On Jan. 8, 1877, the United States Army clashed with a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force during a brutally cold winter in the Tongue River Valley of Montana Territory. Less than 10 people died in the Battle of Wolf Mountain, but it was a clear psychological victory for the U.S. Army: the Sioux and Cheyenne could no longer take refuge in the Rockies during winter on the plains. The Americans had learned how to track, and fight in the snow.
To make matters worse, the realization that the Sioux and other Indian nations could not regroup during the winter prompted the great Sioux tactician Crazy Horse to call it quits and surrender to the United States government. The Indians that fought the U.S. Army often traveled with women and children, so the Rocky Mountain winter, coupled with relentless pursuit by professional soldiers, made Crazy Horse’s choice to surrender an easy one. By May, he and his family were in Nebraska on a reservation. By the end of September, Crazy Horse had been murdered, stabbed in the back to be exact, by reservation guards.
The wars between the U.S. Army and various indigenous actors in the 19th century were not unique to the republic. The Zulu in what is now South Africa gained fame for sometimes beating the British Empire. The same went for the Ashanti in what is now Ghana. Argentina and Chile both launched campaigns against the Mapuche in the late 1800s, and both failed republics got licked from time to time by the Mapuche. The French Empire fought numerous indigenous enemies in its “French Sudan” campaigns, with the Wassoulou in particular fighting bravely, but futilely against Western expansion.
When the Indian wars were underway, the battles were characterized as two very different peoples fighting against each other. Today, this view is still espoused, but the logic underneath has changed. Today, the American Indian fighting the American soldier has come to be viewed as more of a civil war than a clash of civilizations. The Native Americans are deeply intertwined in our culture, our history. As historical research gets better, thanks in part to the fact that our society continues to get wealthier and wealthier, the indigenous actors who helped shape American history receive more attention, empirically and theoretically.
Crazy Horse’s last battle in Montana against the U.S. Army highlights this civil war better than most. The Sioux and Cheyenne were not being pursued to be eliminated, but to be domesticated and transformed, by a benevolent government with the best of intentions, into American citizens.
Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is the best summary to date of all the discoveries that historians, archaeologists, and others have been making regarding the Indians of the New World. If you haven’t read this book, add it to your to-do list immediately!