Thursday, May 21, 2020

Book 234: The Heart of Everything That Is

"The more circumspect Red Cloud also recognized that the white man’s war had finally arrived on his doorstep, first from the east following the troubles in Minnesota, and now from the south. There was nowhere to run. Nor, he reasoned, should his people have to run. It was time, once and for all, to fight the mighty United States and expel the Americans from the High Plains. He had long planned how to do this. The only question had been when. Sand Creek had answered that: Now." 

Dates read: May 16-21, 2018

Rating: 6/10

At some point, it seems, most American kids end up playing "cowboys and Indians" (I know, I know, problematic). And at least when I was growing up, it seemed like you got more takers for the former than the latter. Everyone knew the Indians were going to lose. That's how history worked, after all. It's not just in the United States. The history of the world is rife with examples of indigenous people being treated like garbage by dominant cultures: the Maori in Australia, the Ainu in Japan, the Sami in's a sadly familiar story.

As hard as the Native Americans fought to retain their land against white settlers, their military victories were few and far between. Most of us have at least vaguely heard of Custer's Last Stand, but before that, a battle in Wyoming called Fetterman's Fight led to the deaths of 81 soldiers of the US Army and the (temporary) withdrawal of troops from Indian territory. Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's The Heart of Everything That Is takes a deep dive the battle, from its roots in the inter-tribal warfare among the Plains Indians to the rise of Red Cloud as a leader among the Lakota to his (ultimately short-lived) martial triumph. It has significant biographical detail about Red Cloud, but it's not trying to be a comprehensive look at him in particular. Rather, it uses Fetterman's Fight as a microcosm of the greater struggle of the Plains and Western tribes against the changes to their lifestyles wrought by white Americans driving further and further west.

Drury and Clavin strive to present a straightforward, unvarnished look at their subjects and push back against the idea that before protracted contact with whites, Native Americans lived as idyllic pacifists. Tribes had allies and enemies and some of them were very comfortable inflicting brutal violence against the latter. Red Cloud was brought up among his mother's people, the Oglala Lakota, one of the more aggressive branches of the greater Lakota nation, and was groomed for leadership by his mother's uncle. As he grew up, his people were pushed farther and farther from their traditional territory and he fought against enemy tribes in his youth, gaining renown, before turning his attention to the threats posed by the continually promise-breaking whites.

After a series of skirmishes, things came to a head at Fort Phil Kearney. It was a perfect storm: angry at yet another incursion into their land, the Lakota were able to ally with other tribes. The leadership at the fort was both arrogant and foolhardy. Red Cloud was a smarter tactician than his opponents. And the United States was forced to retreat, to abandon its forts. But it lasted less than a decade. The book covers the immediate aftermath of the battle, but only touches on the long run: Red Cloud, taking a trip to Washington, DC, realized the scale of the threat to his people and the ultimate hopelessness of continuing the fight, and led those that would follow him onto the reservation.

Pretty much any book about Native American history is inevitably compared to Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee simply because of that book's prominence. And I'd say this book is an excellent companion. It doesn't have, and honestly doesn't try for, the scope of Bury of My Heart, which covers more tribes over a longer time period. Instead, it takes a little known episode (I'd never heard of the Fetterman Fight) and explains it, placing its people and events into a larger context. And the book succeeds at this task, developing not only Red Cloud and to a lesser extent, his young protege Crazy Horse, as compelling and sympathetic characters, but also presenting the life of the Army fort, populated not just with soldiers but with families. No one is a cardboard cutout villain.

That being said, this book does occasionally get a little dry. I know some people are fascinated with military history and can happily read about tactics and battles for hours, but I am not one of those people. I find it deeply boring to read about attack techniques, and so I did experience waning interest when I think I was supposed to be the most engaged, during the climactic battle itself. I also found myself wanting more of the aftermath, more of Red Cloud's long life after this particular point. Overall, though, it's an interesting look at a part of history that's not well-understood by most potential readers, and I'd definitely recommend it as a way of broadening one's knowledge base about the formation of the United States as we know it today.

One year ago, I was reading: Midnight's Children (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Landline

Three years ago, I was reading: Migraine

Four years ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City

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