Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 9, Blizzards, Betrayal, and Buffalo

In the ninth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, the Ingalls brave some blizzards and Indians weather two Shakespearean tragedies. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

On the Banks of Plum Creek

on the banks of plum creekIn the fourth Little House book, the story pulls in to become much more nuclear family focused. By that I mean that the story is less tied to social or political goings-on, or to the land, or whatever and much more exclusively driven by whatever happens to the Ingalls. Also, the Ingalls lived through some weird-o stuff! Here are a few highlights:

  • walnut grove plum creek ingalls map
    The red A marks Walnut Grove, MN, where the Ingalls’ dugout house was located.

    At the start of the book, the Ingalls move to Minnesota and buy a dugout house from some Norwegians. Ma, the schoolteacher and voice of “civilization”, is very concerned about cleanliness and not stooping to sleeping on the ground. Pa reassures her that “Norwegians are clean people.” (p.6)

  • Everyone is soooooo happy to have finally escaped those troublesome wolves and Indians: “It is all so tame and peaceful. There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight.” (p.17) Again with the Indians = animals.
  • We see a lot more of Laura’s character development as a feisty and disobedient but take-charge little girl. When she goes too deep in the swimming hole and Pa dunks her, she wants him to do it again. (Hilarious, btw.) But when Ma and Pa get caught in a snowstorm, Laura — not her older sister, Mary — is the one who takes charge and makes sure the girls bring in enough firewood to last the storm. The girls — all three — have really grown in their self-sufficiency, even though in this book Laura is only 8! It’s clear both that necessity requires children to be useful very young, and that Laura is on a collision-course with 19th-century gender roles.
  • We also see a lot more of the financial struggles of 19th-century farmers in general and the Ingalls family in particular. Pa takes out loans against their future wheat crop — but when a swarm of grasshoppers comes and eats it all, he has no choice but to head east to hire out as a harvest laborer for those whose fields weren’t eaten. Not only does he struggle to afford a new pair of boots when his are falling apart, but the glowing Christmas story in the novel features Mary and Laura receiving charity Christmas gifts from their town neighbors to the east.
  • Minnesota is cold. There are lots of blizzards. And one of them is reeeeeeally bad. And Pa almost dies. …So, typical Minnesota weather.
  • School and church are a big deal. Several times Author Laura mentions that the reason they settled where they did is because Pa promised Ma the girls would go to school, and they need to be near a town to do that. Ma keeps her school books in “the box where she kept her best things” (p.140) and attending church is seen as a treat.
  • There is serious friction between country folk and town folk. The most apparent case of this is Nellie, a rich, spoiled town girl who harasses and insults both Laura and Ma (OH NO YOU DIDN’T) about their poverty and not-as-fine clothes. One of the best scenes of the novel is when Nellie gets her comeuppance — at Laura’s party, Laura tricks Nellie into standing in a creek bed full of leeches. Ah, sweet revenge.

Overall, this book showcases how much farmers are at the mercy of the elements. As a sub-theme to that, it sort of begs the question of why people are resettling all over and trying to make a go of it in places where they don’t know the land. And another theme that begins now and will get stronger as Mary and Laura grow up is the “civilization process”. Especially because they’re both female, there is a lot of pressure on both girls (but especially on Laura, since she’s a tomboy) to learn to be more “ladylike” the older they get.

“The Ordeal of Captain Jack”

In the 10th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee we take a little trip to present-day California. Brown gives us a brief background of the region, where the mostly peaceful coastal tribes greeted the Spanish with friendship and were quickly exterminated. The Modocs were the exception; “when the Modocs showed fight, the white invaders attempted extermination. The Modocs retaliated with ambushes” (p.220). It is here that we meet Captain Jack.

Captain Jack (aka Kintpuash) was a Modoc chief who had many white friends and strongly desired peace. He signed a treaty ceding Modoc land and removing his people to the Klamath Reservation — but the Klamaths were already there and didn’t appreciate company. When the Modocs began to starve, Captain Jack was convinced by his friend and fellow influential Modoc, Hooker Jim, that fleeing was preferable to death by starvation. The Modocs fled west to the California Lava Beds, with Hooker Jim taking “revenge” on the way by killing some white settlers — including Captain Jack’s friends.

