Listen: Indian Wars - Robert Utley

MPR’s Hugh Morgan interviews author and historian on his book “Indian Wars.” Morgan also talks about Bureau of Indian Affairs and American Indian Movement.


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SPEAKER 1: Well, happily, I have just shucked off a burden of 10 years with the completion of the second volume of two volumes in the MacMillan Wars of the United States series. The first volume was the History of the Army and the Indian Wars from 1848 to 1865. And I have just finished the same history for the period 1865 to 1890. So together, these will constitute really an institutional history of the Frontier Army from the close of the Mexican War to the end of the Frontier period in 1890.

SPEAKER 2: The Indian Wars that you're talking about don't include the takeover of the BIA, I don't suppose.

SPEAKER 1: Happily no. The only association I had with that was to have my commuting pattern badly disrupted by the activity across the street.

SPEAKER 2: You've written extensively about some of the Indians who's antecedents are part of the American Indian Movement. Now, do you have any feelings about what they're doing now?

SPEAKER 1: I have some feelings, but since BIA is a sister agency of NPS, I don't usually express them, too, vividly. However, I think, in this context, it's very interesting and worth noting that the concept of the American-Indian is a relatively recent one and that 75 or 80 years ago, an Indian did not identify himself as an Indian. He was a Sioux or he was a Cheyenne.

And very frequently, the tribe next door was a far more bitter enemy than the white man was in his mind. So this expression now of Indianness, this pan-Indian movement is really a very recent phenomenon and one that is really not grounded in history. Of course, they had a threat to which they reacted in fairly common ways, but the solidarity that is being demonstrated now is completely new. And certainly, you saw no signs of solidarity in the resistance movement of 100 years ago.

SPEAKER 2: This is really a movement of history for the American-Indian people then, isn't it?

SPEAKER 1: That's right. That's right. And they did not consider themselves as American Indian people historically. That's a recent development.

SPEAKER 2: Do any of this-- do any of these threads get tied together in your present volume or--

SPEAKER 1: Well, I have attempted to imply some of these things because I am writing the institutional history of the United States Army. And in its Indian relations, it doesn't have a very good press these days. In retrospect, there are many good reasons why, legitimate ones why it doesn't have a good press. But at the same time, in our effort to atone to expiate our guilt over our treatment of the American-Indian, we have distorted history so badly taking it out of the context of the times that the white man, the historical actors be they army or settler or what have been, I think we don't have the proper appreciation now of the situation historically they confronted. And so in the book, naturally, it's fairly sympathetic while attempting at the same time to be objective in treating with the army.

SPEAKER 2: What circumstances are we not aware of now that you do deal with in the book? You say--

SPEAKER 1: Well, I think, what we have a tendency to do is to accept the stereotype that has grown up in very recent years of the Frontier Cavalryman as a bloodthirsty butcher who is intent upon finding as many women and children to slaughter as he can.

SPEAKER 2: How is that different to you now?

SPEAKER 1: Well, it's simply not true. Historically, you cannot justify that. You have instances in which this happened just as in modern warfare involving non-combatant populations. Right this moment, I am sure that there are non-combatants dying in Vietnam as a result of our military action.

You have this where they're involved, and it's unavoidable. The question that has to be asked is one of intent. And I think it's a very important question-- were they deliberately seeking to do this? Or where the non-combatants or those of dubious hostility killed incidentally and accidentally or deliberately? And with very few exceptions, and there are some exceptions, I do not believe that you can document that it was more than accidental and incidental.


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