In the tenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, black rodeo heroes ride broncos and Indians get repeatedly beaten down. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!
I was excited this week to finally get to read Black Frontiers, a kids’ book (with lots of pictures!) about black Americans on the “frontier” in the late 1800s to early 1900s. There were some cool stories of some pretty tough individuals. My favorite features of this book were:
All the awesome old photographs! I always love being able to actually look at photos of what life was like for these folks.
- The focus on the substantial black community of cowboys and rodeo-ers. I was somewhat exposed to this when I read the Diary of Joshua Loper, but I really enjoyed seeing photographs of real African-American cowboys and rodeo champs, such as Bill Pickett and Jesse Stahl. I didn’t realize that there’s a significant history of black rodeo-ers even today.
- The acknowledgement of the mingling between the African-American and Indian communities. There is an entire section devoted to examples of interaction and mixing between Natives and blacks — both free and enslaved (mostly slaves who ran away to enjoy freedom in a Native tribe).
I loved the specific examples in this book. There was even a shout-out to Kansas City Negro League baseball, which is cool because I’ve been to the Negro League museum in KC! Awesome and educational to learn about real people and how they survived (and sometimes thrived!) despite some of the difficulties of this time period.
One thing I didn’t love was that the tone of the book was decidedly pro-settler. I felt uncomfortable at the repeated use of “red men” to describe Indians generally, there was a really long quote from a book that used “r–skin” repeatedly (with no context or disclaimer given), and the book mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers capturing “the dangerous Apache chief Geronimo” (p.57). While I appreciated that the black community was fleshed out, I felt like we got an expanded settler perspective at the expense of perpetuating stereotypes about Indian savagery and Otherness. It could have done better and been more compassionate, I think.
BUT, as I said, I appreciated an expansion of my mental picture of “settler”. Lots of good stories of real life black folks, making it work and thriving on the prairie despite being segregated from most white folks.
Wounded Knee — Three Chapters!
I’ll give a few notes on each of the three chapters I read this week, and then I’ll comment on them as a whole.
Ch. 12 – “The War for the Black Hills”
As the title suggests, this chapter follows the struggle for the Black Hills, focusing around 1874-5. A previous treaty in 1868 granted the Oglala right of refusal over any whites who would seek to settle in the Black Hills. But when gold was discovered there in 1872, hundreds of white settlers forced their way in. Their presence was used as justification for why the Indians “needed” to sign a treaty granting the US ownership (or at least mining rights) of the Black Hills, because “we can’t stop the settlers from settling, so you’d better leave so that you can be safe.”
In an attempt to crack down on “hostile” Indians who would neither sign the treaty nor report to an agency in the dead of winter, General Custer (assisted by Shoshone and Crow scouts) attacked a large hunting group/settlement composed of Oglalas (including Crazy Horse), Brules, Sans Arcs, Blackfoot Sioux, Cheyennes, and Hunkpapas (including Sitting Bull). Brilliant tactician Crazy Horse and Gall, Sitting Bull’s lieutenant, led the defense as Custer and his troops attacked up the Bighorn River. When Gall and the Indian warriors realized that Custer and his men were totally surrounded, they closed in and killed them all. This event is known in history books as “Custer’s Last Stand”, or “the Battle at Little Bighorn”.
The sensational news of an “Indian massacre” spread like wildfire back east, and the US Government lost what little restraint it had. They couldn’t punish Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse or other “hostile” Indians, because they still roamed free, so they cracked down on Indians who were under their control; Indian residents of reservations became “prisoners of war” despite the fact that they had no connection to the battle. Additionally, the US drafted a treaty ceding the Black Hills to the government and “dropped strong hints” that they would “cut off all rations” (p.300) unless captive chiefs signed, so they did.
Roaming bands of soldiers killed off-reservation Indians they encountered out of revenge. Survivors fled to join either Crazy Horse and the Oglalas, or Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapas, who decided to flee to Canada. After constant flight that drove the people to starvation, Crazy Horse and his Oglala-and-friends group surrendered. Crazy Horse was bayoneted and died while resisting imprisonment, and the people were shipped south to a reservation far away from the one they were promised in their home country.
Ch. 13 – “The Flight of the Nez Perces”
This chapter began with a bit of history about the Nez Perces’ long-standing friendship with white settlers, beginning with Lewis and Clark (who gave them their name, which means “pierced noses” — even though the Nez Perces don’t practice nose-piercing). This friendship extended for 70 years, during which Nez Perces boasted that “no Nez Perce had ever killed a white man” (p.317).
White settlement and a subsequent treaty resulted in the loss of a large chunk of Nez Perce land, and whites attempted (over the objection of Chief Joseph) to establish a white-run school. However, the discovery of gold in the remainder Nez Perce territory pushed the situation to a boiling point. Men with dollar signs in their eyes spread reports in Washington, DC that the Nez Perces were “a threat to the peace,” and Chief Joseph was told that he and his people had a month to clear out of their remaining small valley to make room for white settlers. Chief Joseph urged his people to go peacefully — but several angry young men killed 11 whites in revenge. The people elected to flee to join Sitting Bull in Canada.
