292 “Lo, the Poor Indian”

Reflecting a pervasive Enlightenment perspective—and presaging Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic admiration for America’s “Noble Savage”—Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, declaimed: 

Lo, the poor Indian!  whose untutored mind

Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;

His soul proud Science never taught to stray

Far as the solar walk or milky way; 

Yet simple nature to his hope has given,

Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heav’n.   

Neither Pope nor Rousseau knew much about the New World’s indigenous inhabitants, but that didn’t dissuade them from making authoritative pronouncements, and similar ignorance has infected much that’s been written or portrayed about Indians ever since.  Thus today many folks imagine they understand them  as a result of watching a TV special on the Dakota Access Pipeline or listening to alleged “Native American” spokesmen leading protests in various locales.    

Illustrating this ignorance is the widespread circulation (especially in environmentalist circles) of an alleged statement made by Chief Seattle in 1851.  The quotation declared:  “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.  Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.”  Seattle’s words, duplicated in many books and displayed on schoolroom posters, effectively persuaded many Americans that the First Americans were the First Environmentalists, carefully husbanding the natural world, walking softly on Mother Earth.  In fact, the speech was written in 1972 by a Texas scriptwriter working on a film produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission!  It fit the mood of the moment, whether or not it had any historical veracity, and became part of the nation’s folklore!  Certainly it helped establish one of the many misleading stereotypes that in the long run serve to harm Indian people.  

Endeavoring to better root us in reality, Naomi Schaeffer Riley recently toured the United States and Canada gathering material for her insightful The New Trail of Tears:  How Washington Is Destroying American Indians (New York:  Encounter Books, c. 2016).   To understand anything we need first to describe it and then think clearly to explain it.  So Riley proffers careful descriptions accompanied by reasoned analysis.  Her descriptions remind us of similar accounts through the centuries—tribal peoples beset by a multitude of problems (including the highest poverty and lowest life expectancy rate of any racial group, shocking suicide numbers, alcohol and drug abuse, rape, sexual abuse and widespread gang activity).  Her analysis, however invites us to think hard about the glaring failures of latest in a long list of “saviors”—the federal government.  Rapacious frontiersmen and ruthless armies harmed Indians in the past, but today the primary culprit responsible for their predicament is the government, the pretentiously  benevolent Welfare State.  

“As you’ll see in this book,” Riley says, “the problems American Indians face today—lack of economic opportunity, lack of education, and lack of equal protection under law—and the solutions to these problems require a different approach from the misguided paternalism of the past 150 years.  It’s not the history of forced assimilation, war, and murder that have left American Indians in a deplorable state; it’s the federal government’s policies today” (#149).  More troubling:  Indians provide us a “microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with liberalism,” caused by “decades of politicians and bureaucrats showering a victimized people with money and sensitivity instead of what they truly need—the autonomy, the education, and the legal protections to improve their own situations” (#149).  

Consider this:  the federal bureaucracies charged with responsibility for the nation’s one million reservation Indians, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), employ 9,000 employees—roughly one bureaucrat for every 100 Indians.  The feds’ funding “for education, economic development, tribal courts, road maintenance, agriculture, and social services—was almost $3 billion in 2015.  Consequently:  “Tribal leaders only demand more money from Washington to fix their problems.  And the senators and congressmen who represent them are only too glad to oblige return for the votes of the populations” (#2910).  Yet extraordinary unemployment rates, coupled with tribal ownership of land and reliable welfare payments, leave virtually all reservations poverty-stricken.  Lacking private property rights, reservation Indians (whose lands are tribally owned but held “in trust” by the federal government) almost inevitably suffer what economists call “the tragedy of the commons.”  Theoretically, everyone owns the land, but no one owns any actual parcel and takes no responsibility for any of it.  But everyone gets annuities (and in many areas, per capita dividends from tribal casinos) that provide subsistence without needing to work—and therein lies much that’s wrong with the reservations.  

