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for people who care about the West

How the West was really won

 

Savages & Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory
Paul VanDevelder   
352 pages, hardcover: $26.
Yale University Press, 2009.

Paul VanDevelder, author of Coyote Warrior, digs deeper into the rotten core of the American experience in his new book, Savages & Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Louise Holding Eagle, a young farm wife, returned home from shopping in May 1951 to discover that her farm in the rich bottomlands of the Upper Missouri River was gone, flooded by a new reservoir. The Holding Eagles were one of hundreds of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara families whose lives were turned upside down by the Garrison Dam project. Primarily built to control the Big Muddy's often-deadly spring runoff, the dam was also sold to North Dakota farmers as a way to irrigate their desiccated farmlands.

But the dam spelled the end of the world for the tribes who had called the bottomlands home. And it never did deliver water to the parched Northern Great Plains.

The skullduggery involved in the dam's construction is just the springboard for VanDevelder's tale of how unscrupulous men imposed their own visions of Paradise upon the land's legal owners, the Indian tribes.

VanDevelder becomes a forensic historian of sorts as he traces the deadly course of the twin diseases of imperialism and colonialism, which nearly wiped out thriving Native civilizations. Of the 371 ratified treaties -- and the uncounted treaties that Congress never ratified -- VanDevelder examines one in particular: the Treaty of Fort Laramie, enacted in 1851. The treaty guaranteed the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara 12 million acres of land and settled the claims of 10 other tribes. But it slowly dissolved under the pressure of political expediency, until the final taking for the ill-fated Garrison Dam project.

A complete overhaul of the national story is long overdue, says VanDevelder. "The original and ‘official' American narrative that we're all familiar with -- the version presented in textbooks approved by Baptist-controlled school boards in Texas -- isn't going to stand simply because that so-called history is a perversion of what happened on this continent in the last four hundred years," VanDevelder notes in an e-mail.

Savages & Scoundrels illustrates how easily "scoundrels" can seduce a nation founded on the rights of all peoples, leading it to return to old habits of colonialism, environmental exploitation and imperialism. We are all still paying the price.