Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Thomas Powers

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-375-41446-6
Publisher: Knopf

Sprawling account of the grim conclusion of the Indian Wars.

Historian Powers (Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda, 2002, etc.) notes that by adolescence, he’d learned that “the treatment of Indians was something people did not like to describe plainly.” Central to this narrative of concealment are two notorious events: the 1876 massacre of Gen. Custer’s command at the Little Bighorn, engineered by the fearsome Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, and Crazy Horse’s slaying a year later at a Nebraska military barracks where he’d surrendered himself voluntarily. With a scholar-obsessive’s attention to detail, the author reconstructs the entire milieu of the northern Plains in the 1870s, when the Sioux and other tribes were finding that the whites had no intention of honoring earlier treaties, particularly after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills (in present-day South Dakota). Powers takes an evenhanded approach to discerning how attempts at coexistence floundered. The soldiers and bureaucrats charged with managing Indian affairs were blinkered by the racist attitudes of the day—yet were often fascinated by Indian society and magnetic individuals like Crazy Horse—while the rigidity and confused negotiating style of chiefs like Sitting Bull made violent conflict inevitable. Gen. George Crook, the Civil War hero tasked with pacifying the northern tribes, respected Indians as fighters and wilderness experts, yet took their intransigence personally, especially following his unit’s defeat in a battle prior to Custer’s massacre and his miscalculation in pursuing Crazy Horse’s band without adequate supplies (his embittered men resorted to eating their horses). Following the Little Bighorn, even Crazy Horse realized that annihilation or acceptance of life on an agency, or reservation, were their only choices, and he surrendered his band to the Army in May 1877. Yet Powers assembles evidence that by September, Crook and rival Sioux chiefs were plotting his demise, for reasons which remain muddy to this day. The narrative is dense but always lucid, controlled and compulsively readable, raising thorny questions about the myth of Manifest Destiny.

A skillful synthesis of historical research and contested narrative, resonant with enduring loss.