12 APRIL 1975, Page 13

bee Wells on the slow death of the American Indian

P.relni some thousands of years BC until the roeenth century, up in the high eastern ckies of what is now Wyoming, small scattered bands of people who called them:elves the Nermernuh scratched a living that even by Stone Age standards was thin. They 'ere hunters, but they starved more often than `Ley ate. They had no writing. They kept no °rtis, not even calendars. They had never -*Tried to plant a seed, or to chop down a tree :11° build themselves shelter. They had no ared religious beliefs, not even a marriage ortual. They had no central tribal or political „ganisation to weld them together in anything "irger than loose family groups. inLatet, when in their never-ending pursuit of they filtered eastward down to the plains acquired white man's tools and gwis (and st iMportant of all, horses) they used these tiongs only to do more efficiently and ferowhat they had always done: kill eatiw'rndes, and hunt. They never invented beiZing. They never developed any new or ThZt,Way of dealing with their environment. .had no skills unless you count great repe7rt ise in impaling enemies' babies on lances, lid or the refinement of ripping prisoners' s off and leaving them staked out se.ferably on an anthill) facing the sun. owiTrt. squat-legged, vermin-infested, guided bei,tr .°Yrigid taboos and traditions and a craven WerT in magic, these backward Nermernuh nobody's image of the 'noble savage.' At e tn (tho st they numbered only about 25,000 rell'se, spread out over thousands of square lok,es of territory, with no communication or perT;viedge of each other at all) and were aPs the least likely candidates ever for a 1,9e in history as empire-stoppers. to met, that is what they did. Twice. And, unable too;ve in and adapt to white man's ways, but farth'tave ever to give up, they held out for a boiller sixty years against a third empiretlef.""ng onslaught before they were finally _ted. It was they who stopped Spain's Te-`3c "of-empire from expanding deep into e0,48. It was they who blocked the more erce-minded French from spreading their -Luang aaci t, Posts into the American south west, , taal i,sneY who slowed down the Anglo-AmeriD4'", vasion for over half a century. From the trhl'ards the Nermernuh got their first horses e tough, scruffy little Iberian mustangs t tioiciconid gallop all day on a bite of grass and a tiler 8,1urn of water and became the greatest got t?Iln the world. Also from the Spanish they rtat,,,e name we know them by: Comanches. A vropd:,SPanish phonetic rendering of a Ute lts,n It Means "those who are always against N,;:clr Were their ethnic cousins, the Utes, far heochi"tA ,The Comanches were against every ., "lways. itter,`" nothing to go by except stories of fools s-uster, John Wayne movies, and America's guilty rationalisation of why the Indians had to be destroyed, it has always been difficult to piece together a true picture of what really happened in those days, and why. Comanches* comes as close as any book could to making it clear. Dealing not only with the Comanches, though they are central, Mr Fehrenbach straightens out one of the most tangled, most lied-about stories on earth, and does it without either licking the moccasins of the Indians or whitewashing their destroyers. A Texan himself, he has written a most excellent book and one that should be read by everyone who can take a dose of the truth. The truth is, as always, a hard lump to swallow but even there Mr Fehrenbach is clever and leavens this most serious book with scraps of information of the kind that everyone (it surely can't be only me) finds irresistible. That, for instance, the first United States Cavalry regiment (founded in 1855) was called ah, the logic of the military mind the Second Cavalry. And that in this First Second Cavalry there was a young officer named Robert E. Lee, as well as another officer named Travis, whose father had been the Travis at the Alamo. (You know, Laurence Harvey, That one.) And did you know that hookers were named after a Civil War Union general, "Fighting Joe" Hooker, who had what Mr Fehrenbach delicately calls a penchant for prostitutes? No? Well, it's a lovely, lovely book.

The story is not. American Indians, no matter how different they were from each other (and they were, very) all shared a roughly similar world-view. Cosmic, magic-orientated people to the bitter end, they never developed the sophisticated thought pattern that links cause with effect. Magic was all. If it worked, good. If it didn't work, bad but better luck next time. Science was a road they never even looked down, let alone took., They formed all their views by subjective experience rather than empirical observation, and from defeat after defeat they learned nothing. These people, some of them highly intelligent but all of them trapped 4,000 years behind the white man in the time race, never had a chance of winning or even surviving. Against the white man who believed in his own magic God, but who also knew that God was not enough and that you had to keep your powder dry and learn to out-think your enemy, the Indian was doomed from the very beginning.

It took time. But the confrontation between the men who wanted only to be left alone to hunt buffalo and hump teepees from camp to camp, and land-hungry men who swarmed in to establish farms and ranches, could not have ended in any other way. Indians all Indians, not only Comanches could not understand lunatics who worked all day even when they already had enough to eat. They never *Comanches T. R. Fehrenbach (Allen and Unwin £5.25) understood why men wanted to 'own' land. And the white man never understood them, For doing only what Indians considered normal and natural, they were condemned as cruel, filthy, sexually immoral, shiftless, deceitful savages. As the puritanical Anglo-Americans pushed west, thelndians fell back. And why not, there was land enough for everyone and enough buffalo to last forever. But the white man was never satisfied. The trickle of settlers became a flood. The railroad was put through, cutting the buffalo herds in two. After the 1836 raid on the Parker family at their isolated Texan outpost when Comanches took two white women and three children as captives, raids and counterraids became more common and more deadly. The only good Indian was a dead Indian, and the white men had more ways than one of killing them. Measles, smallpox, and typhus got some. In 1849 a cholera epidemic left in the wake of the gold rush to California flashed through the south west killing perhaps 50 per cent of all the Comanches left.

But it was, of course, the destruction of their food supply that finished off the plains Indians. Not, as is commonly believed, a sinister genocidal plan, the near-extermination of the buffalo had a much more banal root: human greed. The American leather industry was developing, and by 1872 raw buffalo hides were worth $3.75 apiece. Though records are not complete it is known that between 1868 and 1881 the bones of at least 31 million slaughtered buffalo had been sold for fertilizer. After 1881 there are no records, because there were no buffalo left to record.

The remnants of the plains Indians, the Comanches among them, starved until, with nothing left to swallow but their pride, they were shunted onto reservations. Following a trail of dishonoured treaties, broken promises, and outright lies, the white man, helped on by the dreadful diseases and his love of the fast buck, had won. But it's not too fanciful to say that the white man's victory has cast a long shadow. Americans brutalised themselves in the fight and developed a taste for gun law and violence that is still with them. In the background of the American murder rate, their treatment of the blacks, their political assassinations, and events like My Lai, there hovers a wispy ghost, wearing buckskin trousers and feathers in his hair.

Dee Wells has most recently written Jane, a novel Vol V: The Simla Conference. Background and Proceedings

Lord WaveII, Viceroy of India, saw the pressing need for an Anglo-Indian dialogue, and, after a cool reception initially by both the Provincial Governors in India and the English Government, the India Committee was formed. The fascinating discussions that then ensued in this Committee are fully documented in this book. Despite division in the Committee, eventually a Statement of Policy was aeproved by Cabinet. Lord WaveII then called a Conference of Indian leaders at Simla to secure agreement on the formation of a transitional Government. This Simla Conference, its proceedings and ultimate failure, is the main theme of this fifth volume in the series.

(To be published early April).

£17.50 (by post £17.92) Some opinions on Vol IV:

. as comprehensive as its predecessors, and it maintains their very high standards of editing and publishing. Like them, again, it is of absorbing interest.' THE ECONOMIST

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