19. August 2011 · Comments Off on Indians · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , ,

  A few weeks ago, my daughter drew my attention to this story in the UK Daily Mail, with considerable amusement; both for the breathless sense of excitement about the headline – about something that was very, very old news to students of Texas history – and the matchless idiocy reflected in some of the resulting comments – the kind of crystalline-pure idiocy that can only be achieved  from learned every darned thing they know about the aboriginal inhabitants of North America from having watched Dances With Wolves.  I’ve always given handsome credit to that bit of cinema as excellent and almost anthropologically detailed peep into the world of the Northern plains Sioux in the mid-1860s  . . .  did anyone else ever notice how all the tribes-folk are always doing something, while carrying on a conversation in the side? Almost without exception, they are working at something. Pay no attention to the plot, just watch the people, and realize that they are just one tribe, among all the native peoples.

Anyway, this bit of Brit excitement seems have been inspired by this book – which came out over a year ago, and is pretty fascinating on it’s own. But reading the story and the comments exasperated me yet again, reminding me of my own particular exasperations with the popular culture version of the American frontier. As far as movies and television go, pretty much the whole 19th century west of theMississippi is a big-one-size-one-location-just-post-Civil-War generic blur. And all the Indians in these generic Western adventures were also pretty much generic, too  . . .  which means that historical knowledge gleaned from TV and movie westerns is  – to be kind –  not to be relied upon.

 Because the tribes varied enormously as to culture and capabilities, as any anthropologist will tell you. I’m not one myself, but I have had to read pretty thoroughly in the course of writing about the American west – and that is one of the things that emerges almost at once; the various Tribes fell into a wide range of cultural and technological levels. This range went all the way from the hunting/gathering peoples, like the various divisions in California (who being in a temperate and generous land did very well) and in the deserts of the Great Basin (the Utes and Paiutes did rather less well) to the Cherokee of the southeast who farmed, traded, and swiftly adopted an alphabet for their language, and embraced printing presses and higher education. In between these two extremes were those tribal divisions who farmed, like the Mandan and others of the Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri River basin, and the sedentary tribes of the Southwest; the Hopi and Navaho – farmers, weavers, potters and basket-weavers  . . .  all of whom, at somewhat of a squint, were not all that remote, technology-wise, from the white settlers, although one thing they all did have in common was a lack of resistance to the diseases which Europeans brought with them.

And then there were the hunter/gatherer tribes of the high plains, those who were the first to take full advantage of the horse  . . .  the horse, which ironically, had been brought into North America by the Spanish. The various Sioux divisions, the Kiowa, and most especially the Comanche – became peerless horsemen, hunters and warriors. They took the plains as their own, hunting the vast herds of buffalo who made their home there – all the land between the mountains and forests to the north and west, the Mississippi on the east, and nearly as far as the Gulf Coast to the south. For nearly two hundred years, the horse-tribes of the plains took it all for theirs, and lived for the hunt  . . .  and for war.

No, war did not come with the white settlers – it had been there all along. The various tribes warred vigorously, frequently and with every evidence of keen enjoyment upon each other; for the rights to camp and hunt on certain tracts, for booty and slaves, for vengeance and sometimes just for the pure enjoyment. The Comanche warred with such brutal efficiency on the Apache, that the eastern Lipan Apache were nearly wiped out, and pushed along with the Tonkawa, into alliance with the new-come Texian settlers. But for about fifteen years, the Penateka Comanches held a peace treaty with Texas German settlers – as allies against other enemies – a peace treaty which held for a lot longer than anyone might have expected, which goes to show that reality is almost always stranger than fiction. From the mid-1830s on, the Comanche’s traditional enemies in Texas, Lipan and Tonkawa warriors served with the Texas Rangers on various battlefields against the Comanche. In the Northern plains, the Sioux likewise warred with the Crow – with the result that the Crows were very pleased to serve with the US Army in the west, as scouts, guides and fighters. During the Civil War itself, the Cherokee split into Union and Confederate factions. Indeed, one soon gains the impression from the accounts of early explorers encountering various tribes and peoples, that those peoples were most interested in enlisting the European and American explorers – with their strange new gunpowder technology – as allies against their traditional tribal enemy.

This all made a very much more complicated and nuanced picture. Individuals and tribal groups reacted in practically as many different ways that there were individuals and groups; the whole spectrum of adaptation, resistance, and acquiescence, or even in combination and in sequence. The stories are endlessly varied, with heroes and villains, triumph and heartbreak aplenty  . . .  on all sides.