Refighting the Indian Wars

Did you hear about how Facebook censored a passage from the Declaration of Independence as “hate speech”?

The Vindicator, a small daily newspaper in Liberty, Texas, had been posting passages from the Declaration on its Facebook page in the days leading up to July 4th. The project went smoothly until it reached the part that accuses King George III of having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

The post containing that passage was automatically deleted and a message sent to The Vindicator saying it went “against our standards on hate speech,” along with a suggestion that the paper review its contents and remove anything that violates those standards.

Vindicator managing editor Casey Stinnett surmised that the phrase “Indian Savages” is what triggered Facebook’s filtering program, and he commented:

Perhaps had Thomas Jefferson written it as “Native Americans at a challenging stage of cultural development” that would have been better. Unfortunately, Jefferson, like most British colonists of his day, did not hold an entirely friendly view of Native Americans.

In telling his readers about the incident, Stinnett remarked, “This is frustrating, but your editor is a historian, and to enjoy the study of history a person must love irony. It is a very great irony that the words of Thomas Jefferson should now be censored in America.”

That’s more than ironic; it’s hilarious. Facebook, embarrassed by the GIGO results of its vaunted algorithms, quickly apologized for its “mistake” and restored the post.

But was it really a mistake? Aren’t we constantly being told, by our supposed betters, that the history of our country is one long, appalling saga of racism, sexism, and “white supremacy”? Nobody and nothing is held sacred in the face of that critique, not Christopher Columbus, not Thanksgiving, not even D-Day, for crying out loud. And speaking of war heroes, President Andrew Jackson is in the Social Justice Warriors’ sights, too, for having sent the Cherokee Nation down the infamous Trail of Tears. As for censorship, in almost every college and university in the country, well-paid commissars have made it their business to stamp out “hate speech.” Why should the Declaration of Independence be exempt?

Stinnett’s jest about how Jefferson’s prose would sound if put into politically correct terms is encouraging evidence that not everyone in American journalism has become like a Pod Person from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But Stinnett should take care lest he, too, doze off. “To be honest,” he says, “there is a good deal in that passage that could be thought hateful.”

I always thought that if anyone is treated hatefully in the Declaration, it’s poor old King George. The “Indian Savages” bit is only the last item in a 27-count indictment of the British monarch’s conduct toward his American colonies. However His Majesty’s actions may have appeared to people elsewhere in his realm, we Americans didn’t cut him much slack. The indictment concludes: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.”

That, of course, is neither here nor there. It’s obvious these days that hatred is denounced as such only when directed against a protected class of people. King George doesn’t fall into any such class. “Native Americans” do. (I put scare quotes around “Native Americans” because all who were born in America are native Americans. The formerly accepted term “American Indian” is perfectly clear and lacks any invidious connotation, so (in common with many “Native Americans”) I prefer it to the other. I myself was born in Syracuse, New York, which makes me a native American, though as far as I know I have no American Indian ancestry.)

By whatever term, let’s look at it. How bad was America’s treatment of her indigenous peoples? Was our “Manifest Destiny” the 19th-century equivalent of Nazi Germany’s “lebensraum”? Should our country’s history fill us with guilt and shame rather than patriotic pride? Such questions may never have occurred to you, but you can bet they’ve been impressed on your children. The young collegians at NYU, for example. “Multicultural” education is notorious for cultivating pride in every ethnic group in America except for the sons of those bad old pioneers, who stole the continent away from its rightful owners.

That viewpoint can be seen in the cinema as well as the classroom. Think of the 1970 comic anti-Western, “Little Big Man,” which portrayed pioneers as a pack of cowards, lunatics, sluts and fools; or 1990’s Oscar-winner “Dances With Wolves,” which was little more than “Little Big Man” without the laughs. Most Wild West revisionism is better balanced than either of those two examples (see the splendid series, “The Real West,” which used to run on The History Channel before that cable outlet decayed into The Dumb Reality Show Channel), but what tendentiousness does exist is often justified as a “corrective” to a supposed lack of balance in previous generations’ attitudes toward the Indian Wars.

That’s a poor excuse for peddling propaganda, not least because it’s untrue.

