A new history book revisits territory examined by “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” looking to bring balance and better understanding of the Indian Wars of the American West.
‘The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West’
by Peter Cozzens
Alfred A. Knopf, 576 pp., $35
The 1970 book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” changed the 80-year narrative of the United States war against Native Americans, recasting Indians from uncivilized, bloodthirsty savages to pure victims.
Indian fighters went from noble conquerors of the wilderness to exterminators.
Peter Cozzens describes Dee Brown’s book as “elegantly written and passionately wrought” but finds it ironic that a work so historically and purposefully unbalanced should be the standard popular source for the 19th-century Indian wars.
While Cozzens doesn’t say he wrote “The Earth is Weeping” to supplant “Wounded Knee,” he does express his hope that it will bring balance and better understanding of the Indian Wars of the American West. In that, he succeeds.
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His detailed history sweeps across 25 years of U.S. Indian policy, gives clear accounts of battles and raids and introduces generals and chiefs, foot soldiers and warriors.
But Cozzens’ most valuable contribution comes when he takes the story off the battlefields of the West and shows that the violence and treachery used against the Indians was the result of actions and planning by the Army, the White House and Congress.
He says the most egregious deception took place on Nov. 3, 1875, when President Grant plotted with the leaders of his army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provoke war against tribes that just wanted to be left alone and take over the Black Hills.
Congress also had little regard for the Indians, passing in 1887 the Dawes Act, which reduced reservations to a fraction of what had been promised in original treaties.
Readers will be disappointed if they think “balance” might include historical justification for U.S. actions against the Native Americans. The slaughters of women and children — at Sand Creek, Washita, Wounded Knee and so on — are all there in grisly detail.
Cozzens, author or editor of 16 books on the Civil War or the American West, says he had access to many Indian primary sources that have become available since Brown wrote “Wounded Knee.”
The resulting picture of Native Americans is one of dissension, with little unity among tribes or even within tribes. The dissension and often petty rivalries among chiefs made it easier for the U.S. Army to find Indian allies (the Pawnees and often the Crows) and to play one group of Indians against another.
None of the combatants had a monopoly on ghastly violence, and Cozzens details the torture, rapes, scalping and mutilation of corpses carried out by tribal warriors.
Those closest to this warfare often had the fullest understanding of the Indians’ plight. Gen. George Crook once offered clemency to any Apache who brought him the head of a tribal leader. But later he begged other Americans for understanding of those he had fought:
“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.”
Cozzens notes that genocide was never the U.S. policy goal. The view of the policymakers, and much of the press, was that the only way Native Americans could survive was to move on to reservations and adopt the dominant culture.
But the result for the Indians was tragic: the destruction of their way of life, the loss of land that supported it and the deaths of hundreds of men, women and children through starvation, disease, exposure and violence from military actions.