This was a remarkably depressing book. It is the sort of book that shows over and over again that there was literally nothing the Native Americans could have done to protect themselves from the all consuming and endlessly veracious greed of the European settlers. Just about every ‘tactic’ imaginable was used by the Native Americans – from treaties to war to abject capitulation – and nothing made any difference. The final result was always the same.
This is a tale of genocide. It is a tale in which some of the greatest American heroes – including Abraham Lincoln and General Custer, are shown as being responsible by their action or inaction for this genocide. This book has been much criticised, often on the basis of not being ‘balanced’, particularly in not acknowledging what else was going on in the country at the time that made certain actions of the government more or less inevitable. And, to be honest, I don’t know nearly enough about American history to give an informed opinion on that question, but what is virtually impossible to ignore is the effect of US government actions and inactions throughout this period and that effect was invariably the same – the genocide of the local indigenous populations. I struggle to see how this could be excused by other ‘pressing matters of state’.
The process was virtually always the same. The government would make a treaty with the local population guaranteeing land to them if they agreed to give up certain other lands. These treaties would then be broken by white settlers or miners. The government would do nothing to remove white settlers from Native American lands, despite their treaty obligations – but tell Indians to either move further west or south and to forsake their lands. There would be a conflict – generally involving atrocities almost too disgusting to restate by European settlers on the native populations – which would then force the native population to retaliate. This would then bring self-righteous slaughter on these ‘savages’. The Native Americans would be moved to land incapable of sustaining them, often with local diseases they had no immunity to, where they would be effectively starved to death by the government, a government which had promised to protect them and supply them with provisions. When it became clear that those directly responsible for them were (almost invariably) exploiting them, the government would effectively say, “Oh yes, we have given him a rather firm slap on the wrist and a very stern talking to. Sorry to hear about your children dying, but things should get better now.”
When this book was written these ‘wars’ were not a hundred years old. We probably like to think of these times as distant and regrettable – but they are terribly recent and their effects are ever-present. The last massacre of Australian Aboriginals, for example, occurred in 1928.
There were things that annoyed me about this book. One was the constant use of ‘in the moon when the deer loose their horns’ and other similar phrases, which really started to grate pretty quickly. The author is also much criticised for not quoting his sources – and this is unforgivable. However, that said, none of this leaves much room for celebration over how the Native American population was treated. This is a story of infinite shame.
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