Actor Wes Studi, a Cherokee, appeared both in “Wolves” and in the much more nuanced (and much better) 1992 film, “The Last of the Mohicans.” In the latter, he portrays Magua, a malevolent Huron who’s out to kill the heroine and her sister as a means of avenging himself on their father (a British officer known to him as “gray hair”). “When the gray hair is dead,” he says, “Magua will eat his heart. Before he dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the gray hair will know his seed is wiped out forever.” Asked why he hates the gray hair so, he explains: ‘Magua’s village and lodges were burnt. Magua’s children were killed by the English. I was taken a slave by the Mohawks who fought for the gray hair. Magua’s wife believed he was dead and became the wife of another. The gray hair was the father of all that.”

In an interview, Studi’s “Mohicans” co-star Russell Means has called this the first time the movies ever let the “bad” Indian express a serious grievance against his enemies. But as anyone who has watched very many old-time Westerns knows, that’s just not so. In some films (1939’s “Stagecoach,” for example), the Indians are simply combat figures with no dialogue at all. But in dozens of others, from classics like “Fort Apache” (1948) to pot-boilers like “Walk the Proud Land” (1956), to a gut-wrenching revisionist take like “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972), the aggrieved Indian driven to violence by white men’s greed and arrogance is such a constant theme as to be a cliché. Even the baddest of “bad” Indians—the Comanche war chief in John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956)—gets to give his reason: The whites have killed his sons.

Let’s go back even further, while turning also from fiction to reality. Consider this statement, given to a 1774 Ohio peace conference via courier by the Mingo chief Tahgahjute, known to the whites as Captain John Logan:

I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan’s cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, “Logan is the friend of white men.” I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man, Colonel Cresap, who last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.

Historian Paul O’Neil says Logan’s Lament “electrified the peacemakers, was printed and reprinted by colonial newspapers, fascinated Thomas Jefferson and endured as a gem of popular oratory that generations of American schoolboys were forced to memorize and recite for solemn gatherings of their elders.”

Somehow it’s hard to imagine Hitler, had he lived, making generations of German schoolboys memorize and recite a Psalm of David, or even Shylock’s speech (“If we are wronged, shall we not revenge?”). Nor can one imagine the citizens of a victorious Third Reich bragging about having Jewish or Polish or Russian ancestry, the way any American who has even one drop of Indian blood in him brags about it today. So Americans at least can be acquitted of such colossal racism as the Nazis harbored. To the contrary, within decades of the end of the Indian Wars, the quintessential American was an Oklahoma cowboy—a Cherokee—named Will Rogers.

Considering how beloved the “cowboy philosopher” was, how are we to account for the intense hatred of Indians that undeniably did exist along the frontier just a generation before? To answer that, let’s look at a tribe whose bloody history may be at the opposite end of the scale from the much-wronged Cherokees.

The war between the Texans and the Comanches lasted from 1836 to 1875, longer than any other Indian War. And for decades before it even started, the Comanches had more than held their own against the first white invaders of Texas, the Spaniards. After massacring a Spanish mission on the San Saba River near present-day Menard, Texas, in 1758 and routing a Spanish punitive expedition near the Red River in 1759, the Comanches raided into Mexico at will, making the plundering of faraway settlements a key part of their horseback warrior culture.

They drove the Spanish frontier southward. Spain still claimed title to Texas, but in 1800 the traveler from San Antonio to Santa Fe went by way of Durango, 300 miles south of the present Mexican border. The Comanches, writes historian T.R. Fehrenbach, “had become the full aggressors and emerged as the complete victors. … Comanche chiefs boasted that they permitted the Spanish to live on the edges of Comanchería only so that they might raise horses for them.”  

What this meant for the people of northern Mexico was a long reign of terror. Spanish policy was to ransom captives taken by the hostiles, and it actually became a profitable business for the Comanches to kidnap people deep inside Mexico and barter them for horses, tobacco and other goods in Santa Fe. “The trading enraged most Spaniards,” Fehrenbach writes. “The Comanches, whom they regarded as savages, carried it out arrogantly and cruelly, sometimes abusing the captives in the hope of raising the Spanish price. Women were always returned raped, sometimes with child; even small children frequently bore the marks of careless torture.”

