Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"Beatific urges toward peace"

Reading further into Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, I come to the description of the period right after the Civil War when, for several reasons including the cost of the war and Reconstruction, there was no will in Washington to send troops to protect the frontier against Comanche raids.

I am liking this book a lot!
.... There was something else, too, that contributed to this lack of will to stop Indian raiding on the western frontier. This was the particular and very strong belief shared by many people in the civilized East that the Indian wars were principally the fault of white men. The governing idea was that the Comanches and other troublesome tribes would live in peace if only they were treated properly, and the farther its devotees were from the bleeding frontier, the more devoutly they believed it. This was the old fight between the army, who knew better, and the "rosewater dreamers" in the Indian office, who called their uniformed adversaries "butchers, sots determined to exterminate the noble redmen, and foment wars so they had employment." As General John Pope later observed, the army found itself in a no-win position. "If successful, it is a massacre of Indians; if unsuccessful, it is worthlessness or imbecility, and these judgments confront the Army in every newspaper and in public speeches in Congress and elsewhere—judgments by men who are absolutely ignorant of the subject." Reports of Chivington's massacre and white atrocities in Minnesota seemed to prove what the army's. critics were saying.

The notion that the trouble with Plains Indians was entirely due to white men was spectacularly wrongheaded. The people who cherished it, many of whom were in the U.S. Congress, the Office of Indian Affairs, and other positions of power, had no historical understanding of the Comanche tribe, no idea that the tribe's very existence was based on war and had been for a long time. No one who knew anything about the century-long horror of Comanche attacks in northern Mexico or about their systematic demolition of the Apaches or the Utes or the Tonkawas could possibly have believed that the tribe was either peaceable or blameless. ....

Such beatific urges toward peace, combined with relentless and brutal raiding by Comanches in Texas and the Indian Territory led to the last and most comprehensive treaty ever signed by the Indians of the southern plains. The conference that spawned it took place in October 1867 at a campground where the Kiowas held medicine dances, about seventy-five miles southwest of the present site of Wichita, Kansas. The place was known as Medicine Lodge Creek. The participants were members of a U.S. peace commission and representatives of the Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache tribes. The conference was the last great gathering of free Indians in the American West. The event was magnificent, surreal, doomed, absurd, and bizarre, and surely one of the greatest displays of pure western pageantry ever seen. Nine newspapers sent correspondents to cover it.
Doomed, of course, because neither side had either the intention or the ability to enforce the subsequent treaty. The account seems to me to have a certain contemporary relevence.