The "Wild" American Indian

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

American history, as in any other country, is full of stories of conflicts, adventures and deeds admirable and shameful. It's clear that most Cowboy Action Shooting folks have more than a passing interest in what happened to our country, especially in what we refer to as the "Old West" and the American frontier. There was conflict aplenty as hard men and women met adversity from both the country and their fellow man, a colorful montage of characters that forged the "Old West" story that still fascinates folks around the world.

The longest running conflict (which still is not finished for some) was that between white man and red. It's been going on now since before the Pilgrims, some 400 years ago, with plenty of guilt to go around on both sides – even with the Pilgrims. Several American folk heroes are considered heroes for their actions in that conflict, many of which are appalling and shameful to us today. Indians have their folk heroes for the same reasons. The hero of one was almost always the arch villain to the other. Neither understood – or wanted to understand – the other.

It was rare that anyone, white or red, took an interest in actually learning what the other was really like, what were their beliefs and the motives guiding their behavior? Why did they do what they did? One such man was U. S. Army Col. Richard Irving Dodge, whose experience with the Indians began as a lad in North Carolina and extended throughout a thirty-three year military career on the frontier. Dodge was a keen observer and avid writer; he took copious notes and diaries of his many assignments that became field journals that have been carefully studied by historians for over a hundred years. I have taken his story as my Single Action Shooting Society alias and I am proud to bring his story to life.

Dodge's career began in Texas in the frustrating, ineffective battles with the marauding, highly mobile and ruthless Comanches and ended as the respected Chief Adjutant to General of the Army William T. Sherman. His last and most important assignment was to write a book portraying the "wild" American Indian as he really was in an ethnological study to persuade Congress to remove the government's "Indian policy" from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and turn it over to the army. Dodge was a strong advocate for the Indian's rights and welfare and a dedicated foe of the corrupt and inefficient Bureau of Indian Affairs. His book, Our Wild Indians; Thirty-three Years' Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West, as published in 1890. A copy was given to every member of Congress and select government officials. The book was only to be found in rare library collections until recently when it was published in paperback form – it is now in my own library. Here is what Col. Dodge and others have to say about the "real" wild American Indian. He freely admits to an expertise limited to the Indians of the Great Plains and to the roles of their warriors and leaders. He makes little reference to the roles of women in his writings.

The Indian lived until very recently (Dodge's time) in the Stone Age. Their system of beliefs and behavior was formed to meet the necessities of a life shaped by nature and by those individuals with the vision and cunning to assume leadership roles over the thousands of years. Their world was at once an intimate, terrifying, generous, and mysterious place. Unseen spirits solved and explained all the mysteries; absolute belief in those spirits occupied every moment of the Indian's waking hours. Their religious dedication probably surpassed the most devout worshiper of Christian or any other religious faith.

Most observers of the Indians have been guilty of less than objective curiosity about them, seeing the Indian as a species of either the "red devil" or the "noble savage." The former could do no right, the latter could do no wrong. Dodge refers to George Catlin's work as more or less crude depictions that seem to glorify the "noble savage" concept without a single peek into the motives and beliefs that drove their fascinating, incomprehensible behavior.

In Catlin's words, the American Indian was honest, hospitable, brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, restless, honorable, and contemplative.

Perhaps, but Dodge adds his own descriptions as: vain, crafty, deceitful, ungrateful, treacherous, grasping, utterly selfish, lecherous, without compassion or mercy, filthy in speech, dirty in person and manners. In a more positive vein: the Indian is affectionate, patient, self-reliant, enduring, vivacious, and chatty. There is a great love of song and dance and a willingness to engage in either at any opportunity. Indeed, their permanent camps at night were a very noisy place, with people passing through here and there, visiting, courting, joking, singing, gambling – living. In his own camp, the Indian was a noisy, jolly, rollicking lover of mischief, practical jokes, and rough fun of any kind, full of braggadocio, "excitable as a Frenchman and as fond of pleasure as a Sybarite." To the stranger, he was impassive, dignified, somber – inscrutable.

Thus the Indian is seen as a very complex character with a bewildering array of tribal differences in language, attire, beliefs, mores and arts, but with some traits that ran almost universally through all.

Dodge's main point is that, though the Indian was intensely religious, that religion did not contain an iota of the concept of "right and wrong." We all know that a child lives in an egocentric world, consumed only with his or her own interests and desires until parents, adults and society, gently or otherwise, teach them that some things are "right" and some things are "wrong" and that consideration for others is at least as important as one's own interests. At least, it used to be that way.

