The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens
After 500 years, we are still working through the last days brutal European invasion of the Americas. In the United States, we still struggle to overcome the original sin of racism, which is obviously still present. And the United States itself is built upon the morally shaky appropriation of the land, and the genocide that went with the theft.
The horrible fight lasted centuries, but it came to a swift and sudden end in the nineteenth century.
Peter Cozzens recounts these tragic last conflicts, as the tribes of the Western US were shattered, slaughtered, and imprisoned from 1863 to 1890. His history uses a variety of sources, and tries to portray the range of opinions and actions among all the players. As always, the real story was more complicated, and even more tragic, than the Hollywood version.
One of the best things about Cozzens’ book is the portrayal of the complicated misunderstandings and misjudgments by all the participants. The “sides” were scarcely monolithic, and many people had confused goals and most had very little understanding of the other people they clashed with.
The Indians were divided and confused, with limited understanding, and many misunderstandings, of the oncoming white invasion. The many tribes were divided internally and preoccupied fighting their neighbors. For that matter, some tribes allied with the US Army, and Indian scouts served in large numbers in every campaign.
On the other side, the white immigrants were a diverse lot. Some lived peacefully with Indian neighbors, working and marrying. Many new arrivals had little understanding of the Indians they encountered, or interest in them. And, of course, there was plenty of casual and viscous racism.
The US government and the Army were in between the tide of settlers and the Indian inhabitants in the way. Both the civilian agencies and the military had decent people and also slimy bastards—and more than a few drunkards and blockheads.
Some of the most poignant writings of the period are from US Army men, bound to destroy the Indians, but understanding full well the injustice of that task. From close up, it was possible for whites to not only sympathize, but to identify with the desperate, doomed, last stand of the Indian people.
Much of the story is a stream of follies by all sides. Indians did not understand the peril that they faced until way too late. In the early days, the Army underestimated the Indian fighters, at the end, they absurdly over-estimated the threat. The civilian agencies pursued horridly preposterous projects that mainly amounted to cultural erasure, and often, flat out genocide.
It is also a story of dishonesty deliberate deceit. The US government and Army broke every promise and treaty ever made. In many cases, there was deliberate and viscous fraud. In the end, the only thing that counted was military power.
Not that the Army or the government was really completely in charge of events. Greed trumped law and common sense, and the casual racism of nineteenth century America undermined even the best intentions. Gold strikes or rumors of gold generated floods of immigrants, regardless of government or Army policy. Indian resistance or retaliation, real or invented, incited irresistible political pressures to eradicate all Indians, which often fell on innocent bystanders.
The result was all but certain from the start. There were only a few Indians, and there were millions of whites. Even had the tribes fought together as effectively as possible, it seems unlikely they could have prevailed. As it was, they were defeated piece by piece, rounded up and imprisoned in smaller and smaller reservations, forced to abandon their culture or starve.
The book ends with the 1890 “battle” at Wounded Knee, which was the last combat between the US army and Indians. The one-sided slaughter should never have happened, accomplished nothing, and did no credit to anyone.
Wounded Knee is a fitting summary for the whole period.
- Peter Cozzens, 2016. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Vintage Books.
Sunday Book Reviews