Little House / Wounded Knee, Week 5: On Independence

In the fifth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, Red Cloud wins a rare victory (maybe) and Almanzo learns to be an Independent Farmer Boy. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

“Red Cloud’s War”

This sixth chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is basically a giant game of cat and mouse between Red Cloud, an Oglala (Lakota) chief, and various U.S. commanders, most notably General William T. Sherman (whom I’m sure we will meet again later). Here’s what happened:

  • While the events at Powder River were still going on, the US sent a “treaty commission” to boat along the Missouri River and try to get any official-sounding body from any tribe to sign a peace treaty. The commission sent special messengers to Red Cloud and the Oglala Lakota, because they occupied the Powder River area, which is where the US wanted to build a road.
  • Red Cloud and some other tribes came to camp and begin peace talks. Meanwhile, a large group of US soldiers arrived at that very site, with orders to begin construction on the road and forts no matter the outcome of the peace talks. Red Cloud thought that was pretty lousy — “Great Father [US President] sends us presents and wants new road. But White Chief goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no!” (p.130) — so he and most of the other Indians left.
  • Soldiers marched right into the heart of Lakota country, stopped on the best hunting grounds, and built a fort (to accompany the existing Fort Connor/Fort Reno).
  • Since the forts looked a little hard to crack, several Oglalas (including Crazy Horse) practiced setting traps and running decoys. They used these tactics to draw a group of soldiers out into an ambush in which the combined N.Cheyenne/N.Arapaho/Lakota warriors killed all 80-100 soldiers, an event known by settlers as the Fetterman Massacre. The Indians also mutilated many of the bodies, as Col. Chivington had done to the Cheyenne earlier at the Sand Creek Massacre. This battle was the “worst defeat the Army had yet suffered in Indian warfare” (p.138).
  • After this, the US Government took a decidedly more conciliatory and cautious tack with Red Cloud & Co. They sent General William T. Sherman to offer gifts to any chiefs who came to another set of peace talks in western Nebraska. Several chiefs came (Red Cloud only sent a representative), but when pressed Sherman revealed the real goal: to get the Powder River Lakota to move to a reservation elsewhere. “We therefore propose to let the whole Sioux nation select their country up the Missouri River, …to have their lands like the white people, forever…” (p.143)
  • Red Cloud let it be known loud and clear that he would sign no peace treaty until the white settlers removed themselves from Lakota land. “If the Great Father kept white men out of my country, peace would last forever, but if they disturb me, there will be no peace.” (p.144)
  • Finally, in July of 1868, the War Department ordered that all forts in the Powder River area be abandoned. Red Cloud and the Oglalas burned one, then the Cheyennes burned the other in celebration. Red Cloud made the treaty-makers wait a few weeks, then rode in to sign a peace treaty. The End… (Not.)

There are a lot of mixed feelings here for me. On the one hand, it’s sad to see the mutilation continue, even if it is in retaliation. On the other hand, it’s pretty exciting to FINALLY see something go the Indians’ way. Red Cloud’s persistence and military strategy forced the US Government to respect his boundaries and treat him like a human being and a worthy adversary. HOWEVER… my excitement is a nervous, hesitant one, because I know it won’t end like this. Even Brown ends the chapter with doom-and-gloom foreshadowing. Why can’t you let me have my moment of wishful happiness, Dee Brown??

Wind River Indian ReservationThe Northern Arapaho: Where are they now?

(Since there are several more chapters about Red Cloud and the Oglala/Lakota, I will hold off on their “Where are they now” until that narrative concludes in the book. Today — the N. Arapaho!)

Today, the Northern Arapaho are a federally recognized tribe with over 9,000 enrolled members. After their initial treaty with the US was broken and their land taken, they were moved and now share the Wind River Reservation in west-central Wyoming with the Shoshone. You can read more about the Northern Arapaho here.

Farmer Boy

farmer boy - laura ingalls wilderAhhhhhh children’s books. So many memories. Actually, it was a little nostalgic and a little surreal to reread Farmer Boy. There were a lot of familiar stories — like my favorite, when Almanzo throws the blacking brush at Eliza Jane and makes a huge spot on the parlor wallpaper and thinks Pa is going to take him to the woodshed when he gets home! Dun dun DUNNNNNNNNNN! But there were also a lot of “teaching moments” and other little tidbits that I didn’t remember so much. It’s quite a long book, so I’ll just highlight a few overarching themes and trends that I noticed…

