REVIEWED: The Earth is Weeping

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The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. (History Book, 2016).

A veteran historian, Peter Cozzens has written or edited many books on the American Civil War and its aftermath. This particular book, a well-written and compelling overview of the roughly 25-year struggle (1865-1890) for control of the American West between the expansion-oriented United States and the ever-divided, ever-retreating Native tribes, attempts to be evenhanded–neither sides’ adherents are pictured as totally bad or totally good. Given the nature of the situation, Cozzens inevitably expresses his opinions regarding the various individuals and actions. Such value judgments are required for any meaningful analysis. But on the whole, he documents supporting information in a clear-headed and non-dogmatic fashion. He makes the valuable point that pretty much all concerned could by turns be wise and horribly misguided, humane and extremely cruel, well-meaning yet disastrously obtuse, and in some few cases just plain evil.

Along these lines, he corrects other longstanding popular misconceptions.

He notes (and demonstrates repeatedly) that rather than being their constant enemies, the officers of the regular military included many with an honest sympathy for the plight of the native people. In fact, many (if not most) felt the primary blame for the all-too-frequent violence lay with white settlers and clueless (and often untruthful) government officials.

And while those officials could be (and often were) either corrupt, inept or both, outright and literal genocide was never the overall policy. (One could make the point that CULTURAL genocide explicitly was, however–a point he makes abundantly clear while never using that specific term. Whether practiced by greedy land-grabbers or the more ‘liberal-minded’ who desperately wanted the Indians to survive, convincing (or forcing) the tribes to abandon their previous life-ways in favor of what whites thought of as more ‘civilized’ modes of behavior was indeed the goal.)

And he certainly doesn’t whitewash the ruthless acts of some soldiers–even ones like George Crook who were more usually counted among the relatively enlightened. Likewise, the times of world-weariness, petty anger, wishful thinking, out of control personal ambition or just plain wrong-headed  bumbling that even men like Generals Crook, Howard and Miles and Native stalwarts like Red Cloud, Cochise or Sitting Bull were subject to are explored.

Further, he makes clear how virtually all the tribes were bitterly divided between those who sought to accommodate the aggressive newcomers and those who sought to war against them. Often enough, the same leader might at different times be on opposite sides of this equation–Red Cloud in particular comes to mind.

It’s worth noting that Cozzens has earlier written a four-volume set of books, each of which detail activities in one of the main regions where this epic played out (the Northern Plain, the Southern Plains, the Pacific Northwest and that part of the desert Southwest modern historians now usually call Apacheria–the region dominated by the Apache tribes). Since the work I’m reviewing today attempts to cover it all in a single book, some of the details are undoubtedly sacrificed. This includes a few of the smaller incidents such as the mini-wars involving the Bannocks and Sheep-eater bands that are mentioned only in the back-of-the-book footnotes. And certain locally important individuals are only briefly  mentioned, if at all.

Part of the latter includes the author’s necessary judgment on what is or isn’t of prime importance. Readers of my reviews may recall that a couple months ago I wrote about a book focused on the Southwest by a different author (The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton). In that case, Hutton considered a character known as the Apache Kid of serious importance, yet in Cozzens’ book this conflicted ‘half-breed’ doesn’t make even a cameo appearance.

On the other hand, Cozzens demonstrates that even most of his fellow Apaches loathed Geronimo, and why this was so–a telling point Hutton leaves out entirely.

Such examples illustrate the different choices individual authors have to make in composing any book. What to leave in/what to leave out? Even in as thick (500-plus pages) a book at this one, choices need to be made. And they argue strongly that (perhaps especially in the realm of nonfiction writing) one should read multiple accounts on a given subject, to get a fuller understanding of all the hows, whys and wherefores.

Along those lines, I recommend The Earth is Weeping as one of the books for anyone interested in the American West in the 19th century.

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