Cozzens’ book on Indian wars loaded with slight of mouth

The first I heard of Peter Cozzens’ The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, was an ad in a literary journal, quoting S.C. Gwynne saying, “I never read…more entertaining versions” of the Indian wars.

Entertaining?! Indian wars … entertaining?? I was stunned. Who would say such a thing? But then I remembered Gwynne’s book, Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quanah Parker and the U.S. war against the Comanche. I wrote `1a critical review of that book in 2013: I found so many boneheaded errors—stereotypes and false statements about history—in the first chapter that I quit reading. Yet that book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times bestseller.

I picked up my review copy of Cozzens’ book with a skeptical eye. It fits the pattern of authors expressing “compassion” as they proceed to “balance” the story of white violence by telling us that Indians aren’t saints.

Without fail, they quickly assure us—Cozzens does this on page one of chapter one!—the whites “had not intended to exterminate the Indians.” Gwynne waited until page two to make his assertion—that the whites made “no real attempt to destroy the tribes on a larger scale.”

Both Cozzens and Gwynne must cede first place in genocide denial to Gary Anderson, who devoted a whole book to the effort: Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian. Anderson said the “dominating policy of ethnic cleansing” helped Indians survive, because it prevented genocide! My review of that book concluded that Anderson’s genocide denial undermined anything useful in his history.

Three genocide denier books in a five-year period (and there may well be more). America has a renewed case of anxiety about its past. Every generation, white Americans encounter themselves in the historical mirror documented by army reports, congressional investigations, newspaper records, and statements of Native leaders—all bearing witness to the overwhelming, and yes, intentional violence aimed at dominating—and yes, eradicating—the Indigenous Peoples of the continent.

Cozzens’ book opens with three epigraphs—from a congressional report, a Cheyenne warrior, and a U.S. Army lieutenant—all saying the same thing: that the “noble white man” and his “Ten Commandments civilization” engaged in “inhumanity” toward the Native Peoples.

The very first quote—from the 1868 Indian Peace Commission to the 40th Congress—gives the lie to Cozzens’ chapter one, page one denial of extermination. The Commission says that if the Indians resist white civilization, white civilization, “with the Ten Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands [their] immediate extermination.”

In fact, Cozzens doesn’t wait for chapter one, page one to contradict that report. Already in the Prologue he says “the federal government never contemplated genocide.” He follows that sentence with a rhetorical twist that urges us to forgive the destruction of Indian Peoples if Indian people survive: “That the Indian way of life must be eradicated if the Indian were to survive…was taken for granted.”

On the next page, Cozzens contradicts both his reference to “Indian way of life” and “eradication,” by saying the “bloodiest and longest” Indian wars did not involve “the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life,” but only “a displacement of one immigrant people by another.”

A way of life, but not deeply rooted; a displacement, but not an eradication.

This kind of sleight of mouth—magically making things disappear by using tricky language—lies at the core of every book mentioned here. The authors are so intent on denying intention that cannot be denied because it appears in the historical record that they resort to rhetorical devices and tell us not to look at the man behind the curtain of words.

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Cozzens says he seeks to “bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars.” We may recall the (in)famous Fox News slogan, “fair and balanced.” In the emerging world of “alternative facts,” we must be constantly alert for the kind of “balance” that deploys sleight of mouth to make its points.

Cozzens’ analysis amounts to assertions of stereotypical and erroneous “facts.” For example, he says the “founding fathers [had not] simply coveted Indian land,” but had “wanted to …lead [Indians] from ‘savagery’ to Christianity.” The record shows—in the 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall—that “coveting the land” was precisely the motivation, and that “civilization and Christianity” were the supposed payments for the land.

But Cozzens doesn’t study Supreme Court decisions, so he makes the huge mistake (again, this all occurs on page one of chapter one!) of saying that the “federal government…negotiated [treaties] on the legal premise that tribes held title to their land.” Wow! Here’s what the Supreme Court said in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the case after Johnson: “the tribes…occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will.”

Who you going to believe—Cozzens or the Supreme Court?

Cozzens compounds his error by saying the federal government sought to purchase Indian lands “at the best possible price.” That assertion flies in the face of the economics of “monopsony,” which means the distortion of a market that has only one buyer and many sellers: in this case, the sellers—the Indians—were coerced into dealing with only one buyer—the federal government.

Cozzens acknowledges that fact—the federal government prohibited individuals and states from land negotiations with Indian Nations—but he doesn’t understand economics any more than he understands law.

All of this on page one of chapter one. