I’ve just finished another book in the Time Life series on the Old West. I found them at an estate sale and bought three of them as I remembered them from the ’80s. I wish I would have bought the entire set because these books are fantastic.
I am fascinated when I think of the Native Americans both North and South before the white man arrived. I think to the very beginnings when nomads would have crossed the Bearing Strait and how many millennia it would have taken for humans to spread all over the American continent. An empty land with nothing but forests, streams and animals. This is what I think of when I contemplate the garden of Eden. A land never touched by human hands, coming out of nothing into existence, pure in every way.
Then I think of the countless generations as those first humans became distinct tribes with distinct evolutionary features and unique languages. Birth, life, death over and over again as the sun streaks across the sky in endless procession. I imagine myself as a god where time means nothing as I watch the different tribes transform over hundreds of thousands of years becoming something different from what they were, continuously evolving. I think of the infinite arrowheads of hundreds of thousands of years all beneath our feet. Relics of tribes long since vanished or like family heirlooms but unknown and buried in the dirt forgotten. The rightful owners of these tools now reside on reservations their ancestors were forced into or have mixed in with the invaders. Their lineage stretches back 20,000 years on this continent yet without written records historical records are sparse.
When current people think of the Native Americans they often think of horses. What is not generally understood is there were no horses in America before the Spanish arrived in 1493 after which they quickly flourished. Therefore, in the white man’s imagination Indians and horses go together, but it wasn’t so. To put it another way, horses have been in America for about 600 years, and for the other 19,400 years since humans arrives in America, there were no horses.
So for approximately 19,400 years Native Americans had to walk or run. Bands of humans would never know about other humans perhaps over a few hundred or thousand miles from where they were born. You’d have your tribe, some tribes far away but reachable and then the great unknown. Then I think our situation in modern times isn’t so different. The typical American lives on average only 18 miles from their mother. Only 42% have passports. And commercial flights only became popular 70 years ago. Therefore, the Native American had his tribe and you know what? So do we.
Just like the Native American who raided different tribes for spoils or joined with others in alliances, so do we. We are all still tribal but more-so on a global scale than of a small amount of land. War-making and alliances have grown from small tribes to great nations. The world is now more complex but human behavior is the same, just on a greater scale.
I try to get into the mindset of both the white settler as well as the native, both of which are impossible. I’ll never know what it is like to live so close to nature such as the Native did. I’ll never understand the desire to raid and kill those from another tribe nor the constant fear of my tribe being attacked in turn. I live primarily within four walls shut by a door with lock and key in a climate controlled environment. I am surrounded by security cameras and in constant contact with others through my cellular device. I am cut off from nature and only know her like a distant relative who I see from time to time when I go to the ocean, for a hike or watch a sunset. To live with nature such as the Native American would kill me. The hot summer sun would burn my skin and I wouldn’t last a week during a cold winter.
For the white settler I cannot imagine leaving my European village never to see it again. Necessity and the hope for a better life would have forced the decision for the great unknown called America. I cannot imagine getting in a wagon, setting off across the plains with the constant fear of Indian raid. I know nothing of them other than they are different than me and to be feared. I do not feel like an invader, just someone who wants to partake of an opportunity to improve my lot.
I feel that one of the greatest problems with humanity is simply the inability to understand and relate to the other tribes, or nationalities as we call them now. If we all spoke the same language, and had easy access to live and work all over the world then I think we would be much closer to world peace. Remove human greed from the equation and we’d probably achieve that peace.
Below in italic are the parts I’ve highlighted in the book along with my thoughts on each one.
Collecting supplies on the way south, he attacked the ranch of a man named Phillips, killed him, his wife and an infant. He also hanged their five-year-old daughter on a meat hook. She was still alive when a posse arrived from Silver City, but died a few hours later – Done by Geronimo.
I cannot comprehend the horror of the violence during this period. If I were to witness the scene above I think it would cause so my psychological damage that I might go mad. Below, there are also excerpts of the US Army bashing in the skulls of Indian women, children and infants. As I sit here now contemplating this I would much rather put a bullet in my own head than do any violence to women or children. Human beings are nothing more than monkeys in clothing and given atrocities like this, we may be even below monkeys.
No less a personage than the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered Quanah to choose one wife and to tell the others to go away. Quanah put an end to the subject with a shrewd retort: “You tell them.”
This is an excellent response. It made me laugh.
The Comanche religion, based on winning the aid of spirits hidden in nature, was just right for Quanah – simple, undemanding and highly personal.
I like this idea. Reading the daily stream of information from my phone I believe science is starting to realize consciousness is all around us although in many different forms. Everything, the rocks, the water, the plants, animals, is all part of something, all has some sort of consciousness and that hitherto we just described as ‘God.’ There are similarities between this Indian religion and those of Shinto in Japan. The spirits are all around us and ‘in’ everything.
