Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book review - The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend

"The white man made me a lot of promises, and they only kept one. They promised to take my land, and they took it."  -- Red Cloud
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
 -- America the Beautiful
One element of US history that is often glossed over is the shameful treatment of  the native Americans by our government (and, by extension, us). We are taught that there was an inevitability that the young United States would expand its borders from one ocean to the other. And when we talk about this "manifest destiny" in those terms, the lives of those who were here long before us are rendered meaningless.

In The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin explore the life and times of the great Sioux warrior, Red Cloud. The book is a fascinating look at the history of the Sioux Nation and its war with the United States - the only war up until Vietnam that the US ended up on the losing side.

The Sioux roamed the Upper Plains long before anyone contemplated crossing the Atlantic Ocean. They moved across the plains following the buffalo but the Lakota branch always considered the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, to be home.

In the early 1850's the US government turned its eye on the Great Plains. Settlers had begun trekking west across the Rockies and toward California. The Mormons had begun their pilgrimage to Utah. But the paths they took ran right through the middle of Sioux country.

The Sioux were a vicious warrior society. When fighting the Sioux it was preferable to die in battle than to be taken alive. Prisoners were taken back to the Sioux camps and tortured and mutilated. The European notion that there was a code of ethics in war was a very foreign concept.

Another foreign concept was the notion of being an honest negotiator. The US government repeatedly lied to the native Americans in treaty after treaty. Each time the US would come with a treaty they would promise the native Americans that they weren't out to take all their land. The US would promise to make annual payments to the native Americans for the land they ceded. These treaties only lasted as long as Congress wanted to pay the bills.

Every time the government came back to the table they demanded more land and made more outlandish promises no one ever intended to keep. The native Americans kept seeing their lands shrink and the buffalo herds thinned. After the Civil War ended, Red Cloud had had enough. Unlike other leaders, he was able to unite the Sioux diaspora and declare war on the white man.

Red Cloud saw the writing on the wall and realized that if the Sioux didn't take a stand that it wouldn't be long before there was no place left from them to stand.

Red Cloud's ability to unite the various wings of the Sioux Nation was remarkable. Even more remarkable was his skill as a battlefield technician. Unlike prior warriors, Red Cloud understood tactics and used them to his advantage. His ability to do so led to the massacre of US soldiers at Fort Kearney. That battle, and its aftermath, led the United States to the realization that it needed to sue for peace.

Of course the US ended up winning in the end because the government had no intention to live up to its end of the bargain. As a result of US policies during the 1850's and 1860's, native Americans were shuffled off to reservations and left with no resources to provide education or health care to their people. The legacy of that policy can still be seen today on any Indian reservation across the country.

The US negotiated in bad faith. The US stole their lands and killed off the buffalo. The US herded them off to reservations. Some things never change. Yet somehow, we still view the cowboys as the good guys.

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