Brutal History

Conflict between whites and Native Americans didn't end at Wounded Knee.


The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War From Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee, by William M. Osborn, New York: Random House, 400 pages, $25.95

When then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt walked out on his interview for the John Stossel Goes to Washington ABC special last year, he joked that he would fire whoever set up that meeting about the Bureau of Indian Affairs' mismanagement of funds. Clearly, Babbitt did not wish to explain how the bureau misplaced billions of dollars of Amerindian money—or, for that matter, why the BIA exists at all, since the 1975 Indian Self-Determination Act formally terminated its reason to exist. Despite increasing calls for Amerindian sovereignty by the American Indian Movement and other groups, the Bureau of Indian Affairs celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2000 with an apology for past behavior, but no promises of new policy for the 21st century.

In the face of this impasse in U.S.-Amerindian relations, new investigations of the history between whites and American Indians are needed. Not only would such explorations help readers understand how the current situation came to pass, but better history also could inform better policy in the future. If, for example, historians properly distinguished among native nations rather than treating "Indians" as a monolithic entity, then perhaps policymakers would also come to respect the divergent political, economic, and social cultures of different indigenous peoples.

In The Wild Frontier, retired attorney William M. Osborn attempts to chronicle one of the most emotional aspects of that history. His subject is the atrocities committed during "our longest and cruelest war"—the hostilities between white settlers and Amerindian natives—from the establishment of Virginia in 1622 to the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Osborn's effort is noteworthy for several reasons. First, he rightly takes issue with recent stereotypes of Amerindians as tranquil, New Age, uber-environmentalist sages. His concern about ethnic stereotypes is justified because two-dimensional interpretations motivated by prejudice for or against historical actors unjustly ignore the complexity of the individuals, their decisions, their particular cultures, and their times. Old, racist caricatures and New Age adoration both tell the readers far more about the historians' era than about the era supposedly being studied.

In addition, Osborn chooses to look at atrocities from all sides, including not only settler-Amerindian and Amerindian-settler violence, but also war waged within the ranks of both sides, such as Amerindian vs. Amerindian warfare. This breadth of view brings some necessary complexity to the traditional "cowboys and Indians" vision of conflict provided by countless Hollywood westerns. Most important, Osborn asks where the United States should go from here in terms of relations with Amerindian nations, avoiding the common trap of historicizing the Amerindian question and ignoring the fact that it still exists.

Unfortunately, Osborn's enthusiasm and good intentions do not compensate for his lack of professionalism and information; The Wild Frontier fails as either a serious work of history or a call for new policy. Osborn's volume suffers from a number of pervasive ailments that color the author's understanding of the period and its issues.

In place of the two-dimensional stereotype of the Romantic Indian, for example, he substitutes an even older and more offensive caricature: the American Indian as warmonger. His irresponsible assertion that "a principal common characteristic of Indians" was the "love of warfare" is compounded by his practice of lumping all natives of North America together, regardless of language, lifestyle, or region. The anecdote of one settler who "lived among the Indians," according to Osborn's methodology, is thus applicable to all Amerindians for centuries (an error akin to assuming that the culture of the Irish was and is the culture of the Italians, since both groups are located in Europe). He makes a comparable error in the opposite direction by labeling all whites as settlers, conflating private citizens and career soldiers, personal behavior and national policy.

Osborn shows a similar lack of rigor with his use of sources. He criticizes historians—often with just cause—for ideological bias, but then proceeds to use their work uncritically throughout the rest of his analysis. He gives equal and unskeptical weight to cutting-edge work by scholars such as Alvin Josephy and outdated historiography (e.g., he uses a Western civilization textbook from 1942 and a general U.S. history text from 1959—both products of earlier secondary sources—to explain settlers' early views of natives and the frontier). That, along with his confusion of primary sources and secondary reference works, makes his lack of training in historical investigation painfully obvious. The statistics on the dead, the main contribution of this volume, are not based on original research, and therefore offer little new to the subject save the efficiency of one-stop shopping. Moreover, Osborn's choice of dates, 1622 to 1890—from Jamestown to Wounded Knee—seems arbitrary. According to his own recognition of quasi-wars, undeclared hostilities, and covert bloodshed, the "American-Indian War" he claims ended in the late 19th century could easily be said to continue to this day.

Most disturbing in The Wild Frontier is a lack of any analytical context for the gruesome and detailed body count Osborn provides. And he does provide a body count: In fact, in appendices titled "Deaths Caused by Specific Indian Atrocities" and "Deaths Caused by Specific Settler Atrocities," readers are invited to count the corpses using a handy chart. If the sole intent of the volume is to prove that U.S.-Amerindian relations have been deadly and cruel, then the book succeeds. But Osborn owes the reader more analysis of his laundry list of atrocities, or he threatens to become a voyeur of the most troubling kind. Page after page of descriptions eventually leaves the reader numb. How many times can one process the fact that "they were flayed alive, their limbs hacked and pulled off, brains of children were dashed out, women run through with stakes, and some women's breasts hacked away"? In a sense, The Wild Frontier is a list of bloody anecdotes in search of a thesis.

For an author drawn to history's gore, Osborn turns a surprisingly blind eye to recent examples of violence between whites and natives. Osborn's conclusion that the conflict between "natives and settlers" is a thing of the past, that "no atrocities have been committed by present-day whites against present-day Indians and vice versa," is an assumption sadly in contradiction of the facts. Those sad facts include the infamous and deadly 1975 shootout between the FBI and members of the American Indian Movement at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota (which led to the ongoing and still-controversial incarceration of American Indian Leonard Peltier), as well as smaller, more recent uses of force in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Seminole Nation, and elsewhere.

Osborn does address one current situation of particular interest in U.S.-Amerindian relations, that of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws (perhaps best documented in Peter J. Ferrara's 1998 work, The Choctaw Revolution: Lessons for Federal Indian Policy). By negotiating what is in effect a separate peace with the U.S. government, the Choctaws recently privatized almost all of the services once performed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and gained new financial freedom in the process. Under the direction of Chief Phillip Martin, the Choctaws have become an entrepreneurial powerhouse, opening a greeting card plant, numerous factories, a television station, a casino, and a hotel, to name just a few of the successful enterprises. Choctaw companies are now the leading employer of local whites and blacks as well as Choctaws.

But rather than using this success story as an example of the benefits of economic and political freedom—not to mention a call for increased Amerindian autonomy—Osborn wields the Choctaw experience as a bludgeon against other native nations who have not been equally competitive. How, he wonders, can American Indians fail to exploit their "more than adequate room for economic activity" when, "although they constitute less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, Indians own nearly 5 percent of the United States"?

Osborn fails to mention that other American Indian nations have not been able to free themselves of the control of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which not only determines how and when those lands can be used, but also restricts any competition against the welfare services it provides to its effectively captive audience. He notes in passing the mismanagement of Amerindian funds committed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; he neglects, however, to add that over the past century, and especially over the past three decades, a number of Amerindian leaders have called for an end to the bureau, and increased opportunities for privatization, with little success.

Thanks to the financial bumbling of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the relationship between the United States and native nations remains a pressing issue. Less known, but perhaps even more compelling, is the uninterrupted story of violence, coercion, and force in U.S.-American Indian affairs, on both sides. An honest account of the so-called American-Indian War would interrogate the power struggles behind the mechanisms of government and continue this investigation through the present day.

Perhaps some persistent investigator will even get to complete an interview with Bruce Babbitt before the final word on the issue is written.