On one occasion, attempting to explain the peyote ceremony in terms a white listener could understand, he stated: “The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus; the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.
This is fantastic. I’ve never been on a trip where I could talk to the spirits around us, Jesus an animal or anything else. I do not discount the ability as I’ve learned enough to realize I do not know much at all.
Each tribe regarded itself as autonomous, its customs superior, its members unique. Even the names they chose reflected their sense of singularity: The Cheyennes called themselves Dzi-tsi-istas, meaning “our people”; the Apaches were Tinde, or “the people” ; the Kiowas were Ka-i-gwu, “principal people.
Because warfare among these proud nations was a way of life, the only hope of survival for the smaller tribes was to forge alliances with stronger forces. When the white men came, it was quickly apparent that they would make the most powerful allies of all.
For the past couple of decades there has been a trend to romanticize the Indian way of life. Now I wish the white man had never come to America and the Natives could have developed on their own. In that alternate reality I wonder what the USA would look like? Would there have been “progress” as Western people know it or would life just continue on as it had for millennia? I imagine it is by interacting with different groups through trade of both goods and ideas that really ignites change and progress. So even if the white man didn’t invade, perhaps exposure with other cultures would still be necessary to deviate from the traditional ways of living. Anyway, a genocide happened and America still cannot come to terms with it. But for the past couple of decades this romanticizing of the Indian way of life ignored the reality. From these history books it shows that Indians were just as cruel and violent as a European. Indians had their raids, and Europeans had their wars. Neither more ‘just’ or ‘honorable’ than the other, just different reasons.
“When a favor is show a white man, he feels it in his head and his tongue speaks. When a kindness is shown to an Indian, he feels it in his heart, and the heart has no tongue. I have spoken.” – Washakie, Shoshoni Chief.
“As a young man I delignted in war,” he recalled. “When my tribe was at peace, I would wander off sometimes alone in search of an enemy. I am ashamed to speak of these years, for I killed a great many Indians.” – Washakie
Another example of Indian violence. The white man will use examples like these to highlight the Indian as a savage. What the ‘white man’ fails to see is he is also just as savage when it comes to other “tribes.” Although the reasons, timing, and structure may be different which outcomes have been worse in terms of death? Would it be the random Indian raid on other tribes or the white man with his devastating mechanization of killing machines and nuclear bombs on other nations? Who in the end I ask, has killed more overall?
“Three hundred of their warriors came up in good order and at full gallop into the midst of our camp. They were hideously painted, armed with war clubs and covered all over with feathers, pearls, wolves’ tails, teeth and claws of animals, outlandish adornments with which each one had decked himself out according to his fancy.
“Those who had wounds received in war, and those who had killed the enemies of their tribe, displayed their scars ostentatiously and waved the scalps they had taken on the ends of poles, after the manner of standards.
A hideous display indeed! Kind of like a woman with eleven different types of makeup on her face, jewelry, a fur coat around her shoulders, perhaps a nose job and a few silicone injections, all while wearing high heals whose original design were meant to steady ones self while shooting an arrow on horseback. The woman’s makeup is meant to make her more attractive, the Indian’s paint and decoration is meant to intimidate their enemies. Both are altering the body in a way to produce a desired outcome so aren’t they inherently the same?
Once, during a raging snow storm, several wagon freighters stumbled into the chief’s camp for shelter. One man, whose feet were severely frostbitten, was unable to walk and his friends begged Washakie’s advice and aid in treating him. The chief absented himself for a few minutes and came back with one of his own wives. After carefully cutting off the teamster’s boots, he told him to place his feet against the bared breasts of the woman and remain for hours in that position. Buy the next day the teamster could walk again. History does not reveal what the woman thought of this therapy.
I imagine the woman wasn’t very pleased. Wouldn’t placing frozen feed on the body of a man produce the same result?
Pushican, scarred as he was, fared better than a hapless warrior named Six Feathers, who was in the habit of beating his wife cruelly and often. An Army officer whose name and interest in the matter are not on record remonstrated with Washakie for permitting such uncivilized behavior. Washakie replied that sometimes wives must be beaten to make them obey. But such unmerciful beating, the officer persisted, showed that the chief did not have his people under sufficient control. Stung by this disparagement of his authority – and also ready to accept the white man’s judgement that wife-beating was wrong – Washakie promptly went to Six Feathers and ordered him to stop. Two days afterward he caught Six Feathers doing it again, whereupon he shot and killed him on th espot. He, Washakie, was judge, jury and executioner, and few of his people disobeyed him more than once.
The Nez Percés – so called by the French-Canadian trappers for their pierced noses, through which they wore ornaments of shell – had made their first contact with whites in 1805, when the explorers Lewis and Clark stopped by on their way west.
Men too old or dazed to flee were shot where they stood. Women were shot down; one of Joseph’s wives was seriously wounded. Joseph himself was seen racing by, carrying his infant daughter to safety – and none too soon. The skulls of other babies were crushed by soldiers’ boots or file butts.
