Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Let Them Eat Grass

"The Heart of Everything That Is – The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, 2013

This sweeping novelistic history reads like a film, and should be one.  The 300 year war against the Indigenous people of the U.S. is a story that is still being told.  The book is the mostly unknown story of Red Cloud, who defeated the U.S. in 1868 after northern plains warfare lasting years.  He signed a treaty that made the government close the Bozeman Trail through Wyoming and Montana and abandon 3 forts along it – a first.  He was able to unite at different times the 7 ‘councils’ of the Lakota Nation and the Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Shoshone and Arapaho in a joint force, something almost unheard of.  Crazy Horse appears in the story as one of Red Cloud’s lead fighters.

It starts with the forced migration of the poor Sioux Nation from the forests of Minnesota to the plains around the Black Hills – “the heart of everything that is.”  Red Cloud’s early life, his rise in the tribe of Oglala Lakota and his subsequent successful campaign against the white invasion of native land are described in detail.  And his denouement – dying on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at 88. 

Drury/Clavin based much of this story on the recent re-discovery of Red Cloud’s ‘memoir’ – stories he told to a white friend at Pine Ridge that were transcribed every night.  In it are descriptions of Red Cloud’s escapades battling other tribes, stealing horses, enduring the ‘sun dance’ and finally becoming a ‘big belly’ tribal war leader.  These stories lead up to the epic 1866 battle around Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming – an early version of the defeat of Custer.  It was a face-off between General Carrington, ensconced in his newly built fort - and Red Cloud's confederation of tribes.  There the overly-aggressive Captain Fetterman led 87 soldiers to their doom, when he found himself surprised by a force of 2,000 warriors.  In that battle, Crazy Horse ultimately goaded the Federal troops into chasing him by ‘mooning’ them – at least according to Crazy Horse’s family stories. 

This book resonates for many reasons – not just the ‘colorful’ or riveting history you are reading.   After all, you are hoping Red Cloud wins.  In a way, the wars against the various native tribes on the north American continent were a template for the growing colonial and eventually imperial U.S. project – which has now put 1,000 forts all over the world.  This long guerrilla war presaged Vietnam – and Afghanistan.  It was predicated on ethnic cleansing and removal of peoples, which led to Indian on Indian fighting, much like the U.S. wars in the Middle East accelerated Sunni/Shia fighting.  The quote “let them eat grass’ came from a Minnesota trader when he was told the Indians were starving waiting for the late supply of ‘treaty’ food to arrive.  Our own western Marie Antionette.  He died at the hand of the Dakota, who stuffed grass in his mouth.  Native people were sub-humans – and, as carnivores know – making something sub-human means you can kill it more easily.  Genocide was the new plan, replacing an earlier vision of ostensible or propagandistic 'cooperation' between whites and natives.  Clueless generals abounded – nothing new about that – who thought fighting Red Cloud was like fighting in the Civil War.  The split between ‘fort’ Indians and ‘hostiles’ certainly describes Malcolm X’s description of the House Negro and the Field Negro, or the labor movement’s description of company brown noses and union men.  The destruction of the buffalo down to l00 animals destroyed the life source of these hunter/gatherer peoples – a rape of nature that is still familiar.  The white hunters, who got off trains, did not even eat the meat, but left it to rot on the prairie. 

Ultimately the war waged by the Federal government was all about protecting a 400 mile ‘short-cut’ to the Montana gold fields.  Later this became a fight for Black Hills gold, which led to the events on the Little Big Horn.  This route, northwest of the Oregon Trail, was called the Bozeman Trail.  Bozeman was a loudmouthed southerner who wanted to make money guiding wagon trains to Montana.  As the authors put it, the monetary system needed gold after the huge debts of the Civil War and later the financial panic of 1873.  ‘Manifest Destiny’ was being driven by the needs of early mercantile capitalism.

Drury/Clavin don’t prettify the native tribes. The Lakota were a patriarchal group.  The women and girls did most of the work but hunting and war.  While they worked around the teepees, the men and boys sat around and played games or talked.  The Sioux were pushed out of Minnesota by better armed Algonquin people – the Anishinabe/Chippewa - who had gotten guns from the white men.  The Lakota in turn moved west, and like the Texas Comanche, adopted the horse, and with horses, crushed other tribes.  Torture and vivisection of bodies was common in warfare, and almost no prisoners were taken.  They once ran into a small, hunted tribe in Nebraska that had been forced to move all the way from Ohio.  The Lakota never, however, got enough decent guns to be able to outgun the Federals, and used bows, hatchets and lances in these battles.  The Federals were armed with 6-shot Colts and 7-shot Spencer carbines.  Firepower was another reason why the Federals were able to ultimately win these wars.  And, as retailed in “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanches, alcohol, the Christian religion and disease all played a role in destroying the strength of the tribes in the northern plains.  

Drury/Clavin also detail the story behind McMurtry's book, "Lonesome Dove," touch on the distance between Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, and explain finally why Red Cloud became a 'reservation Indian.'

Native peoples in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and across Latin America are still fighting against the continuing onslaught of capitalism.  First Nations are in the front line against the tar sands, the XL Pipeline, fracking, environmental degradation and here in Minnesota, the renewed destruction of wolves.  Of note, one of the largest Native demonstrations against racism was held in the Twin Cities several weeks ago when the Washington “Redskins” came to town to play football.  While Red Cloud is buried at Pine Ridge in South Dakota, the struggle – perhaps not with bows and arrows anymore – goes on. 

Other books with Native themes reviewed below:  Empire of the Summer Moon,” "This Changes Everything" and “Indian Country Noir.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
November 19 2014

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