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Custer: One of the Indian Outbreaks | The Nation

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Custer: One of the Indian Outbreaks

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Little Bighorn could end up being as disastrous for the Indians as it was for General Custer.

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There are at this time two sets of serious Indian disturbances in the West, each of which may develop into a formidable war. One centres in the expedition that General Custer is leading into the Black Hills; the other extends over the region watered by the tributaries of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. It is with the latter that we are now particularly concerned.

The Indian country lying east of the Rocky Mountains and south of the Platte River was formerly, in a general way, under the control of the Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Comanches. Inheritance or force had given those plains into their possession, and they held them against all corners, until they were forced upon reservations where they are detained by treaties, generally signed under the yoke, whose observance, on their part, is secured by the pressure of military propinquity. There are none of them grown to manhood who do not recall to mind the time when they could move without hindrance, save as they feared their savage fellow-rovers, over the whole expanse between the Rio Grande and the Missouri. To be confined to reservations, however spacious we may consider them, is galling to men whose former life was as uncontrolled as that of the beasts of the chase; and it is not to be supposed that they acquiesced in this arrangement from a sense of justice, or that they love the new regime presided over by their conquerors. A few of the elders who have acquired all the fame that the war-path can give, and who now, by the accumulation of ponies, are gaining that sort of power that wealth always bestows, may counsel peace; but the very reputation that gives weight to their advice is also an incentive to ambitious warriors to emulate their prowess. Such, for instance, is Little Raven of the Arapahoes. He is a conservative whose influence for some years has been for peace with the whites. But he possesses the influence because of his record as a warrior and of his present pastoral possessions. Ambition, therefore, is a constant spur to the younger men, and they chafe under restraint.

To the mass of the reserve Indians, subsistence without labor and the fear of punishment must be for many years the effective restraining influence. That they are susceptible of elevation, chiefly through their youth, the history of the Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles abundantly shows; but the active men of the lately roving tribes cannot be transformed, at once, if ever, into tillers of the soil nor into herdsmen. The reward that steady industry offers has no charm for them. They have no present desire for such a life, and they will only see its advantages, if at all, after long years of careful training. On the other hand, they are savages, and they delight in the pleasures of savages. Civilized men admit the fascination that belongs to war and the chase—kindred pursuits ; to savages they are the summa bona of existence. But beyond war for its own sake, revenge, which to the uncivilized man comprehends and is synonymous with both justice and honor, constantly appeals for gratification. Christianity and law are gradually introducing among some of us a different standard of action, but "an eye for an eye" is the demand that simple self-preservation insists upon. Wherever Christianity is not in force, vengeance or punishment, under what guise we choose, must be admitted or there is a direct invitation to extermination. Revenge is not dishonorable with the savage any more than it was with the ancients, nor should it be so regarded in the absence of Christian teaching. It is an application of justice that lie directly appreciates and is swift to employ. As the superior, we should be slow to provoke him, and be prompt to inflict condign punishment when deserved; for the average savage looks upon forgiveness without a penalty as cowardice. Added to these considerations, we have the principle that successful robbery from an alien is meritorious exactly as our ancestry of the North Sea, the marches of Scotland, and the heights of the Rhine believed and practised.

These fundamental facts must always be borne in mind when discussing the Indian question. They create a persistent and powerful vis a tergo impelling the Indian to what we call lawlessness. Upon our part we should guard against the outbreak by the most scrupulous justice in removing all excuse or temptation, and by the constant exhibition of power to inspire respect. When this is done, the active moral agencies may be employed with happy results. But, as among the poor of our cities, good works must sustain the suffering before good words will be heeded. Unfortunately the experience of these tribes is no exception to the general rule that has characterized our Indian policy. A single example from those stamped upon their memories will illustrate the degree of affectionate regard in which they may hold us.

In 1864, a very large number of friendly Cheyennes came in to the neighborhood of Fort Lyon by the invitation of the proper authorities, and were subsisted by them for some time with the ostensible purpose of distinguishing them from hostile Indians, and of affording them the protection of the United States flag. Alter several months a large number of their able-bodied men were sent out for buffalo, and in their absence Colonel Chivington, of the Colorado Volunteers, who was perfectly aware of the relation which these people sustained to the Government, with about a thousand cavalry suddenly attacked the village, two-thirds of whose population were women and children, destroyed it and massacred the community. They were slaughtered without regard to age or sex. He reported, ''It may, perhaps, be unnecessary for me to state that I captured no prisoners. Between five and six hundred Indians were left dead upon the field." More than this, their bodies were mutilated with shocking barbarity. Comment cannot magnify the horror. This man has never been punished, because the crime was regarded as a ''military" offence, and his term of service having expired shortly afterward he was considered beyond jurisdiction. And to this day numerous frontiersmen are to be found, men of influence as well as of the baser sort, who hold Chivington's treachery as an exploit to be emulated. This is, unfortunately, only a natural outgrowth of the sentiments held by many of the settlers on the border. They look upon the Indians as absolutely without rights, and they are only restrained by the fear of retaliation from acting upon this theory. As a consequence, many of the outrages upon the red men never appear in print, or, if they do, they are held up for imitation; while the atrocities of which white men are the victims are dwelt upon and magnified. Border public opinion, therefore, is generally in a receptive state when anything to the disadvantage of the lower race is concerned.