Still more:  endless federal regulations dictate how reservation lands may be used—and make it virtually impossible to use it productively!  Entrepreneurs and venturesome economic projects inevitably run afoul of a nanny state determined to insure that Indians will always be the “Indians” suitable to bureaucrats who often operate in accord with sentimental myths rather than observable realities.  Thus, for example, Michelle Obama could tell a gathering of Indian youngsters that “‘on issues like conservation and climate change, we are finally beginning to embrace the wisdom of your ancestors’” (#567).  Had she simply driven through most any reservation she could have seen how little ancestral wisdom regarding the “sacred land” may be found in Indian country!  Here the results of the Obamas’ antipathy to developing natural resources can be demonstrated.  Reservations sit on enormous coal, uranium, oil and gas reserves, but ’”86% of Indian lands with energy or mineral potential remain undeveloped because of Federal control of reservations that keeps Indians from fully capitalizing on their natural resources if they desire’” (#450).   Even a superficial assessment of Indian affairs should persuade one that the money expended on behalf of the Indians hardly helps (and probably harms) them.

The greatest natural resource, of course, is people, and children must be well educated in order to develop their potential.  The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), a notably inefficient bureaucracy,  expends about $850 million providing for its “42,000 students (most children on reservations don’t attend BIE schools), which amounts to about $20,000 per pupil, compared with a national average of $12,400” (#87).   Only half of the students in high school graduate, and those who do frequently have less-than-adequate skills.  Providing details, Riley sets forth a sobering assessment of the schools under federal jurisdiction.  In one school on the Crow reservation in Montana, for example, $27,304 per pupil was expended—compared with $10,625 in non-Indian state schools.  Yet the graduation rate was 39%!  There, and everywhere you look, Indian schools are “among the worst in the nation” (#1562).   In stark contrast, the Saint Labre Catholic schools in southeastern Montana serve 800 Crow and Cheyenne children.  These Catholic schools take no federal monies and do nicely, enjoying a dropout rate of only one percent!  And large numbers of their graduates go on to study in college.  (There are some bright lights in Indian country, but they’re rare.)  

Aware of the educational failures of reservation schools, distraught parents and students usually blame the lack of discipline and qualified teachers, as well as nepotism-infected tribal administrations, though they also point to the breakdown of the family as the primary culprit.  Some youngsters who graduate high school then attend one of the 32 federally-funded tribal colleges, where they often study tribal traditions or arts and crafts.  Rarely do they graduate and attend a university, nor do they learn much they can use apart from the reservation.  Sadly:  “Every school on the [Pine Ridge, Sioux] reservation is scrambling for teachers.  But the tribal school—Oglala Lakota College—doesn’t even offer a degree in secondary education” (#2258).  Rather than training youngsters to effectively help their people, most colleges cater to personal proclivities, often traditional arts and crafts.  Thus  “‘The Tribal Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico,’ according to the Atlantic, ‘spends $504,000 for every degree it confers . . . more than Harvard or MIT’” (#1578).  

The Indians doing the best these days are the ones whose descendants lost their lands in the 19th century—or individuals who leave the reservation and find their way in the broader culture.  Descendants of the Five Civilized Tribes in eastern Oklahoma are certainly prospering nicely when compared with the reservation-rooted Sioux and Navajo.  So too the Lumbees (in the Lumberton North Carolina area), lacking language, chiefs and tribal land, blended into the area’s population.  Fully assimilated, they supported a decent school system and also embraced the “passionate Baptist faith that, to a person, they today profess’” (#1292).  In one Lumbee’s opinion, their success resulted from the “tribe’s independence from the federal government.  ‘Indians had to pay for everything themselves here.  They had pride in the people who built it’” (#1300).  They could also own and develop, buy and sell land.  

The Lumbees weren’t wealthy, but they were doing okay.  Then politicians in Washington D.C. decided to help them!  Overwhelmed with liberal guilt following WWII, the feds decided to allow landless tribes to “reconstitute” themselves.  In 1975 President Nixon signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education assistance Act, opening the coffers for grants to law enforcement, education, and environmental programs.  Increasingly, Indians could qualify for generous welfare programs.  As a result, increasing numbers of younger Lumbees ceased working and now waste their days doing drugs.  Today’s schoolchildren are notably less well-educated than their grandparents!  Whereas churches used to help the needy, the government now hands out money and enables them to idly self-destruct.  An older Lumbee, Ronald Hammonds, a successful cattle farmer, laments:  “‘Women are encouraged to have babies.  It’s economic development.  You get a check.  We’ve got more illegitimate kids than ever, and it’s getting worse.’  He calls the local housing project a ‘breeding ground’ and says that the children are mostly being raised by their grandmothers.  ‘They’ve got no responsibility.  They’re looking for the government as the solution to all our problems’” (#1419).   The only answer to the many problems the Lumbees now face, Hammonds thinks, is to get the government out of their lives.  

