Blood on the Plains

Review: Peter Cozzens, 'The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West'

Grave from the Battle of Little Big Horn / New York Public Library
December 25, 2016

At 467 pages of small-font writing, The Earth is Weeping is no quick read. Nor should it be. The author, historian, and recently retired U.S. diplomat Peter Cozzens, has much ground to cover charting the decline of Native American tribes in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. Cover it he does, in great detail.

The book begins with a meeting between President Lincoln and Lean Bear, a Cheyenne chief. Lincoln is polite but warns the chief that public interest in restraining western settlers is limited. The implications of this ominous message for Native Americans are clear. During the Civil War, white settlers and tribes engage in brutal skirmishes; in California, gold prospectors "decimated" peaceful tribes.

Still, European expansion had already altered the tribes, notably through the introduction of horses to North America. "In 1630, no tribe was mounted; by 1750, all of the plains tribes and most of the Rocky Mountain Indians rode horses." This evolution "made hunting infinitely easier," but horses "also increased the frequency and fury of intertribal clashes, because warriors were able to range over vast distances previously unimaginable on foot." The arrival of guns increased casualties, as did diseases brought by white settlers: "In 1849 alone cholera carried off half the Indian population of the southern plains."

This is a book with many difference facets. One key theme is the varying skill and disposition of U.S. Army officers. Many were arrogant and underestimated tribal warriors. This group was evident early during a bloody skirmish on the Bozeman Trail. Facing fire from a Lakota Chief, Red Cloud, and his war party, a soldier warned his lieutenant to take cover. The officer remained standing, responding, "I know how to fight Indians." He then "promptly collapsed with a bullet in the head."

Those fateful last words can be viewed as representative of countless foolish decisions by U.S. senior officers. The book recounts many tales of field-grade officers who either unnecessarily provoked tribal chiefs, or divided their forces, or failed to mitigate civilian casualties among Native Americans, or were drunk. Good intelligence, the precursor to understanding the tribes, was commonly neglected.

Intelligence would have taught the Army much about Native American culture—the sacred value it placed on courage, for one. Cozzens explains how touching an armed enemy with "a rod called a 'coup stick,' ranked first among [Indian] war honors." Scalps were favored as victory trophies. But young warriors had another motive. "War honors were inextricably linked to sex." Unless a warrior had proved his courage, his prospects for marriage were dire. "Among the Cheyennes, young men could not even court girls until they had demonstrated their courage in battle or on raids." Those who failed to earn glory were ridiculed by women. This interweaving of battle, society, and mysticism (especially the notion that some warriors were invulnerable to wounding) is important to understanding conflict between Native Americans and western settlers.

The Earth is Weeping is a military history as much as anything else, recounting battles such as George Custer's Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. As is well known, Custer's insufficient respect for his adversary was catastrophic. Under the command of an erratic Custer, companies of the Seventh Cavalry separated into pockets. Some panicked and were slaughtered, while others held out for a time; all were doomed. The Cheyenne and Lakota warriors under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were merciless. One war chief, Rain-in-the-Face, described clubbing a Seventh Cavalry color escort. "The [soldier’s] blood and brains splashed in my face. It felt hot, and blood ran in my mouth. I could taste it. I was mad. I got a fresh pony and rushed back, shooting, cutting, and slashing."

As with so many Native American victories, Little Bighorn proved a pyrrhic victory. After the stunning defeat, the U.S. government redoubled its effort to displace the tribes. As more skilled Army officers took command, Native American fortunes quickly collapsed. During the 1874 Red River War to clear tribes off the Great Plains, the Army used tribal culture against them by compressing game populations. This forced the tribes to relocate. This strategy was replicated against Sitting Bull’s Lakota tribe. Forced to move to prevent the starvation of his people, that renowned chief surrendered with a song.

A warrior
I have been.
It is all over
A hard time
I have.

Often, we see how doubt and tension escalated into unnecessary violence. In Colorado, for example, the arrogance of Indian Agent Nathan Meeker towards the Ute tribe ended in disaster. Meeker sparked a fierce response after attempting to change a tribe's culture. As reprisal, he was brutally killed and his family taken hostage.

As the above example indicates, another theme of the book is the brutality of the Indian Wars. The book describes many acts of brutality from the tribes to captured soldiers and civilians. Native American women desecrate dead bodies after battle. Finding bodies from an ambushed cavalry column, one relief soldier recorded that "some had the top of their skulls cut off and their brains taken out, others their arms cut out of their sockets." White civilians, especially young women, were often taken as prizes by warriors and subjected to brutal abuse. The Army, of course, committed its share of atrocities while battling and relocating Native American tribes. At the Battle of Washita River in 1868, Custer’s Seventh Cavalry ran wild, slaughtering civilians. By the end of the era covered by Cozzens, brutality has hardened many of the combatants in anger. Migratory, pillaging war parties emerge.

The book ends with the Wounded Knee massacre of December 1890. Their land taken and hunting supplies depleted, Lakota Indians enacted a Ghost Dance ritual. This dance, they believed, might offer salvation from hardship. Unaware of its peaceful meaning, white settlers reacted with alarm. The Army was dispatched to disarm the tribe. During a moment of confusion during a meeting of soldiers and warriors, chaos broke out. Many civilians were killed. The commanding general, Nelson Miles, was aghast at the loss and sought to punish the operational commander. But his disquiet was the sad exception. To many Americans, the Lakota were savages who deserved little sympathy. And the bloody cycle continued.

Published under: Book reviews