It is a sad failure of the American education system that, as I began The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, it occurred to me how little I know about the subject. I recalled some of the famous names, memories so distant that they could have come from a fantasy novel. Geronimo. Crazy Horse. Cochise. Custer. I remembered the names, but it was harder to remember the deeds.
My only caveat going in was the title. I try to avoid books with a clear bias when I can, preferring to have a balanced treatment of both sides of a conflict or issue. I knew that the American Indians brought horrifying atrocities to many innocent families along the frontier. Would events like that be skipped? Would the narrative water down any criticism of Indian conduct? As it turned out, the answer was no. But I wanted to mention this regardless. Despite my fears, The Earth is Weeping turned out to be marvelous and sweeping, covering conflicts from the Civil War up to the late 1890s.
One of the concepts I wanted to check and learn about in this book was the ironclad certainty in how we talk about Indians today: that the war upon them was unjustified, horrible, and near-genocidal. In this, the book was quite persuasive. I could not help but empathize with the Indians as they were mistreated and taken advantage of time and time again. Peace treaties were made that were misrepresented to the tribes or often broken by frontiersmen who simply didn’t give a damn. Where the rare peace treaty was honored, the terms were often revisited years later when Americans wanted to push further west or take lands from the Indians that were supposed to remain theirs. And this does not even get into those treaties that the Indians did not actually comprehend or those that were sent back to Washington to meet with disapproval, with the Indians none the wiser.
The Indian reservations were another issue that had me sympathize firmly with them. In theory, these were zones of varying sizes that were supposed to be free land for Indian use and Indian use alone. In practice, they were the worst land around and, even then, often reduced over time so frontiersmen could have more of that land for themselves. What’s more, in a tragic misunderstanding of different cultures, Americans would insist that Indians give up their roaming, hunting and gathering way of life in order to settle down and become sedentary farmers. They were ordered to throw away their ancestral tribal religions in favor of a belief in a God that had inspired the white man to destroy them.
But what provoked the clashes that resulted in eventual peace treaties and Indian reservations? Morally, this area is a bit muddier. While frontiersmen would often clash with and kill Indians for reasons of greed or racism, sometimes it was in self-defense. Much like how Indian tribes would raid others for sport and supplies, innocent and lightly defended white settlements could become targets for similar reasons. Over time, the Indians got better at reining in their warriors and excluding whites as targets for fear of reprisal, but by that time it was too late and antagonism against Indians too deeply set. At least along the frontier.
Courage in the Face of Extinction
The moral questions, and how they are answered, ended up giving the meat of the book much more impact. Though occasionally provoked by Indian raids, the wars waged on various tribes by the United States of America were often brutish, nasty, and to the bitter end. Many tribes would end up fighting until every last Indian man, woman, and child died at the hands of their enemy. The process often looked like this:
- Indian violence (or lies about Indian violence) would provoke U.S. Army retaliation against the tribe in question.
- A peace treaty would be signed, buying the Indians a few years.
- Another rationale would be cooked up to take more Indian land.
- Indians would be relocated to a reservation.
- The reservation would not receive supplies, forcing the Indians to fight once again or starve.
- All the Indians are killed.
Even those tribes well known for their peacefulness and cooperation with the United States, such as the Nez Perce’s led by Chief Joseph, faced a process like this. The only Indians to truly escape the full wrath of the United States was the Crow Nation, a tribe best known for selling out and killing other Indians, the betrayers of their own people.
Given all this tragic background, I found myself rooting for the Indians whenever they were able to rally and push back the unending advance of the whites. Sitting Bull became the ideal Indian, the Lakota holy man who raided frontier forts in order to try to keep control of his ancestral home. Isatai’i became my hero, the Comanche warrior who united the tribes in defense of the buffalo, who were being driven to extinction by thoughtless American hunters. It’s impossible to not have some measure of sympathy for the Indians as you read about every tribe glowing brilliantly in self-defense against a superior enemy, only to be snuffed out one after another.
As a white American, am I responsible for the sins of my ancestors who purged the Indians from the land? I don’t think so. But I do think it is important to learn about this people who inherited the land before us. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. The depredations that the Indians sometimes visited upon innocent white farms was horrific. Yet, when looking at a macro-scale on the Indian Wars as a whole, who was in the wrong? The Earth is Weeping definitively convinced me that the United States of America, Manifest Destiny, and the greed for gold & land was the problem. And, as with all things, the only way to avoid similar mistakes in the future is to learn from mistakes like these that we made in the past.
As a reviewer, my only complaint with the book is that it felt somewhat incomplete. The book only addresses the wars with Western Indian tribes; our conflicts with Eastern tribes are unmentioned. This left me feeling bereft of a full answer to my question of “who was ultimately at fault in the Indian Wars” because I didn’t get a chance to see the very beginning. The book also cuts itself off whenever Indian tribes go north into Canada or south into Mexico, which made the story of Sitting Bull feel disjointed and that of Geronimo almost entirely missing.
My last caveat is that I can’t fully recommend listening to this book in the audiobook format. There’s simply too many precise details to the story that are difficult to keep track of when listening to it. If one does check this out based on my recommendation, definitely try reading it in hand. Beyond that, this is the best history of the Western Indian Wars that I could have hoped for. If you want a more detailed story of what you only barely learned about in high school, there is no book I can recommend more strongly than The Earth is Weeping.