When soldiers arrived to arrest the murderers, Captain Jack refused to give up his friend Hooker Jim. Captain Jack tried to compromise — but he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He couldn’t get General Canby to talk peace. His own people, now including a vocal opposition led by Hooker Jim, refused to consider peace (they voted 37-14 to fight to the death) and thought he was a coward. In a desperate attempt to save face with his fellow Modoc leaders, Captain Jack promised that he would shoot General Canby when he next came to talk. When General Canby arrived Captain Jack tried to back out, but was forced to go through with it. Then, even after all the faith he had shown his people, Captain Jack was betrayed and captured by Hooker Jim and his followers, who surrendered and promised to bring in Captain Jack in exchange for supplies and amnesty. At his trial, Captain Jack stated, “You white people conquered me not; my own men did.” (p.240)

It’s a story of betrayal upon betrayal; it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, almost. But what really gets me about this story is what happened to Captain Jack after he was convicted:

Captain Jack was hanged on October 3. On the night following the execution, his body was secretly disinterred, carried off to Yreka, and embalmed. A short time later it appeared in eastern cities as a carnival attraction, admission price ten cents. (p.240)

When I read this, at first I didn’t really know what to do with it. It’s just… weird. I mean, who does that? “Well, we’ve rounded up this criminal guy, and now he’s hanged… I think I’ll dig up and preserve his body so I can exhibit it at a circus.” To me this is the epitome of dehumanization and fetishization of Indians. It takes General Sheridan’s “only good Indians are dead” comment to a whole other level, because now it’s not only that Indians are “better” when dead (aka not being a “nuisance”) but that whites are actually commercializing and profiting from the corpse of a dead man after his death.

The Modocs: Where are they now?

This chapter concludes: “As for the surviving 153 [people]…, they were exiled to Indian territory. …[In 1909] the government decided to permit the remaining fifty-one Modocs to return to an Oregon reservation” (p.240). In 1954, the Klamath Reservation was terminated by the US Government and its inhabitants were bought out, except for a few who insisted on receiving title to their ancestral lands instead of money. Today the Modoc people are split between those two places — the Quapaw Indian Reservation (home of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma) and Klamath County, Oregon (home of the Klamath Tribes, which includes Modocs descended from people who didn’t flee with Captain Jack and from people who chose to return to Klamath after the war). You can read more about the Modoc people here.

“The War to Save the Buffalo”

The 11th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follows the Kiowas (the group who refused to surrender to General Custer back in chapter 7) and the Comanches, particularly the Kwahadi Comanches. I’m noticing that as the book (and history) progresses, tribes are getting increasingly mixed together as fragments and survivors of various traumas flee to the few remaining free groups. There is a lot of back-and-forth conflict in this chapter — and I invite you to read it all for yourselves, because it enriches the context behind the major events here — but I’m going to sum up.

1. Like most other tribes we’ve read about so far, the Kiowas and Comanches bifurcated under pressure.

When faced with General Sherman’s ultimatum — “Surrender yourselves to the reservation at Fort Sill or be killed” — both the Kiowas and the Comanches split into “the surrenderers” on the reservation and “the free roamers” who fled further west.

2. The “free roamers” didn’t even really want war — they just wanted to be free to hunt the buffalo.

Those who escaped or refused to surrender sometimes raided white settlements, especially to recoup supplies or horses. But their main stated goal was to be free to hunt as they were promised in a previous treaty, on the land they were guaranteed access to “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase” (p.243). Unfortunately, this was getting harder and harder, as white buffalo hunters were systematically slaughtering millions of buffalo to aid in the “progress” of settlement and railroads and to make it difficult for Indians to survive and resist. General Sheridan (“the only good Indians are dead”) was quoted as saying, “It [buffalo extermination] is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance” (p.265).

3. Ironically, Indians who surrendered were forced by the whites to farm corn…

…a skill which Indians kindly taught to early white settlers in order to save them from winter starvation, because they had no idea how to survive in America.

