Saturday, December 9, 2017

Native American Cleansing, Army-Style

Review of Keith Murray's "The Modocs and Their War".

It was a brief national sensation during the Grant administration, but now a forgotten episode in the ethnic cleansing of the West. A tiny band of obscure Native Americans in Northern California resisted the US army for a year, engaging over ten times their own numbers, turning whole army units into demoralized fleeing cowards. A splinter group of the Modocs, numbering about 65 fighting men, were induced to go to a reservation in Oregon around 1865, but naturally found the experience unappealing, and decided to return to their native lands. With the US distracted by the Civil War and its aftermath, they were left alone for several years, while the settlers that were encroaching on their lands threw up increasingly bitter complaints.

Lava beds at Tule lake

One feature of these native lands, around Tule lake on the border with Oregon, are lava beds with very rugged topography. While barren, these also make excellent natural fortifications. The Modoc band, with their leader Captain Jack, made thorough use of them to hold off a determined Army attack on January 16 and 17, 1873, inflicting about 50 casualties while suffering none of their own. In fact, the Modocs throughout this episode ran circles around their enemies in tactics, logistics, scouting, and intelligence. In contrast, the Army of the West was a notorious home to cast-offs and hirelings, with little motivation and very great expense. There was an actual F-Troop involved, bringing quite appropriately to mind the old TV show about Western Army incompetence and corruption.

Eventually, the Army brought in hundreds of soldiers, plus units of friendly Native Americans, and hunted the Modocs down after they had thoroughly exhausted their supplies, not to mention their shaman's spiritual powers. Four of the leaders were hanged, and the rest shipped off by train to a reservation in Oklahoma, where the Modoc nation survives, barely.

I highly recommend this book, which dates from 1959. It is painstakingly researched, clearly told, and well-, sometimes sardonically, written. Murray reflects on the failings of the US Army, when faced with highly motivated and guerrilla resistance. He reflects:
"When the student of the Indian troubles turns from men or events to generalizations, he is struck with the obvious fact that the most serious aspect of the Modoc War was that the government had clearly learned nothing from its experience. Even while Captain Jack was awaiting execution at Fort Klamath, the civil government of Oregon expressed concern over the actions of certain Nez Percés of Joseph's band living in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon" .. which then led to similar mistreatment, broken promises, incompetence, and a long and tragic war of resistance.

The portents for Vietnam are alarming here, not to mention the displacement and mistreatment of the Palestinians. But to stick to domestic affairs, the overall dynamic was one of moral turpitude and greed on a national level, which the Army was put in a hopeless position to manage and mitigate. While the (Northern) US is justly proud of its moral position in the Civil War, its position towards Native Americans was one of ethnic cleansing, not to say extermination. The press of manifest destiny and the homesteading / settler movement encroached relentlessly on Native American lands. Treaty after treaty was signed, then ignored or reneged, boxing Native Americans into smaller and smaller reservations. We may call them concentration camps. They are on the worst possible land, in the most remote corners of the nation.
Territories of the Nez Percé. Green shows original treaty lands,  while the inner orange shows what they are left with today.

The irony is that only a few decades after the last of the Indian wars, the country woke up, in some very small degree, to its destruction and rapine of its natural inheritance and started establishing national parks to preserve a few of the most beautiful areas. If the Native Americans had been treated with decency and fairness, with large national lands that were protected from the depredations of settlers, we would today have a much more significant system of wild areas, in addition to preserving many more Native Americans and their diverse cultures. We can only be thankful that the freed slaves were not likewise driven onto barren reservations in the West, over trails of tears.

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