Die with me

  • VIOLENCE OVER THE LAND: INDIANS AND EMPIRES IN THE EARLY AMERICAN WEST. Ned Blackhawk 372 pages, paperback: $17.95. Harvard University Press, 2008.

  • CRAZY HORSE:A LAKOTA LIFE. Kingsley M. Bray 510 pages, hardcover: $34.95. University of Oklahoma Press, 2006

  • GALL: LAKOTA WAR CHIEF. Robert W. Larson 302 pages, hardcover: $24.95. University of Oklahoma Press, 2007


"Indians must either fall in with the march of civilization and progress," wrote Major James McLaughlin, military director of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in 1889, "or be crushed by the passage of the multitude."

More than a century later, three writers uncomfortably assess that prediction, and find that Native Americans have indeed fallen into step with the settlers' violent march toward "progress." In Violence over the Land, Ned Blackhawk, a professor of history and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, explores the thesis that "violence and American nationhood progressed hand in hand" and that our historical narrative has "failed to gauge the violence that re-made much of the continent before U.S. expansion."

Blackhawk, whose book won three awards from historical and literary associations, joins the authors of Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life and Gall: Lakota War Chief in contending that violence remains the ethos of the United States, and that Americans - both indigenous and settlers - have long been steeped in the bloody tradition of war as the primary means of resolving territorial conflict. In these three books, as in the epics of Homer and Virgil, "civilization" advances its insistent course through battles too numerous to mention and "heroes" whose deeds consists of ever-mounting murder tolls.

"Come on! Die with me! It's a good day to die! Cowards to the rear!" called Crazy Horse to his comrades on the day Custer would die at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In both Crazy Horse and Gall, valor remains the preserve of men, calibrated in warrior's terms by observers and biographers alike.

Long before European settlement, Sioux warred with Crow, Dakota with Chippewa, and more than one Southwestern tribe regularly enslaved captives - not unlike the ancient Greeks, who inspired present-day democracy. The slave trade was a well-established business in what we now call New Mexico well before the Spaniards joined in the profiteering.

Of the three authors, only Blackhawk questions the role violence played in tribal conflicts. Biographers Kingsley Bray, a British researcher, and Robert Larson, a retired professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, betray a romantic admiration for their subjects.

Crazy Horse won multiple victories in wars against soldiers, especially the battles of Little Bighorn and Powder River, and Bray clearly esteems his subject's military prowess: "By the mid-1860s, the Crow war had seen Crazy Horse rise among his people to a revered status as an inspirational warrior. Courageous yet never foolhardy, he had completed the rehabilitation of his family name."

Crazy Horse was also a spiritual leader, but it is his warrior status that made him famous. His practice of bloody revenge is never called into question in this "Lakota life."

Gall - known as the "Fighting Cock of the Sioux" by U.S. troops - is unfamiliar to many. Although he fought at the Battle at Little Bighorn, along with his mentor, Sitting Bull, Gall was literally omitted from history: Fellow Sioux Kicking Bull deliberately left him out of the pictograph he made to commemorate the victory over Custer. The omission was meant to criticize Gall for his capitulation to white leadership, but his biographer considers him a pragmatist: "Gall apparently did believe that cooperation with the authorities at Standing Rock was the best way to advance the welfare of his people."

Gall joined Sitting Bull in the exodus to Canada, then returned to a North Dakota reservation where he converted to Christianity and took on the government-assigned role of farmer. In a grim harbinger of the future of many reservation Indians in the decades ahead, he died at 54 of complications from obesity.

Does Gall's absence from contemporary adulation of Native American leaders result from his acceptance of the reservation's inevitability? He does not go down fighting, like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Flattering chroniclers of these better-known warrior chiefs seem to unquestioningly equate valor and violence.

"Nothing happened," wrote one Spanish trader upon entering a Paiute village, recorded in Blackhawk's Violence over the Land, "for these Indians are gentle and cowardly." The Spaniards found these Paiutes ripe for enslaving, and did so. "Gentle and cowardly," a phrase which might describe the nearly absent women of these volumes, leads to a painful conclusion: Nonviolent people are easily conquered.

These histories can't help but seem ominous in a world brimming over with conflict. Similarities to tribal conflicts in Afghanistan and clashing religious sects in Iraq relentlessly present themselves as battle succeeds battle, vengeance begets vengeance, ad nauseum. Even today's suicide bombers are presaged in the 19th century. "A group of poorly armed young Lakota and Cheyenne warriors ... called the Suicide Boys" made a pact the night before Custer's Last Stand; all were left "dead or dying by the end of the fray," writes Larson.

Readers looking for a non-violent solution to present-day problems won't find any inspiration in these histories. Nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in "Young Goodman Brown," his parable about righteous Christian colonists committing various evils, including the killing of indigenous peoples, "Welcome, my children, to the communion of your race."

The author of Lily in the Desert: Stories, will publish a new story collection, And Darkness Was Under His Feet, this year.

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