Even more ironic is the fact that the Comanches were originally an agricultural society — but the loss of their land earlier resulted in them being forced to hunt buffalo to survive. …Which they were now being forced to abandon so they could be “taught” to farm corn.

4. In the end, the Army won.

When the remaining Kiowas, Kwahadi Comanches, and a few Cheyennes holed up in the last place they could hunt buffalo (Palo Duro Canyon, just south of present-day Amarillo), General Sherman responded by calling up soldiers from all quarters. Brown put it well, I thought:

Thousands of Bluecoats armed with repeating rifles and artillery were in search of a few hundred Indians who wanted only to save their buffalo and live out their lives in freedom. … Across the Plains the Indians scattered on foot, without food, clothing, or shelter. And the thousands of Bluecoats marching from the four directions methodically hunted them down… (p.269-70)

The Kiowas and Comanches were all put back on reservations. The people were corralled and disarmed, their property was burned, their animals were shot, and suspected leaders were jailed awaiting trial. (Something about this process reminds me eerily of the systematic rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany.) By the end of 1875, the main Kiowa leaders — Lone Wolf, Kicking Bird, and Satanta (who threw himself from a window in a prison hospital) — were dead, and so were almost all the buffalo.

The Kiowas & Comanches: Where are they now?

The Kiowa people today are federally recognized as the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and reside mainly in southwestern Oklahoma. (What used to be their reservation was transitioned to a “tribal jurisdictional area”, as mentioned previously.) As of 2011, there were 12,000 enrolled tribal members. One particularly notable Kiowa person is author N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. You can read more about the Kiowas here.

The Comanche people today are federally recognized as the Comanche Nation. An estimated 8,000 of its 15,000 enrolled members reside within the Comanche tribal jurisdiction area in southwestern Oklahoma. (Again — no longer a reservation.) You can read more about the Comanches here.


Last week I was asked a really great question about my reading: “Have you encountered any examples of inter-tribal violence in your research?” It’s a totally legit question, and I plan to dig into it more thoroughly once I finish this project.

I actually get asked this question a lot when I talk about this LH/WK project. I’ve even wondered about it myself. I think part of the reason I have struggled to answer satisfactorily is that I often perceive (whether it’s really there or not) a subtextual question attached to that question, which is, “Isn’t all this stuff white people did to Indians just another war? Didn’t the Indians make war on each other too? Why is this particular war any different?”

Well, after this week’s readings, I can finally articulate an answer to that subtextual question.

Yes, we are all human and capable of both good and evil. I’ve written about several examples of both compassionate whites and traitorous Indians — and even more in today’s post. It’s not that Indians are squeaky clean and totally innocent — it’s that the white-on-Indian war is different than Indian-on-Indian wars. And the reason is that Indian-on-Indian wars were wars — they had honorable things, they had disgraceful things, but the various Native groups that engaged in wars (and not all did) fought against relatively equal opponents over things like borders, hunting rights, and population — all of which could even out over time. But this white-on-Indian war isn’t war; it’s genocide disguised as war.

Again, don’t get me wrong — there were definitely white allies of various Indian nations, and not every white person personally carried out genocidal acts. And there are multiple examples of Indian mercenaries from enemy tribes. But for whatever reason, the white (and black, but mostly white) representatives of the US government and military at the time were overwhelmingly focused on the extermination not only of any reasonable Indian threat of war, but of all Indians (including civilians) and of the various Native ways of life.

This was a war against a way of life. This was cultural extermination.

And that’s why it’s important to me to read and share the story, because if we talk about it — if we speak honestly about what happened — then it’s like the extermination efforts were a little less successful, and the truthful story is a little more alive.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 12-14 and Black Frontiers.

2 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 9, Blizzards, Betrayal, and Buffalo

  1. I LOVED your conclusion, Rebekah. Well put. This post was sad, as always, but I think your reflections are spot on. In a war, when one side surrenders, the conflict ends. As we’ve seen over and over in this series, the whites wouldn’t stop their targeting/killing/persecution no matter what the Indians did. Extermination is indeed a more accurate term for what was happening.


    1. CarissaLick  Ooh, good point about surrendering ending wars. I hadn’t thought of that, but totally spot-on.


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