Arts & Entertainment

Review: Book denies genocide was behind the 'Epic' Indian wars






Remains of Lakota men, women and children who were massacred at Wounded Knee in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, are buried in a mass grave in January 1891. Image from Library of Congress

In a new book, The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, military historian Peter Cozzens argues that genocide did not motivate the federal government's wars against the Indian nations. But the picture a reader comes away with is just as "disheartening," professor Douglas Brinkley observes in a review:
Seldom does a nonfiction book pack the cultural wallop that Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” did in 1970. Just months before its publication a group of Native American activists calling themselves Indians of All Tribes had occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, demanding that the former prison outpost be deeded back to them by the United States government. So when Brown — a white novelist and historian from Arkansas with a degree in library science — published his searing account of westward expansion, accusing the Army of annihilating Indians between 1860 and 1890, his timing was explosive. While Brown’s book contained factual errors, it dramatically succeeded in changing the attitudes of the Vietnam War generation about how the West was really won.

Now, 46 years later, the military historian Peter Cozzens counters Brown with “The Earth Is Weeping” — a largely chronological march with an Army viewpoint of the same era, a work reminiscent in scope and approach to James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” (about the Civil War). Cozzens is determined to debunk the main thrust of Brown’s one-sided book — that the government’s response to the so-called “Indian problem” was genocide. He documents a string of gratuitous massacres of Native Americans, much to be deeply regretted, but insists that official Washington never contemplated genocide. “It is at once ironic and unique,” Cozzens declares, contra Brown, “that so crucial a period of our history remains largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance.”

Balance is what Cozzens is seeking in this detailed recounting of random carnage, bodies burned, treaties broken and treachery let loose across the land. Although the book is not a seamless narrative, and its writing is sometimes stodgy, Cozzens admirably succeeds in framing the Indian Wars with acute historical accuracy. Whether discussing the chaotic Battle of Washita in present-day Oklahoma or Custer’s skirmishes with Sitting Bull’s Lakota coalition or the surrender of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, Cozzens demonstrates vast knowledge of American military history.

His picture is disheartening. During Reconstruction numerous Native Americans from the East were assigned to Western reservations under the watch of the Army. Inebriated rank-and-file soldiers routinely disobeyed orders and sometimes burned down Indian villages. The Civil War generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, tasked with overseeing Indian affairs, come off as fierce conquer-at-all-cost leaders, morality be damned, as their troops ferociously battled against recalcitrant Arapaho, Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa tribes.

Read More on the Story:
Review by Douglas Brinkley: Unbury My Heart at Wounded Knee: A New Look at the Indian Wars (The New York Times 11/13)