Gone West

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Scott Bradfield explodes myths about Native Americans and looks at what really happened when the white man came.

THE WEST: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY By Geoffrey C Ward Weidenfeld Pounds 30

FROM THE HEART: VOICES OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN Edited by Lee Miller Pimlico Pounds 10

According to American mythology, the Indians were a noble race of warriors who ran half-naked in the woods, diced their victims into boiling soup cauldrons, and never established permanent governments or stable communities. Their crude language was punctuated by ugh-like grunts and primitive sign language; they "did" lots of organic hallucinogenics when they weren't making themselves incoherent with "fire-water"; and while they may have resented the loss of their vast territories to greedy European land-grabbers, they ultimately respected the "Great White Father in Washington," and wanted him to respect them, too.

In other words, American mythology often depicts Indians as a homogeneous nation of people just waiting to be conquered. They're too "natural" to form cities, too inebriated to talk sense, and so poorly versed in the laws of supply-side economics that they're willing to swap entire mountain ranges for a bagful of beads.

In reality, however, Native Americans were as various as the pioneers who usurped their lands. Some, like the Lakota and the Iroquois, were bloody imperialists in their own right. Others, like the Nez Perce, proved gracious hosts to early explorers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and enthusiastic devotees of Christian ideals and democratic principles. In fact, if most Native Americans shared any common trait at all, it was probably a too-great willingness to broker peace treaties with Washington.

While pioneers liked to think of North America as a Virgin Land, they could only do so by ignoring the people who already lived there, or eliminating them from the map. Some anthropologists argue that the war against Native Americans started long before most Indians even knew what a white man looked like. Many tribes, for example, were drastically transformed by the Spanish importation of horses in the 17th century; before too long, Plains tribes like the Kiowa had adapted their stable agrarian-based communities into nomadic hunters of buffalo. And when diseases such as smallpox and measles raced across the country as feverishly as wild stallions, entire nations of Indians (such as the Pueblos, the Blackfeet and the Nez Perce) were decimated long before any gunshots were fired.

As far back as pre-colonial times, the Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine reputedly warned his people of the bizarre "Earth Men" coming to take their lands. "Some day you will meet a people who are white," he prophesied. "Your ways will change. You will leave your religion for something new. You will lose respect for your leaders and start quarrelling with one another . . . You will take the Earth Men's ways and forget good things by which you have lived and in the end become worse than crazy."

"Worse than crazy" may have been putting it mildly. Once the pioneers really got going, they over-ran virtually every existing tribal land and culture. They broke up stable, self-sustaining Indian nations into fractious government-sponsored reservations, offered bounties on Indian scalps, and nearly hunted the buffalo (a primary food supply of the Kiowa and Cheyenne) out of existence. And when they weren't simply murdering or enslaving native populations, they were acculturating them to death.

In California, Father Juni-pero Serra and the Spanish missionaries, appalled by what they called the Indians' "free and undisciplined state", forcibly rounded them up into Christian communities, and made them work without pay towards their own redemption. Not surprisingly, most of these "red-eemed" Indians didn't live too long past their baptisms; during the Mission period, a native population of 72,000 Chumash, Gabrielenos and Salinans was soon reduced to fewer than 18,000. "They live free," one puzzled friar noted, "but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life I they fatten, sicken and die." It was as if Christianity didn't want to save the Indians for this world - only for the next.

Official Washington policy towards Indians was divided between the "liberal" and the "not-so-liberal". Liberals such as Jefferson wanted to send them west of the Mississippi and establish a "permanent Indian frontier". The less liberal, such as Andrew Jackson, wanted to shoot them like buffalo and collect bounties on their scalps. Eventually, the two opposing political parties came to a sort of compromise, and when Jackson became president he signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, one of the most devious euphemisms in American legislative history. As a result, Indians were sent west at the point of a gun.

When the Cherokee Nation - which had adapted to European culture better than almost any other native tribe by establishing its own schools, alphabet, newspaper, and even, alas, a form of plantation-slavery - lost its legal battle in 1838, the entire tribe was shipped west in cattle cars without proper food, water or ventilation. Within months a nation of 15,000 was reduced by almost half in what would be remembered as the infamous Trail of Tears. The key term in Andrew Jackson's legislation, of course, was "removal".