  • Almanzo’s family is (relatively) loaded. Much of the start of the book is dotted with Almanzo’s descriptions of his family’s farm in Malone, New York.  It is repeatedly made clear that the Wilder farm is NICE. Mr. Wilder is one of the wealthiest men in the area — his family can afford luxuries like store-bought cloth and white sugar, and the Wilders rent the best “parking shed” for their horses at church. (This is in contrast to Laura’s family, who we will see later are not quite so well-off.)
  • Despite their wealth, farm life is still depicted as a constant battle to survive. At one point Almanzo parrots his father and says “Idleness is sinful,” and you can definitely feel that axiom permeating the book, because little time is spent in what we would call recreation, and if it is, it’s either for a national holiday or on a day when it’s impossible to do anything else useful (e.g. a rainy day). After dinner, when it’s too dark to do farm labor, the family sits around the family room together and… does more work! Ma Wilder knits, Pa Wilder smooths down a new ax handle, big brother Royal whittles, one sister crochets, and the other sister reads the newspaper aloud to everyone (p.33). When the older children are away at school, Ma uses her “day off” to weave cloth while Pa trims new shingles for the roof. These folks simply never stop working, except when they sleep. Subsistence is their aim, and hard work is their game!
  • Life is very isolated. Except for intermittent school attendance and seeing folks briefly at church, the Wilders pretty much pass their days working alone or with each other on the farm. Additionally, when Almanzo is given time to play (i.e. when siblings are all away at school), he plays alone. When he gets a new sled for his birthday, he takes it out himself and sleds alone for an hour.
  • As such, community events are a big deal! The stop-the-presses importance of both the Fourth of July celebration and the State Fair are staggering, especially to 9-year-old Almanzo. Even small things, like the arrival of the travelling cobbler to make the family’s boots, is a notable event — because otherwise they’re all just at home, working on the farm as usual.
  • Indians are weirdly not present. As with the Wong Ming-Chung Diary in Week 1, I was surprised at how non-existent Indians seem in this book. There were a few passing references, but they were so small as to feel unimportant. For example, Almanzo wears moccasins “exactly like the moccasins that Indians wore” (p.4). Almanzo has a diatribe about how the Indians must have introduced popcorn to the Pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving (p.33). Mrs. Wilder tells the children not to “yell like Comanches” (p.79). An Indian randomly runs in a horse race at the fair and people bet on him (p.265). Mr. Wilder sows “rye-n-injun” so that they can eat “rye-n-injun bread (p.93 et al). NONE of these references are in any way explained in the book, other than the Thanksgiving one, which is narrated almost like a fairy tale. To me, it feels a little bit like there is some shared knowledge about Indians that “everyone knows” that is being referenced in many of these cases, almost like a shared fairy tale canon. Whatever it is, Indians definitely don’t feel real in this book. More like mythical creatures, if anything. What’s weird to me is that everything else about farm life is explained so painstakingly — how to make butter, how to carve an ox yoke, how to cut and store ice — but these references to entire people groups are not. It just feels like a weird elephant in the room… er, book. I don’t know how else to explain it.
 But by far the strongest theme of the book — mostly because this is what the main conflict/resolution of the plot revolves around — is this:
  • It is important to be an Independent Freedom Farmer because you can Be Your Own Man, and everyone else can’t. Two of Mr. Wilder’s biggest speeches in the book revolve around the nobility of farming. On the Fourth of July: “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9). And then this longer one at the conclusion of the book: “A farmer depends on himself, and the land, and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear…. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm” (p.370-1). Based on the time I spent living in farm-country western Kansas, I’d say this rugged individualism is still very much alive and well today (and not just on farms, either).

This is the backbone of the “pioneer spirit” at the root of white American dominant culture, I think — to be your own man and be beholden to no one. But it’s hard for me to reconcile that idea with the fact that a pretty similar goal — to live on and with the land as they had for generations and to be left alone by white settlers — was wrenched away from Native tribes all across the continent. To make room for (mostly) white farmers to “take all that country and make it America”.

I can really feel the disconnect — the not-honesty — when the story is told the way Mr. Wilder tells it, as if “taking the country and making it America” were the simplest, most innocent, most noble thing ever, and as if the Indians who already lived there didn’t even exist, except as a brief cultural touchstone to name your bread after. I can see the American pioneer spirit, and I can also see how it eclipsed (and is still eclipsing…) the Native story before (and during, and after) it.

P.S. I looked up a map of Malone, NY (where the Wilder farm was/is) and a map of Indian tribe locations. Turns out the Wilder farm was/is located on Mohawk land. You can read more about the Mohawk and their neighbors here.

NY Indian tribes


This week, the clear theme is independence. Red Cloud fought tooth and nail to force the US to treat him as an equal and to make sure he would only sign a treaty on his terms. He worked hard to make sure he could give his people the best chance at staying the independent, autonomous occupants of their land. Meanwhile, off to the east in New York, a bunch of white pioneers and farmers also valued stubbornness and independence. Buuuuuut between the two, there was this weird thing called the “Frontier”… where Indians were annihilated and/or relocated. I’m a Connector, so I’m really struggling with this GIANT disconnect between the lives and stories of Indian tribes and the lives and stories of many simple immigrant farmers. There’s a huge amount of violence in that disconnect… but it’s like it disappears! I don’t get it. Perhaps as we go on the stories will start to touch each other a bit more… we’ll see.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 7 and Little House in the Big Woods (LH #1)

2 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee, Week 5: On Independence

  1. Very interesting! I totally get your confusion as to how Indians are portrayed/not portrayed in Farmer Boy. Especially knowing that the Wilders lived on Indian land!!

    David and I drove all the way across South Dakota and back this weekend (with the youth group for a ski trip), and I was thinking about Indians for a lot of the [incredibly long] drive. A huge chunk of the land we drove through was the Badlands (and neighboring areas), which was the emptiest land I’ve ever seen. I kept thinking about how most of the state (and part of Minnesota as well) used to look more like that, with no roads or towns…or trees…breaking up the landscape. It’s crazy to think about how the white settlers totally took the land as their own and completely changed the landscape in most of the country. There’s a town we passed through that had a billboard offering “free land” for businesses in their industrial park. It’s sad how the settlers kept thinking of the land as “free” despite its prior inhabitants.


    1. CarissaLick  Isn’t it so weird in your head to know more of the whole story now?? I feel like I’m trying to put together a puzzle and I get to the end but there is one piece missing and it’s not in the box. You know? Like I know it’s supposed to go together — but I can’t make it fit!


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