Consider what happens when that egocentric child is not only not moved to a more worldly view, but is actually encourage to continue that egocentricity by the examples of those whom he perceives as role models. There was never a sense of responsibility or conscience or duty. The male Indian was free from all that; the women of the tribe took care of almost all the tasks of preparing food, manufacturing clothing, even moving the village. A man was free to do as he pleased, to hunt or fish as he pleased, to go to war as he pleased – or not. No one passed judgment. The only motive was for gain of social status and wealth in ponies. Every man was expected to be his own advocate, his own newspaper. Social status and aspirations of leadership were wholly dependent on one's reputation for bravery, skill in battle, eloquence in speech, and his ability to inspire others to follow.

Interestingly enough, there were a number of "gay" Indian men (there appears to be little if any record of "gay" women). There was no social stigma applied to them; though there were tribal differences in their roles in the tribe, many were simply dressed in feminine-like apparel and performed women's tasks, free to determine their own path within the tribe without a sense of guilt, embarrassment, or ridicule. Many did indeed become respected warriors.

The horse's elevation of the Indian from a desperate, foot-bound hunter-gatherer into a fierce, free moving warrior meant that the horse became the symbol of wealth, just as an exotic car collection might today. The horse, in addition to providing rapid transportation, was currency, bargaining material, retirement income, and status symbol. And the only expedient way to obtain such wealth was to steal it. Catching a wild mustang and training it to become a reliable steed was a time and labor consuming task and the adrenaline rush was nothing compared to the excitement of applying all the stealth taught from childhood to enter into an enemy’s camp and take theirs. So, horse stealing became a passion as much as seeking gold has been for centuries in other cultures.

The prowess required for successful horse thievery – and retaliation for it – required a range of skills and aptitudes: stealth, strength, agility, courage, endurance, and a fine sense of how to catch the horse's owner off guard and unaware. That skill became so developed over the generations that it was said the Indian could steal your horse while you were riding it. And to the Indian, the theft was not "wrong," it was simply his career and livelihood.

Horse-stealing skills translated directly into war faring skills and war became the Indian's passion. One's entire life became devoted to the war with all the ramifications of being a warrior. A boy trained from early childhood to track game and fellow man, to use his weapons, move with the stealth of a shadow, and hunt with the wolf’s cunning. Afoot, the Indian was usually small, unwashed, almost pitiful. Astride, he was a magnificent, effective, and fearsome warrior. He learned to become one with his horse and was widely acknowledge as one of the most accomplished horseman in history. To fight a mounted Indian while afoot was certain death.

A significant part of the warrior's mindset was the indifference to pain and discomfort. It was to be displayed publicly in self-torture as a demonstration of bravery and courage, adding to one's reputation and status. Privately, it added to the torment of fasting and sleep deprivation in seeking the illusionary world of the spirits. He saw the infliction of torture on the enemy not as cruel, but as a natural extension of his own bravery.

Two "gods" ruled the Indian's world, according to Dodge: the "good" god and the "bad" god. The good god was anything that helped him get what he wanted; the bad god was anything that denied him. Every man developed his own personal "medicine," a very private collection of spiritual symbols born of his own dreams and imagination. To his medicine, he owed complete and total devotion and reliance for his own fortune and success in war or love. Dreams told him of his medicine's power – or lack of it. If a dream were to lead him to believe his medicine was not good before a battle, he would withdraw from the battle without shame or derision. If in battle, he was defeated or unsuccessful, it was because his medicine was bad, not because he had made a strategic error in judgment.

So what the invading wave of white settlers faced was a cunning and skilled warrior superbly mounted, with the ego of a spoiled child and the agility of a panther, seeking to enhance his reputation by hair-raising acts of bravery and brutality. Similar to the samurai of Japan, war was an individual affair, each man seeking personal glory, rather than a unified, disciplined action. Each man sought reasons to strut and brag of his brave deeds before his elders and his peers in the tribal council and he had been psyched up for the confrontation by any means available to him.

American settlers were constantly confounded by the Indian's often-unimaginable cruelty and total lack of guilt or remorse when he sought the good graces of his white enemies. He really did not feel any guilt or remorse; it was not within his comprehension. Geronimo, Quanah Parker, and Sitting Bull were only three of the most well-known of those whose score of white killings may never be known, but who walked unrepentant into the "white man’s road." To this day, the mind of the Native American Indian, in the days when he held the power on the American frontier, is a deep and evil mystery to those who defeated him after almost 400 years of continuous conflict.

Dodge, Col. Richard I.; Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years of Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West; A. D. Worthington & Co.; Hartford; 1890

-----; The Hunting Grounds of the Great West; Chatto and Windus; London; 1878

-----: The Plains of the Great West and their Inhabitants; G. P. Putnam; New York, 1877

Gwynne, S. C.; Empire of the Summer Moon; Scribner; New York, 2010