I’ve been reading a lot of books featuring first-hand accounts of America in the days of the pioneers and their encounters with Indians – especially stories of captives. It started with the story of a white woman who was kidnapped by Indians and whose son became the ‘last great chief of the Comanches’. This is Empire of the Summer Moon, which I’ve mentioned on here before and which remains one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.
Thanks to good old Amazon and its recommendations (but why, Amazon, do you keep posting recommendations for me on Facebook of books I’ve just bought from you?!) I have been working my way through books about gunslingers and the like, such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends, and then on to stories by people who were captured by Indians, such as Fanny Kelly’s excellent Slave of the Sioux.
It’s all been interesting on a historical and personal level, but these books have also thrown up a few points about modern sensibilities. I believe when I first reported on Empire of the Summer Moon on this blog, I told of how I had grown up thinking of Indians as the baddies, but had come to realise that it was actually the incoming whites who were the real villains. However, fascinating and moving though the plight of the Comanches was, I was left a little disturbed by their propensity for violence, torture and an eagerness to prolong the suffering and eventual death of prisoners at their mercy.
Having now read several books by different individuals who were held by different tribes (mostly women – men who weren’t killed in battle were generally tortured and then killed) this feeling has only intensified to the extent that it has made me question my view of the Indians of that period once again. Yes, they were fighting incomers who were taking over their hunting grounds, and they were certainly cheated and lied to by the American government. But it’s not quite as black and white as that.
It’s clear from the books I’ve read that the killing of children and torture of captives was part of the culture of the warrior Indians. It was happening in the 1700s and possibly even 1600s, long before the number of white settlers posed any thing like the territorial threat of the nineteenth century. It was also practised in warfare between Indian tribes, and almost certainly had been going on before they had ever seen white people.
As I’ve said in my review of Fanny Kelly’s book, she refers to Indians as ‘savages’ in an almost measured, deliberate way. She was a good writer and an intelligent woman, and even back then, in the 1800s, she was aware of the connotations of the use of the word. But she had not only seen one of her children horribly murdered by the Indians, but had later encountered another Indian wearing on his belt the scalp and lovely long hair of her elder daughter, who had tried to escape, as a proud trophy.
Others saw babies hanging from meat hooks buried in the back of their skulls; one woman’s baby was put into a lit oven. Another female captive had numerous holes cut into the flesh over her body which were then stuffed with gunpowder and ignited. A male captive had a slit made in his abdomen; a piece of his intestine was pulled out and attached to a tree, and he was then wound around the tree, his guts unravelling. My guess is it would have taken him a long time to die by that method, and that he would probably have been conscious for much of the process.
The Indians sometimes spared children and babies – not usually for any kind of ethical or sentimental reasons, but to boost their tribe’s numbers. If the baby were to cry on the journey home, there was every chance that it would be killed anyway. One of the favoured methods was to swing it by its feet and smash its head against a tree or door jamb. In Empire of the Summer Moon, one old Comanche who had become ‘westernised’ reflected ruefully on how he had tossed a child into the air and let it land on the tip of his spear.
I’m sure there are those who will point to periods in European history when people have done equally horrible things to each other – there would be no shortage of examples. But I’m willing to bet that those examples would be mostly exceptions in exceptional times rather then a normal way of life as a warrior race, a routine way of treating captives, which is what I’m talking about here.
No one word, no single attribute, whether it’s ‘savage’ or ‘saintly’, ‘evil’ or ‘good’, defines even a single person let alone a whole race. But to the Fanny Kellys of the Old West – and to me if I had been in her shoes – all of the above is, beyond any shadow of doubt, savage.