Rejecting an idealized version of American tribal life, a historian tells a complex story.
Smith (1917-1995), winner of the Bancroft Prize for a biography of John Adams, is best known for his eight-volume A People’s History of the United States (1976-1987). In the years before he died, the author recognized that the relationship between Euro-Americans and tribal peoples had become, as he put it, “a major preoccupation of white Americans,” fueled in part by the counterculture’s romanticized view of peaceful Indians attacked by “genocidal criminals.” Seeing the need for a corrective, Smith aimed to render history “as simply and directly as possible” by collecting chapters from each volume of his People’s History to form a narrative overview, adding an additional chapter updating the story to the 1990s. The result is a vivid recounting of brutality, duplicity, and violence on all sides. Since tribes often fought one another, warfare erupted not only between whites and Indians, but also among rival tribes. Sioux and Menominie, for example, were traditional enemies of the Sauk and Foxes; by 1775, the Miami had waged war for 100 years with the Iroquois, who counted among their many enemies the Potowatomi. During the American Revolution, the British drafted Indians as mercenaries, unleashing them against settlers, especially along the frontier, where “a ruthless and barbarous total war” caused more casualties “than Washington’s Continental Army suffered in all its major engagements.” Once the new nation was formed, tribal strife impeded negotiations and treaties. As the government began its policy of Indian removal, fierce fighting broke out between small groups of whites and Indians, sometimes incited by American militias that were often “disorderly and undisciplined.” While Smith admires some elements of tribal life, such as a sense of the sacredness of the natural world, he cautions against idealizing Indian culture.
As this abundantly detailed history shows, no one evades blame for the bloody past.