Late in the horse Indians’ heyday, a Mexican frontier official filed this report:

The Supreme Powers simply must understand that the Comanches, Lipan Apaches, Wichitas, and other small bands of savages have not only hindered the settlement of Texas … but for two centuries have laid waste to the villages and committed thousands of murders and other crimes. … These depredations have dressed whole families in black, and filled their eyes with tears. The Government must realize that with utterly baseless hope and with paralyzing fears, the cowardly governors and ecclesiastical councils have presided over enormous crimes, under the deliberate and infantile notion that some day these barbarians will be converted to the faith and reduced to their dominion. To this perverse view and policy, countless victims have been and are still being sacrificed.

It was to relieve such suffering, by creating a buffer population between the Plains Indians and the Mexican villages, that the Spanish and then the Mexican authorities opened Texas to Anglo settlement. (Because of the hostiles, the Texans found the Alamo an empty ruin instead of a thriving mission.) The Anglos quickly outnumbered Mexicans in Texas, but Mexico had made a poor bargain in admitting them, for they managed to avoid conflict with the Comanches for the entire period of their Mexican citizenship.

Once the Texan-Comanche War began, however, it was horrible in the extreme. As Fehrenbach points out, the Texas frontier “was not a frontier of traders, trappers and soldiers, as in most other states. It was a frontier of farming families, with women and small children, encroaching and colliding with a long-ranging, barbaric, war-making race. … Thousands of frontier families were to see the results of Comanche raids.”

For a time, the Texas line of settlement was actually being driven back, as the Spanish frontier had been previously. And as the Mexicans had long been doing, now it was the Texans “who practiced mercy killing on men who had been left staked out with eyes, tongues, and genitals cut or burned away, who found wives and daughters impaled on sharpened fence stakes, and who buried disemboweled or decapitated infants.”

If the settlers mounted a hot pursuit, the warbands would dispose of their female prisoners on the trail, “leaving the grisly relics behind to enrage the enemy.” The fate awaiting male prisoners was even worse. If unlucky enough to reach the Comanche camps alive, they would first be broken by the men and then subjected to prolonged torments by the women, who would apply fire and knives to their bodies in a process that could last for days.

That all-time classic Western “The Searchers” dramatizes—but never quite depicts—the nightmare of this kind of war. The reciprocal murder raids on Texas ranches and Comanche encampments are re-enacted in that film as in few others, but the butchered remains of massacre victims and the “grisly relics” of the pursuit are shown only through the stricken reactions of the characters beholding them.

The vengeful Texans eventually took the offensive, of course. In the end, the Comanches, no less than other tribes, were fighting not for profit but for survival. And like all the rest, they lost. Because of the Comanches’ great prowess and perseverance, however, Texans are proud today to have gone toe-to-toe with them. Some have called them the finest light cavalry in the world (although there is a lot of competition for that title). Particular pride is taken in Quanah Parker, the last Comanche war chief to surrender, who was the son of war chief Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia was a white girl captured in the 1836 raid on Parker’s Fort, the first recorded clash between Texans and Comanches. A town, a park, and an elementary school in Texas are named after her son. There also is a Texas town named after Nocona. In Oklahoma, two university residence halls, a state highway and a lake bear Parker’s name.

We shouldn’t deny the treachery and cruelty of those who fought the Indian Wars, any more than we should forget their courage and self-sacrifice. But history teaches that cruelty and courage were plentiful on both sides. The hero of “The Searchers” overcomes his hatred at last. Don’t let’s rekindle such hatred now in the guise of a slanted “multiculturalism.”

Not counting Elizabeth Warren, about 5 million American Indians are living in the United States today—quite possibly as many as ever lived here. And they now have more than 320 million neighbors, darn it all. America may never again be as beautiful and clean, as open and free as it was when white men first saw it. But each one of us should give thanks for the privilege of roaming its length and breadth today—and all the more so because of the blood that had to soak the ground to give us that privilege.

Photo credit: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.