Jackson himself once said of the Indian people: "They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement I Established in the midst of another and superior race I they must necessarily yield I and ere long disappear." And wherever Indians proved unwilling to disappear on their own, Washington firmly helped them on their way. The government established "permanent" reservations, and then disestablished them whenever anything of value (oil, gold, silver) was discovered on the land. And whenever Washington politicians promised any tribe an annuity, Indians often starved before any such allowances were paid.

When Indians began to object - Black Kettle of the Cherokee, say, or Sitting Bull of the Lakota - their demands were summarily dismissed; when Indians revolted, they were summarily killed. After the Cheyenne refused to surrender their reservation to mining interests in 1875, Colonel John Chivington massacred their families at Sand Creek, leaving behind the scalped bodies of countless women and children. And after slaughtering still more Cheyenne at Washita River in 1868, General George Armstrong "Hard Ass" Custer publicly declared, "There are not Indians enough in the country to whip the Seventh Cavalry." The joke, of course, was on Hard Ass.

If Little Big Horn proved a victory for Native Americans, it was no more than a pyrrhic one. Within months of Custer's death, both Indian chiefs responsible for the massacre had been dealt with. After surrendering his 1,500 Oglala warriors, Crazy Horse was assassinated while still in military custody; and Sitting Bull quickly fled with his fellow Lakota to Canada.

When Sitting Bull finally surrendered in 1881, no American Indians lived freely on their own lands; and Sitting Bull was reduced to a walk-on role in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. (After six months of touring, he couldn't stand to see what Americans were doing to their cities, so he quit.) Sitting Bull was himself assassinated in 1890 by military officers during the last armed conflict between Indians and cavalry at Wounded Knee.The cavalry was armed; the Indians were not.

And by the 20th century, the only well-known Indians left running freely on the Plains were symbolic. Indians on cigarette packs, baseball uniforms,and chewing gum. All-benevolent, Tonto-like Indians riding bareback in serial Westerns, or wooden Indians in cigar-store windows, or infinitely-wise Indians spouting a lot of New Age nonsense in books by California gurus and trendy eco-philosophers. In many ways, Indians lost the symbolic battle of America even more decisively than they did the real one. As a result, they no longer determine who they once were or how they will be remembered. They rarely get the opportunity to tell their own side of the story without a lot of corny myths getting in the way. Books like From the heart, which preserves the actual voices and memories of Native Americans, as well as The West, a dense, heavily-illustrated companion to the soon-to-be-aired serial documentary, do a fine, absorbing job of redressing this narrative imbalance.

Today, in fact, the only "authentic" Indians around seem to be owned by international cartels. When the Connecticut Pequot Tribe decided to open a gambling casino on their reservation (which, like most such enclaves, turned out to be exempt from United States tax and gaming laws), they were bankrolled by international businesses. This slender tribe of fewer than 100 Pequots now provide figureheads for one of the fastest-growing businesses in America, and while the tribe turns many of its profits to the preservation of Native American history (the rain-making display at the Museum of Mankind is sponsored with gambling revenue collected by the Connecticut Pequots), the ultimate victor in all these corporate shenanigans is big business.

In 1833, a group of clergymen and social workers established Friends of the Indian, and stated among their policies that: "The Indian must be made to be intelligently selfish" and changed from "blankets and into trousers - and trousers with a pocket in them, and a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars."

Some like to think that today's Indians, sitting pretty on high-rolling non-taxable casinos throughout the United States, have finally gotten their pockets filled with money. Others, though, believe that money has filled its pockets with them.

Rain: Native American Peoples of the Desert South West is at the Museum of Mankind, London, to April 1997The West, an eight-part documentary, starts on BBC2 in January 1997.The West, a children's version of the accompanying book, is pub-lished by Little,Brown (Pounds 6.99).scott Bradfield is an associate professor of the University of Connecticut. His latest novel is Animal Planet (Picador).

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