On their flight north, the Nez Perces evaded major conflict with multiple soldier groups who were patrolling the region. Finally, a group of soldiers caught and surrounded them within a few days’ walk of the Canadian border. To ensure the safe conduct of his people, Chief Joseph surrendered. Overnight a determined few Nez Perces slipped away and ran until they found Sitting Bull in Canada, but the majority of the people were shipped not to their promised reservation near their homeland but south, where hundreds died of malaria and heartbreak. Despite imprisonment, Chief Joseph remained an impassioned speaker on behalf of his people:
Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. … I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises. … You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. … I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
Let me be a free man — free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself — and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty. (p.330)
Despite his Declaration of Independence-like appeals, Chief Joseph lived out his life in exile, deemed too dangerous to be released to join the rest of his people, and died in 1904 of (according to the physician) “a broken heart”. (p.330)
Ch. 14 – “Cheyenne Exodus”
This chapter follows the Northern Cheyenne, and can be summed up pretty well by two statements from two N. Cheyenne chiefs:
All we ask is to be allowed to live, and live in peace. … We bowed to the will of the Great Father [President] and went south. There we found a Cheyenne cannot live. So we came home. Better it was, we thought, to die fighting than to perish of sickness. … You may kill me here; but you cannot make me go back. We will not go. The only way to get us there is to come in here with clubs and knock us on the head, and drag us out and take us down there dead. (Dull Knife, N. Cheyenne – p.332)
We have been south and suffered a great deal down there. Many have died of diseases which we have no name for. Our hearts looked and longed for this country where we were born. There are only a few of us left, and we only wanted a little ground, where we could live. We left our lodges standing, and ran away in the night. The troops followed us. I rode out and told the troops we did not want to fight; we only wanted to go north, and if they would let us alone we would kill no one. They only reply we got was a volley [of gunfire]. After that we had to fight our way, but we killed none who did not fire at us first. My brother, Dull Knife, took one-half of the band and surrendered near Fort Robinson. … They gave up their guns, and then the whites killed them all. (Little Wolf, N. Cheyenne – p.331)
After the surviving Northern Cheyennes were corralled, they were transferred to Fort Keogh, where many enlisted as Army scouts. Noted one Cheyenne scout, “For a long time we did not do much except to drill and work at getting out logs from of the timber. … I learned to drink whiskey at Fort Keogh.” (p.348)
A few thoughts…
In terms of the story arc of this book’s window of Indian history, I can tell that we’re approaching the climax/end. It’s clear that the conflict at Little Bighorn was a major turning point in US-Indian relations, resulting in the loss of any appearance of fairness or need for justification on behalf of the US Government. The Army increasingly flattened all Indian peoples into a savage stereotype crystallized by reports of the massacre at Little Bighorn. Out of necessity many tribes were forced to somewhat flatten and fuse into conglomerate multi-tribes — survivors banding together to grasp at any straw that might mean a peaceful home. But we see that the US is increasingly determined that no Indian will be able to have a free and peaceful existence. As I read through the twists and turns of the Nez Perce flight to Canada, the feeling of claustrophobia was palpable. There is no escape anymore.
And what awaits Indians once they are caught or surrender? Either death, if they resist at all (like Crazy Horse), or a sedentary life of enforced inactivity and boredom. I’m no longer surprised that the Native community on reservations has struggled with alcoholism, suicide, and depression. When you are consistently viewed as inhuman by your oppressors; when you get dogged attention when you’re an obstacle and no attention to the point of starvation when you comply; when your hard-fought submission to the powers that be is then turned back on you as an example of your own nuisance and worthlessness; when you are told that you can’t live peacefully on your land, can’t hunt, can’t farm, can’t have a gun, can’t have a horse, can’t visit anywhere else because you can’t leave the Rez, and most of all you can’t bother the Authorities even if you’re starving — but you CAN sit on the Rez and drink whiskey — well, when you’re that beaten-down and restricted, you’re really vulnerable and that’s not a very healthy place to be stuck in.
It’s just…. broken. And hopeless.
I cannot overstate the feeling of weightiness and long, incessant bludgeoning that I get from reading about all of this trauma and oppression — and I’ve only covered from 1860-1880 so far! I mean, yeah, I’m an empathetic reader, but honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could survive this amount of historical and cultural and PERSONAL trauma and still be able to get up in the morning. I feel inadequate and speechless to describe the chasm that I feel from the mere echo of the stories of these many First Nations and their people’s lives.
The Nez Perces and N. Cheyenne: Where are they now?
I decided to end with this so it would be a little less hopeless. Also, the Oglalas and Hunkpapas play a big role in later chapters, so we’ll save them for later.
After many deaths from malaria in the south, the Nez Perce people were allowed to return to the Lapwai Reservation, closer to their homeland in the northwest. Today the federally-recognized Nez Perce Nation still inhabits that area, which is located in present-day north-central Idaho and is home to 18,000 Nez Perce. Additionally, descendants of the “Chief Joseph group” of Nez Perce (kept in exile from the rest of their kin) today live on the Colville Reservation in present-day north-central Washington with 11 other tribes. You can read more about the Nez Perce here.
The Northern Cheyenne were eventually granted a piece of land on the Tongue River in present-day southeastern Montana for their reservation. Today that land is the modern Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, home to about half of the 10,000 enrolled tribal members. I also noted that the N. Cheyenne reservation encompasses part of Custer National Forest and is only 20 miles from the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn (aka “Battle of Greasy Grass”, to the Lakota). You can read more about the Northern Cheyenne here.
Tune in next week for By the Shores of Silver Lake (LH #5) and The Birchbark House (Birchbark #1). (And watch for a note about this new addition to my list…)