They came on horses and with guns, a martial culture overrunning a more peaceful one unprepared to meet the fight. It was a stunning and successful invasion over a short period of time. The invaders treated the indigenous people as barely human. They committed unspeakable acts of brutality. Those not massacred fled from their homeland, never to return.
The invaders were the Lakota, a Siouxan tribe who swept west in the 1700s, taking for themselves the most prized hunting grounds throughout the Great Plains. Or, to put it in the words of one of their chiefs, “These lands once belonged to the Kiowas and Crows, but we whipped these nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of Indians.”
This is the context in which Peter Cozzens, a career diplomat and historian, has situated his magisterial, quietly subversive history. The saga of U.S.–Indian conflicts has a wide arc, beginning in the early to middle 19th century, intensifying after the Civil War, and concluding only with the massacre of Lakota themselves at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890. Usually, this period is retold as a monolithic and uncomplicated story of white aggressors and Indian victims. If one were merely to summarize the end state of 19th-century history of the American West, that might do.
Yet Cozzens does a service by bringing out the dark ironies and wrinkles of this history. In the Great Plains, at least, it is the story of “the displacement of one immigrant people by another, rather than the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life.” During the Indian wars, oppressors became victims, and victims joined with oppressors before being betrayed themselves. Crow warriors, for instance, so despised the Lakota and the Cheyenne for having pushed them out of land they regarded as their own that they joined sides with General George Armstrong Custer and died with him at Little Big Horn in 1876. That battlefield, ironically, became part of the reservation where the Crow were later confined. The lesson here is that conflicts were populated with individuals and factions, not “whites” versus “Indians.” Allegiances shifted throughout.
There were heroes and villains on both sides. One settler newspaper criticized the U.S. Army’s General Oliver Howard and praised an unlikely counterparty. “Chief Joseph’s magnanimity may save us, and that is all,” the paper editorialized, of the Nez Perce leader who was just then being cast by the federal government as a violent agitator but who in fact spared the civilian white community the depredations that were characteristic of other tribes. Some white settlers blamed the U.S. government for overreacting or provoking conflicts.
But it is also true that mutilation and torture were often a central feature of Indian warfare, and that it often made little distinction between men and women, old and young; “Sherman and Sheridan’s notion of total war paled beside that of the Plains Indians,” Cozzens observes. This brutality prompted many panicked Army campaigns of reprisal. Or perhaps those campaigns prompted the Indian warfare. It is unclear, because from Oregon to the desert Southwest to the Dakota Territory, a cycle of violence took hold in which one outrage was exchanged for another and attempts at peace were plagued with miscommunication or promises that could not or would not be kept on either side.
The denouement was not obvious from the beginning. The U.S. Army was stretched thin during and after the Civil War. When a string of fortifications was attacked along the Bozeman Trail, one colonel wrote to his wife, “The only way that peace can be made with the Indians is giving up this country.” Which is just what happened when General Sherman in 1868 was ordered to abandon the forts of the region. For decades, the Army was present but weak, “deemed a lesser threat” than other Indian tribes by the Lakota and their Cheyenne allies. They were the hegemons in much of present-day Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota.
This situation turned abruptly. In just a decade, the U.S. Army had reequipped, allied with Indian tribes disaffected by the Lakota and Cheyenne, and undertaken a series of routs that were so shocking a turnaround that they spawned a Lakota millenarian movement — the Sun Dance — that promised to raise dead warriors from the grave for a final revanche against the whites and their Indian allies. At this point, less than 90 years had passed since the U.S. military first set foot in the region with the Lewis and Clark expedition. And from that moment to the present day is a longer span of time than the whole period of Lakota and Cheyenne occupancy of the Great Plains until their military defeat.
Those activists and journalists today who romanticize the Lakota, whose Standing Rock Indian Reservation is the center of protests over the siting of the Dakota Access Pipeline, ought to know just the kind of invention of history they are indulging in by casting places and people as timeless. A soft rebuttal of this tendency should be at the heart of every real story of the American West, which has been in upheaval for nearly the entire time that there have been observers to record its history in writing. Cozzens gets this in a way only a few writers do — and then pretty much only novelists, such as Cormac McCarthy.
This is not to minimize what is a remarkably sad history, or explain away what for many tribes is a deeply unjust result. But Cozzens does not let the end of the story dictate its contents. He lays it out in all its grim detail.
– Mr. Kavulla, a former associate editor of National Review, is a Montana public-service commissioner.