And, indeed, when we abandon justice, and especially charity, there is very little that draws us to the Indians. They are savages; and that means half-clad wretches who are dirty, lazy, repulsive beggars, who will steal on slight provocation, who have few virtues and many vices, and who are fearful as enemies. When at war they are diabolical. And yet they are not really devils, but are simply a low grade of heathen men. It is obvious, therefore, that for their own protection, as well as for that of the whites, they must be limited to certain bounds, and that these must be kept inviolate and the treaty obligations be strictly observed. But as the reservations are generally well selected, they excite the cupidity of some and the jealousy of others, who are not slow to make such encroachments as a lax civil power winks at. Whiskey-traders will enter them, or will skirt their borders, dealing out a poison whose immediate effect upon the Indian is to make him a furious maniac. Temporary squatters cut timber or trap, if they think they have any chance of escape. Horse-thieves infest them in gangs, alternately provoking the Indians to anger and tempting them to crime. It is difficult merely to outline their various wrongs. One of the old and just Indian grievances, one of their excuses for their early assaults upon travellers on the Santa Fe trail and the Platte route, was the unnecessary killing of buffalo. The protection of the buffalo and the utilization of the entire carcass when slain is a strong point in their character, and its wanton destruction excites great indignation. With the spread of settlements the grazing limits have yearly grown less, and now that railroads penetrate the heart of the range very many thousands of those animals are annually slaughtered, both in and out of season, with no intention or possibility on the hunters' part of taking a tenth part of each. Some shoot them for their tongues, some for their hides (not for robes, but as a heavy leather). Some actually cut the shaggy hair to mix fraudulently with coarse Mexican wool; some ship the hind-quarters East for feed. In certain localities the dead may be seen as thick as horses on a battle-field, polluting the pure air with a horrible stench. It is understood that in the last treaty with the tribes before mentioned, it was provided that buffalo should not be hunted by the whites in the country south of the Arkansas. If this article exists (and they believe that it does), the whites no more regard it than do the buffaloes themselves respect the parallels of latitude. The hunters are ubiquitous, and the herds are fast being destroyed. Indeed, systematic extermination of this animal is seriously advocated by many as the speediest solution of the Indian problem, on the ground that when they are gone the Indians must starve or become perfectly docile. Meanwhile this flagrant violation of their treaty rights excites their bitter anger, and last year they sent direct messages that if their cattle (the buffalo) were thus hunted they would compensate themselves among the white men's herds, which are now so extensive and valuable on the upper Arkansas.

The matter of treaty-making is another of the difficult features of the problem. The tribal organization approaches a pure democracy. The authority of the chiefs is mainly one of influence. Any man who has the ability may lead a hand, and it will increase or lessen with his varying fortunes. And as individuals adhere or recede at pleasure, it results that they will, in a great degree, fellow their inclination in more grave matters. We have an illustration at this time in the very tribes that are our theme. The latest advices say that some of their young men are on the war-path, but that the principal chiefs are peaceful. But if one or more of these bands are successful the tide may swell until it sweeps away the tribe. To control these younger men is of the utmost importance and of the utmost difficulty. During the six years that have passed since they have been at war as a community, a large number of youths have grown fit for the field. Their entire education, moral and physical, has taught them to revere the successful warrior; and when these warriors counsel peace, they strip off their own decorations and their only titles to respect. Ignorant of the vast power of the country, they measure it by the few troops or the occasional herdsman that they see, and boldly enter the only road to pelf and place that is open. When their chiefs came back from Washington, the witchery that they seem to have undergone is explained by the "bad medicine" of the whites, and they are perfectly sceptical of the strength of a nation whose warriors, scattered in little bands, they can count open their fingers. And they are the more ready to infringe a treaty from feeling that day by day it is violated by the other party.

But, after all, it is perhaps not too much to say that notwithstanding the predatory instincts of the younger men, many of the general Indian wars are directly incited by designing white men. The concentration of troops and the purchase and transportation of supplies involve the expenditure of so much money that it is often a matter of great financial importance to the community in which it can be made to occur. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, positively to prove such crimes, and to connect together cause and effect, but unprejudiced observers often believe it true. It is beyond doubt that highly exaggerated and often purely fictitious reports of outrages are transmitted with sinister design, while, as before remarked, the other side of the picture is kept veiled. We are not attempting to conceal the wrongs which the Indians commit. They sin as well as are sinned against. To appropriate personal property, especially when a degree of glory attaches to the act, to raid into Texas, which from the earliest Spanish times appears to have been looked upon as a legitimate field for forage, are constant temptations to which they often yield. And when they once fairly go to war, they are such frightful barbarians, they commit such fiendish outrages—outrages that cannot be decently spoken of—upon men and women and children, that the heart becomes steeled, and nothing short of extermination seems endurable. It is then that every one, who has personal knowledge of their deviltries agrees to the mot that "the good Indians are dead Indians," and it is because they have thus suffered in their families or in their ancestry that we often find such implacable hatred towards them in men otherwise of good repute.

If the sparks of war that already exist are fanned into a flame, it will burn over a region about equal in extent to the four Middle States. To guard this tract, and to drive the enemy to and keep them on their reservation, there are about two thousand soldiers, of whom perhaps fifteen hundred (one-half being mounted) are available far active operations. The guerilla tactics of the savage practically neutralize many times their own numbers. We have referred only to those tribes south of the Arkansas, and have taken no account of the fierce and numerous Sioux of the North. But besides the Cheyennes and Arapahoes in the Indian Territory, there are considerable detachments from each of these in Wyoming living in close relations with the Sioux, but in frequent communication with their Southern kinsmen. It is not impossible that these may be the links to unite both groups of Indians in a general war, should decided hostilities occur at either end of the chain.

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