What The ‘Fighting Indians of the West’ Teach Us About Human Nature

They say hindsight is 20/20. Certainly looking back at the past gives one a greater advantage of perspective. You don’t just have immediate context that you’re working with but can trace how whatever policy, philosophy, or world change influenced the history that followed. Hindsight is popular in America right now. It’s in vogue to look back and criticize the ways the government mishandled people groups. One can consider the country’s record with race relations and note that slavery has not paved the way to a brighter future. People also point to the government’s treatment of Native Americans and how that culture was driven to extinction for the sake of white man’s greed.

Fighting Indians of the West by Dee Brown gives a broad overview of this latter topic. Beginning in the early 1830s, Brown marches through the rest of the 19th century highlighting the major battles and chiefs who tried to preserve their culture and retain their land. Time and again the government made treaties with the native tribes promising them protection for their hunting grounds and steering settlers away from sacred areas. Time and again the government failed to uphold its word whenever it proved that the land would be profitable. The tactics the army used to corral the natives into reservations is shocking and cruel–from pulling surprise raids on unsuspecting villages to pinning bands of Indians in a corner and blowing them away until they surrendered. The atrocities are enough to awaken sympathy in any heart, and hindsight gives us the bleak perspective that maybe actors in the moment couldn’t sense or see.

The problem with hindsight, though, is its tendency to swing in one direction and favor one side. Many are (rightly) appalled at America’s actions and some go so far as to demand reparations. Such fervor is understandable. But, we must also keep in mind the savagery perpetrated by the Native Americans as well. Scalping, ambushes, and raids were also part of their strategy. Yes, they were trying to ward off settlers, but no one can deny the barbarity of those actions. The “Fighting Indians”, too, have their fair share of sins in the war they waged.

In the end, if hindsight is applied judiciously, one must admit that both sides were treacherous in their turn. What does that say about human nature? It tells us that no matter what your skin color or culture or up-bringing, the same potential for sin runs through all our veins. What barbarism one side practices can be matched by those on the other. Maybe you can consider the government’s treatment of Native Americans and draw up a black and white map of where it failed morally, but you can do the same for the victims in this case. This isn’t to negate the abuse they suffered, but merely to make the dark point that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and all are capable of committing horrors upon their fellow man.

Looking back at history, the most appropriate color to put on one’s lens is gray. Human nature is fallible no matter where you find it, whether in an army fort or a tipi. Blame your fellow man for the ways he fouls up his life and the world around him but be humble enough to acknowledge your own shortcomings. It might make you slow to react and even be more merciful. Is there any hope, though, to brighten this depressing picture? Is there any way to unbend the crooked, decrepit human soul? I would point to Jesus, who can fix broken lives and reveal to us the truest perspective of hindsight, which looks not outward at others but inward at ourselves. This will show us why we need a Savior in the first place; and if you accept the salvation He offers, the process of healing can begin in earnest. Until then, when we look back at any point in history–either long ago or just last week–we will only grow discouraged at humanity’s failings. In that direction lies madness.

Quick Critique:

This is a quick, easy, and tragic overview of the decline of Native American culture in the West. It took me a few chapters to realize he was telling a linear account and not just random vignettes. It told me enough to sense the scope of what was happening and arouse my curiosity, but I never felt like I was getting the full story. If you go into this book expecting a breezy survey, you’ll probably appreciate it more. Otherwise it is a worthwhile introduction to the narrative of the old West.

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