More On the Civil War and Plains Indigenes Then and Now

Yesterday evening, while sitting around a campfire in northeastern North Dakota, I looked into A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom (The New Press, 2005) by David Williams, and this morning I am finally getting to Thomas Yellowtail, Native Spirit: The Sun Dance Way (World Wisdom, 2007). I’m primarily interested in different interpretations of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota culture, specifically how this might bear on the historical record (which is why I’ve been blogging on it here, here, here, and broadly on the topic of war here).

In Chapter 7 of A People’s History of the Civil War, Williams says that due to the advanced positioning of the North and South, “Federal forces used the war as an excuse to quicken the pace of killing Native Americans and driving the survivors from their homelands.” (Williams, 2005: 390) This is true, and Williams is upfront about it. An internal American war gripped the eastern 1/3 of the nation (a nation that was both trying to stay together, and expand by overtaking indigenous lands), and certainly the South and North looked at the various territories and newly fabricated states to the west as part and parcel to the overall wartime efforts. Meanwhile, and at the same time, Britain watched America from Canada, and France and Mexico were having it out south of the Rio — think Cinco de Mayo, or the Battle of Puebla, where the Mexican army routed French imperial forces. If Native America could be removed or restricted to reservations, the newly acquired lands could be put into intense farming production. Williams’s work follows the intellectual stream of Howard Zinn, who championed the monograph and who also sparked the intellectual drive. If contrasting the standard Civil War historiography with Native scholarship, though, one starts to understand in much greater detail what else was at stake.

The building of a Crow Sun Dance Lodge from the 1940s. (Yellowtail, 2007: xviii)

The building of a Crow Sun Dance Lodge from the 1940s. (Yellowtail, 2007: xviii)

The introduction of Thomas Yellowtail’s work was written by Joe Medicine Crow, then (in 2007, when the book was published) a 92-year-old Crow tribal historian. Medicine Crow says his grandparents “were pre-reservation Indians who lived before the reservation was set up. They would go camping, hunting, and the men went on the war path.” (Yellowtail, 2007: xi) In reading this, it is important to understand that these activities — camping, hunting, and the war path — mean something much different than they do to us today. They were the very substructure of Plains indigene culture, and to camp and hunt and go on the war path meant one was able to support what we would today call a household (Jonathan Lear goes on in great detail and at length in his excellent work that everyone should read, Radical Hope). Being told by an outsider (or a colonizer) that you need to change the way you do things and that everything you did up to this point is now meaningless are also things that continuously need to be understood. It’d be likened to spending the time and energy to train as a professional welder, and then being told by an outsider that your efforts were for nought. And now here is a new way we’re going to do things. So put away that senseless welding torch and abandon the culture your fore-fathers and -mothers spent generations cultivating. In 1884, this is what the United States ordered, as Medicine Crow says: “The ‘Secretary’s Order’ of 1884… prohibited the Indians from practicing all activities related to their culture, including singing, dancing, and all traditional ceremonials.”

I’m afraid I’m getting a little preachy here, but the idea behind this has universal implications. If one ethnic group is able to do this to another ethnic group, then this means it can happen at any time to any one of us. In looking at that, is that a problem that could continue echoing through time? Yes. Certainly this — 19th-century Manifest Destiny — is something we can understand as happening at a particular time and place, and we can try to distance ourselves from it and say, “Well, we need to understand the historical actors on their own terms.” Yes, this is true (I’m as big of a fan as R.G. Collingwood as the next) But we still need to understand that the terms from yesteryear reverberate throughout the reservation and non-reservation world today (on July 11, 2013, Byron Dorgan had a excellent piece on these implications in the New York Times).


2 responses to “More On the Civil War and Plains Indigenes Then and Now

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