There is no limit to human cruelty. The seed of an absolute monster resides in every human being, ready to grow with the right nourishment.
Gibbon himself later wrote: “Few of us will soon forget the wail of mingled grief, rage and horror which came from the camp 400 or 500 yards below us when the Indians returned to it and recognized their slaughtered warriors, women and children.”
An example of incredible cruelty and violence, this time from the white man. How many times were scenes like this repeated during the Indian genocide? Again, there is no limit to human cruelty, we all have the potential to become absolute monsters.
“It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”– Chief Joseph of the Nez Percés
For instance,Crazy Horse of the Oglala band was considered a fighting man without peer. But Sitting Bull was something more, something extraordinary. He was said to be a familiar of the spirit world, which spoke to him in dreams or through animals. A member of his own band said, with start simplicity, that Sitting Bull was “big medicine.”
Returns-Again was a mystic, as his son would be. On occasion he could communicate with animals. It was a gift of particular significance when it involved the revered buffalos, considered by the Sioux to be spiritual beings as well as the principal source of food, clothing and most things useful to man. One night, while on a hunt, Returns-Again and three warriors were squatting over a campfire when they heard strange sounds – a muttering vaguely like speech. As the noise came nearer they saw that it emanated from a lone buffalo bull which had approached their fire. After brief puzzlement, Returns-Again understood that the bull was repeating, in a snuffling sort of litany, four names: Sitting Bull, Jumping Bull, Bull Standing with Cow and Lone Bull. As the only man present who grasped the message of the beast-god, he concluded that he was being offered a choice of new names to take for himself or give to others; he promptly adopted the first, Sitting Bull.
Young Sitting Bull was not handsome, but women liked him, finding him courteous and gentle. He would marry nine times. Paradoxically, one of the first human beings he killed was a woman; but he took her life as an act of mercy. She was a Crow, a captive taken in a raid. Ordinarily she might have been adopted into the band, but the women of the camp came to the conclusion that she was a whore. Puritanical about sexual matters, they lashed her to a pine tree, heaped brush around her and set it afire. But before the flames reached her, Sitting Bull, then only 17, fitted an arrow to his bowstring and killed her.
Another example of the primitiveness of humans. When I think for a counter example from the ‘white man,” I think of the Puritans and their burning of accused witches. Again, I cannot understand how one human would think it is OK to burn another to death. But then again in my own time I cannot understand why we think it OK to bomb other countries because their ideology is different from ours. The reasons as well as methods change but the outcome is still the same. Human beings are still inherently primitive creatures.
After reading this book I have a greater understanding of what those times were like. It was the gradual expanse/invasion of the white man and the last days of the Indian roaming free in that great unknown of the American west. The only caveat is the book was written by the ‘white man’ although it seems to me they have tried to be impartial. To really understand the past one must read the various points of view. For me, I do receive publications directly from tribes, especially the Oglala as I donate to various Indian causes. I read their viewpoints with extra attention in order to better understand the truth. Unfortunately history books in school are completely sanitized, striving to remove anything that paints the majority in a bad light.
Take the Civil War for example, one wouldn’t want to overly offend half of the country and so a lot of the horrendous events are explained in a way that does not show the true horror. Even descriptive writing wouldn’t do the past events lots of justice. A history book would simply say “lynchings of African Americans” were common among the South. Now imagine seeing it in person. Anyone should be incredibly horrified. However, I do have to hesitate because given the rise of Trump and the rise of all the hate driven by the Right I think it is perfectly plausible there could be a time in the future when Republicans think it perfectly justified to kill Democrats. That seed just needs the right nourishment and the Republicans have been doing their best to feed it. But returning to the point, if you want to understand the past, you must read different points of view.
Therefore, my current thoughts about this subject is that it follows the story of humanity perfectly. We are all tribal and the tribe with the better weapons determines the course of the future. People move chasing better opportunities and the mixing with other tribes more often than not seems to be a messy affair. Humanity bumbles along and the mixing of tribes continues in one way or another. When trying to make sense of it all people want a black and white answer, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? When it comes to the American West the Natives were there, free to make war, free to make peace, free to live life as their ancestors had done for thousands of years and hopefully not die too soon by another tribe expressing the same freedoms.
The white man came looking for opportunities to improve his own life. There were other beings occupying that which he desired and through superior weapons the white man removed the Indian. It followed the same flow as one Indian tribe plundering and killing another Indian tribe because there were things they desired and the other tribe was in the way.
This flow continues to our modern times although we like to think we’re “civilized” now. It is the same just on a bigger scale. The more powerful nation makes the rules and the rules are made in accordance with that nation’s interests. The plundering and killing continue although instead of before our very eyes it is half a world away and the flow of treasure is mostly hidden.
I read this book and marvel at the primitiveness of it all only to realize it is a mirror, although we all now wear slightly better clothing.