the reader’s belief that colonial leaders were actually religious people. Or to confirming a suspicion that the religion they professed was imperial, white-supremecist, and in the end, all about power and domination.

That’s why it’s so surprising to me that the two passages included, about the new perspectives on Indian history, are both so deeply committed to exploring Indian culture’s response to America solely from the perspective of religion.
Colin Calloway begins by saying that “in the eyes of the Christian invaders, Indians had no real religion.” But would finding a pious, recognizably religious (even a Christian) native community have changed their actions? Or are we right to “question the missionaries’ assumptions, finding their arrogance repellent and despising them as agents of cultural genocide” (they were agents of actual, not cultural genocide)? And if “Christianity was a weapon of conquest, not a path to salvation,” is the Indians’ relationship with colonial religion the most valuable cross-cultural element to explore?

Calloway gives nearly all his attention in this selection to Indian adoption of (or adaptation of) Christianity. Some tribes, he says, found common ground between the missionaries’ teaching and their old beliefs. Some treated the “Christian saints…[and] Franciscans…as additional shamans.” Others, finding the French wouldn’t sell guns to non-Christians, “accepted baptism to secure firearms.”

If some Indian women converted in order to learn to spin wool or to read, and some men joined for weapons, it seems to me that the things they learned and got (spinning, reading, guns) are at least as relevant as the theology they embraced. There are so many points of contact between the natives and the colonists, it seems like there would be other, more interesting dimensions to the interplay and resulting cultural change. Trade, technology transfer, farming, travel, buying and selling land, fighting – not to mention all the cultural elements (ethical, economic, philosophical, political, scientific, and even household knowledge and fashion) that aren’t part of the catechism – all seem more vital to understanding the Indian encounter with the white man than how natives reacted to white religion.

Religion seems to me most relevant to the ongoing relationship between the Indians and whites, not in how the Indians reacted to it, but in how the whites used it. Whether in the sense of “Spanish missionaries [who] regarded resettling Indian people as peasants…as a prerequisite of Christianity,” or in the more passive sense of using religious communities (that “resorted to whipping, branding, and solitary confinement to keep the Indians on the path to ‘civilization and salvation’”) to sweep together the refugees of villages wiped out by white diseases, it’s the colonists’ use or abuse of religion that’s really relevant. Or their refusal to engage when it suited them, as when “in 1782, American militiamen butchered ninety-six pacifist and unarmed Morovian [Christian] Indians in their village at Gnadenhütten.”

The most interesting element of the Indian response to Christianity might be Calloway’s brief mention (quoting Axtell) that some “Indians ensured the survival of native culture by taking on the protective coloration of the invaders’ culture.” They appeared to convert, while secretly “giving traditional meanings to Christian rites, dogmas, and deities.” They learned from their conquerors that the religion was an empty vessel that could be filled with anything at all, so they hid their culture in the last place whites would look for it.

Gregory Evans Dowd, like Calloway, seems to put religion at the center of his study of the Indian response to invasion. In Dowd’s case, native spirituality is the vehicle for a prophetic nativist resistance to continuing white encroachment. This quasi-religious movement was challenged by (presumably Christian or secular) Indian groups who favored accommodation.

In this excerpt (hopefully not in the book it came from, nor in the author’s complete body of work), the emphasis on religion is (slightly) less of a problem than Dowd’s formulation of these two groups, the nativists and the accomodationists. Although Dowd allows that “Militant religion [was] in somewhat of a hiatus during those years,” he insists that religion “provided and continued to extend the intertribal network upon which unity depended.” Citing the “intertribal, even diplomatic character of prophecy,” Dowd argues that militant networks possessed a “shared symbolic lexicon.” He implies that this was the only symbol system shared among the far-flung, linguistically distinct tribes of North America.

But this is exactly the point that argues against the other side of Dowd’s formula. There was no “Indian” national consciousness. “The heritage of Indian diversity and of highly localized, familial, and ethnically oriented government” made it extremely difficult for many Indians to join the artificial, newly-created “nativist” Indian nation. Those “Indians who identified with ‘tribal’ leaders” can’t simply be lumped together and written off as “advocates of
accommodation.” And the nativist prophets’ use of language and symbols seemingly borrowed from their enemies’ religion cannot have made matters any easier for the dissenters.

When “prophets and shamans…accused them of the neglect of ritual and warned of an impending doom,” skeptical listeners may have examined their own local experience against the prophets’ generalized complaints. Were they neglecting the rituals? Did they believe in a vengeful, angry God? Thoughtful Indians might have noticed that accusations that “they had failed in their commitments to the sacred powers,” and that they must “kill witches…to purify themselves,” had a remarkable resonance with the New England Christianity of the recent past. And the emphasis on “the Great Spirit, the remote Creator who became increasingly important, probably under the influence of Christianity,” probably raised some doubts in the minds of tribes intent on preserving their own local traditions in the face of American encroachment.

Given ongoing American aggression that impacted resisters and appeasers alike, a united, continent-wide Indian resistance was a reasonable response. But, notwithstanding the efforts of Neolin, Tenskwatawa and others, basing the nativist case for unity on a vaguely Christian-sounding religious appeal seems like it was a bad idea. In the end, this selection leaves me wondering if, in fact, there were other bases for Indian unity, and to what extent they may have been tried. Restricting the conversation to the religious sphere may have been the Indians’ great mistake. At least in the way we think of religion. If we widen the scope of the idea, to encompass all (or nearly all) of Indian life, then the Indians’ actions make more sense. But then we’re talking about apples and oranges, and the argument presented in this excerpt needs much wider and deeper elaboration.

Changes in the Land

Changes in the Land by William Cronon (New York: Hill & Wang, 2003). Begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledges some of the changes Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but explodes the idea that this represents some “fall” from a pristine, a-historical initial state. The landscape is always changing, and was changed by the “Indians” before white people arrived. “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be a cheap shot at ecologists, but it’s an instructive metaphor for historians.

Cronon’s economic argument centers on the ideas that European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness I’d imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of these differences is one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: like that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases they brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

“Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) Cronon argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminds me a lot of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (relative to the colonists’ monoculture). (43, 51)

Cronon’s point is that the Indians had a more stable approach to their environment than did the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. He may be leaning to heavily on Turner when he assumes they all simply planned on moving west when they exhausted their farms.

The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. In another passage that Tudge echoes in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control (was it by restricting fertility, or by the starvation of the weak?). Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The latter half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636 as the latest in a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) Overhunting to the point that “Hunting with us,” says Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” (101) A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” (120) “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.” (140) And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, this was a good read. Cronon proves his case well, as far as it goes. I don’t feel compelled to mine his bibliography at the moment, although I’m more interested in reading Timothy Dwight’s
Travels as a result of this. And maybe Marshall Sahlins.