This book is a most enjoyable read, but is a very narrow presentation of Indian history. Michael Blake is certainly a very gifted writer and this book is a wonderful presentation, if, and that’s a big “if”, it is read within the context of which it was written. By that I mean, I fear that many readers might take this rather narrow presentation of “white man, bad – red man, good” history and run with it as being an all-inclusive presentation. That’s not what it is, and I don’t believe that’s what Blake intended, but revisionist historians have given us such a skewed view of the history of the American West, particularly in white/Indian relations, that I’m afraid that might indeed be the end result.
INDIAN YELL is a presentation of twelve different events. The events are portrayed quite accurately, in fact, Blake gives the most accurate accounting of what took place at what has become known as Beecher’s Island that I have found. And the problem is, I do not believe Blake has given any “bad” information here, I simply believe a matter so complex as the history of the American Indians in the 19th century cannot possibly be contained in the
confines of a book of less than 200 pages, or for that matter, in the confines of twelve specific events. What I mean is, there is a much bigger picture that is not encapsulated here.
Perhaps the most stunning example would be the portrayal of the history of the Sioux. Don’t misunderstand me here, certainly there is no question the American government mishandled the settlement of Indian lands at virtually every turn, and in the case of the Sioux, much emphasis is placed upon the massacre at Wounded Knee, but the overall picture is often left untold.
Historians, in the vain of Dee Brown’s epic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, try to interpret the Indian wars of the northern plains only as “Indian-white” wars and described them only from the viewpoint of the Sioux hostiles. Historians typically brush off as “mercenaries” those tribes that became allies to the whites against the Sioux.
To view the Crow (who white trappers and traders had predicted in the 1830’s would soon be extinct due to their far more numerous red enemies) and the Arikara (who also lost their land to the Sioux) as white “mercenaries” is far beyond simplistic reasoning and
completely overlooks the long history of Indian warfare in the region. The Crow, Arikara and many other tribes had been fighting the Sioux (and losing, for the most part) for generations before they received any effective aid from the whites. Twentieth century historians are shortsighted in their work to attempt to lend understanding of the plight of the Indian without an awareness of the history of intertribal warfare.
The Sioux migrated south and west to the Missouri around 1750. In the century preceding and following that movement, the Sioux engaged in war with at least twenty-six other Indian tribes, as well as the River Metis and the U.S. Army. Historians almost always fail to note that the most dramatic battles fought between the army and the Sioux were on lands the Sioux had taken from other tribes since 1851. Also overlooked is that the
Arikara and Hidatsa chiefs who had signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 had both been killed by the Sioux when in 1864, the Arakara Chief White Shield petitioned the army to uphold its treaty and punish the Sioux.
I’ve ventured off course, so let me return to Blake’s work here. This is a highly readable and well-written piece. I seek only to remind readers of what Blake’s presentation was surely meant to be; a depiction of twelve events that were a small part of the overall picture of history. Those twelve events are well presented here.