I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians
The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox
The First Hundred Years of Niño Cochise
Geronimo: His Own Story by
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
Cannibalism, torture, scalping, mutilation, adultery, incest, sodomy, rape, idolatry, unspeakable rituals, duplicity, filth, drunkenness—such a catalogue of accusations against a people is an indication not so much of their depravity as that their land is up for grabs. The accusations were true of only some American Indians, and even then only at certain times and places and under particular conditions. Yet, throughout the history of the white conquest of red America, this list of savage traits was contrasted with a similar list—piety, continence, cleanliness, charity, and so on—stated to be characteristic of civilization.
For the red men, the tragedy of the relations between reds and whites lay in the loss of their land and the destruction of their cultures and their lives—justified, in the whites’ eyes, by their “savagery.” For the whites, the tragedy was that the men sent out to make the frontier safe for civilization became themselves the savages they were commissioned to destroy. In truth, the savage traits of the Indians were not widespread before the coming of the white man; the savage the whites conquered was a being of their own manufacture.
The Indians not only lacked the armaments and technology to defeat the whites in battle, but they also lacked a written language and printing; in the contest over which side would present its history, they were overwhelmed. Indeed, the history of the shameful transactions between the Indians and the white man has been entirely written by whites: the story of the winning of a continent told by the conquerors about the conquered. As Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perce Indians is said to have complained, “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indian has the white man told.”
The history of Indian-white relations, of course, is multi-colored—white, but equally red, as well as black, for blacks participated on both sides (many warriors of the Seminoles, for example, were of black ancestry). All of the books under review are attempts to recover this history. Their common problem is that the red man has not been able to take part in the modern business of writing, editing, and publishing his own history (in spite of a few recent exceptions, such as N. Scott Momaday, Vine Deloria, Jr., and several tribal newspapers). In all these books whites serve at least as collaborators, and seem to have trouble in describing precisely their functions—“compiled by,” “with an Introduction by,” “as told to,” “edited by,” and simply “by.” In their by-lines, and sometimes also in disclaimers in their texts, the whites recognize that they are intruding upon the very history they are attempting to recover.
Once a white becomes the collaborator or author of Indian history, he has the responsibility of judging the validity of his source materials. This can be very burdensome. Almost all of the Indian speeches and narratives that have …