Review: The Long Death, The Last Days Of The Plains Indian

Review: The Long Death, The Last Days Of The Plains Indian

A look at the classic work penned by Ralph Andrist

This has got to be one of the books I have read again and again its prose is so engaging.  Another reason for its appeal to me can be summed up by Dee Brown, who writes in the introduction to the new edition

“Ralph Andrist was one of the first historians of the American Indian wars to perceive that the story should be told facing eastward towards the invading Europeans rather than facing westward toward the defending tribes.”   Indeed, Andrist writes with a pen quite sympathetic to the Indians and what they suffered at the hands of the white man as they slowly pushed them westward.  From the chapter “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow” to “The Last Small Wars”, Andrist dispassionately paints a vivid picture of the white man’s green and betrayal of the Indians without putting them on a pedestal; for example, he does not gloss over any of the vicious acts the Indians committed during the Minnesota Uprising of 1862, nor, indeed, does he call them flawless as warriors in fair fights such as the Fetterman battle, commenting about the Indians at the latter “Despite their enormous superiority in numbers, they made no move to attack [Captain Ten Eyck’s relief force]—this is one of the mysteries of the Indian character, why, when they held an overwhelming advantage, they did not make the most of it.  They apparently had to celebrate and digest one triumph before moving on to another.”  Nevertheless, the Indians were very wronged by the white man, as Andrist sums up in passages such as his depiction of the relationship between the Indians, white traders, and the annuity money supposedly for the Sioux living in Minnesota at the time of their rebellion: “By 1862 the traders had established a foolproof credit system.  They sold goods to the Sioux on credit, chargeable against the Indians cash annuity.  At annuity time, when the pay tables were set up, the traders were on hand.  As each Indian stepped forward, the traders called out their claims and were paid.  The Indian received what was left, if any.  No accounting was demanded; it seems to have occurred to no Indian agent that it was part of his duty to his wards to ask for one.  But, to repeat, a lot of fancy work was being done with Indians’ money.”

There is only one quibble I have with the book, his depiction of George Armstrong Custer as a rash glory hound who disobeyed orders and died at Little Big Horn thanks to it.  Granted, when this book was first published in 1964, that was a prevailing argument against Custer and a growing image in popular culture as well.  More modern scholars might quibble with Andrist over his depiction of the likes of John Chivington or William Fetterman, but my only problem was with Custer.

Apart from that, I would strongly recommend this book for those interested in the American West.