And that’s basically the solution Riley recommends:  eliminate the dependency engendered by the reservations!  That would, of course, mean much anguish in Indian communities—and in the non-Indian liberals who empathize with them.  But it may be the only “tough love” way to free the most impoverished peoples in America.  Indicating how little things have actually changed in 150 years, read carefully the final paragraph in Our Wild Indians:  Thirty-three years; Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West (Hartford, CN:  A. D. Worthington and Company, c. 1883).  Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, who knew the Indians as well as any 19th century writer and described them with a relentless honesty, harbored no romantic or humanitarian illusions regarding either them or their cultures.  “The only hope for the Indian,” he wrote, “is in the interest and compassion of a few men, who, like the handful of “Abolitionists” of thirty years ago, have pluck and strength to fight, against any odds, the apparently ever losing battle.  These in turn must rely upon the great, brave, honest human heart of the American people.  To that I and they must appeal to the press; to the pulpit; to every voter in the land; to every lover of humanity.  Arouse to this grand work.  No slave now treads the soil of this noble land.  Force your representatives to release the Indian from an official bondage ore remorseless, more hideous than slavery itself.  Deliver him from this pretended friends and lift him into fellowship with the citizens of our loved and glorious country” (#9377).  

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Inasmuch as the main focus of my graduate study at the University of Oklahoma was Western American History—writing my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on Cherokee history—I for many years often taught a class entitled “The First Americans.”  One of the books I either required or recommended was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:  An Indian History of the American West, though I warned students to take it as more of a pro-Indian polemic than balanced history.  Despite its bias, it presented the post-Civil War Indian wars in a very readable way and alerted readers to the mistreatment of tribal peoples.  Were I still teaching today, however, I’d have better source that covers the same terrain—and basically comes to the same conclusions—with more effort to understand both white and Indian perspectives. to see both good and evil in each group of people.  

It’s Peter Cozzens’ The Earth is Weeping:  The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, c. 2016). Fortunately, says Cozzens, there are primary sources unavailable to Dee Brown and he can “tell the story equally through the words of Indian and white participants and, through a deeper understanding of all parties to the conflict, better address the many myths, misconceptions, and falsehoods surrounding the Indian Wars” (#351).  He provides in-depth descriptions and interesting details regarding Indian warriors’ training and skills as well as those of the U.S. Army recruits who opposed them.  Still more:  he effectively shows how Indians themselves (through intra-tribal rivalries and conflicts as well as inter-tribal animosities) contributed to their defeat.  In many ways the book simply fills in the details contained in a succinct statement made by Lieutenant Colonel George Crook, who fought many a battle with them:  “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war.  And then we are sent out there to kill them.  It is an outrage.  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’” (#318).  

After setting the stage with a discussion of United States developments and policies, as well as Indians’ tribal traits and migrations onto the Great Plains, Cozzens turns to Red Cloud’s War in 1866.  Determined to halt the movement of miners into Montana’s gold camps, Red Cloud (leading Oglala and Miniconjou Sioux warriors) prevailed, defeating an army detachment at the Fetterman “massacre” and subsequently signed the second treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, closing the Bozeman trail and securing for the Lakotas the “Great Sioux Reservation” (today’s South Dakota west of the Missouri River), to be maintained for their “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation.”  Red Cloud’s “victory” was a rare Indian triumph—and it hardly arrested the westward movement of Americans pioneers.   

The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne further enjoyed two brief victories in 1876—the battles at the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana.  At the Rosebud, General Crook was repulsed by warriors following Crazy Horse.  Days later, Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his Seventh Cavalry into the Little Bighorn region, where he encountered one of the largest encampments of Sioux and Cheyenne (7,000 Indians; 1800 warriors) ever assembled.  He’d bragged that his Seventh Cavalry could “whip all the Indians in the Northwest,” but at the Little Big Horn he proved himself a poor prophet.  Following Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Gall, the Indian warriors slew 258 troopers, losing only 31 of their own.  Following the battle, Sitting Bull said:  ‘“I feel sorry that too many were killed on each side.  But when Indians must fight, they must’” (#5249).  Custer’s last stand, however, was the northern tribes’ last stand, for the army thereafter sent column after column (frequently in winter, burning their lodges and food supplies) after the hostiles and effectively broke their will within a few years.   With the surrender of Crazy Horse, the last renegade Lakotas came to terms with the United States and accepted their lot as reservation Indians.  After taking refuge in Canada for a few years, Sitting Bull too surrendered early in 1881.  “‘Nothing but nakedness and starvation has driven this man to submission,’ concluded a sympathetic army officer, ‘and not on his  own account but for the sake of his children, of whom he is very fond’” (#6070).  

On the Southern Plains, at the same time, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes were defeated (in part by Colonel Custer’s massacre of Black Kettle’s peaceful village of Southern Cheyennes on the Washita River) and confined to a reservation in the western part of Indian Territory, to be joined soon thereafter by the Kiowa and Comanche (finally defeated in the Red River Wars in the 1870s).  Adding to the relentless might of the military, the Indians further faced the loss of the buffalo—the enormous herds that supplied their every need in 1865 were simply gone by 1875.  Buffalo hunters, killing the animals for their hides, nearly wiped out the species!  Hide hunters, Phil Sheridan said, did “more to settle the Indian Problem in two years than the army had done in thirty.  For the Sake of lasting peace, let them kill and skin until the buffalo are exterminated’” (#3100).  And without the buffalo, the Indians either starved or begged for rations from army forts.  

In the Far West, the Modocs were defeated in northern California.  The Nez Perces, led by Chief Joseph, were forced from their Washington homeland and conducted an epochal struggle, coursing through 1700 miles in Idaho and Montana before surrendering near the Canadian border.  The Utes of the Rocky Mountains were defeated and relocated in reservations in Utah and southern Colorado.  In the Southwest, the Apaches under Cochise and Victorio waged some resourceful guerrilla wars, but with the defeat of Geronimo’s small band in 1886 that region was pacified.  At the end, some 5,000 troops were involved in corralling eighteen warriors led by Geronimo and Naiche!  Though there is a certain aura around Geronimo, those who knew him best generally disliked him.  One Apache leader said:  ‘“I have known Geronimo all my life put to this death and have never known anything good about him.’”  The daughter of  Naiche  “agreed.  ‘Geronimo was not a great man at all.  I never heard any good of him’” (#7348).  Significantly, the troops  who most effectively hunted down the Apache bands were other Apaches, equally skilled in tracking and surviving in harsh environs.  General George Crook, one of the officers engaged in Indian wars for three decades, said:  “‘In warfare with the Indians it has been my policy—and the only effective one—to use them against each other’” (#7566).  

The post-Civil War conflicts in the American West was consummated in a massacre at Wounded Knee South Dakota in 1891.  Hundreds of despairing Lakotas had been captivated by a new religious movement, the Ghost Dance.  A Paiute medicine man, in Nevada, Wovoka, meshed native and Christian traditions and urged followers to dance incessantly to usher in a wonderful world devoid of white men and their oppression.  Though most Indians disdained the movement, fervent practitioners worried officials in the Indian Bureau, whose agents insisted the army suppress it.  In a convoluted chapter of the ferment, Sitting Bull was arrested and killed by Indian policemen.  Then a 65 year old Miniconjou chief named Big Foot decided to lead his band to safety on the Oglalas’ Pine Ridge Reservation.  Confusion and misunderstanding led to a violent confrontation along Wounded Knee Creek, and at least 150 Sioux (mainly women, children, and old men) died.  

Thirty years of Indian wars had ended.  And Peter Couzzens provides the most readable, accurate account of them I’ve read.  

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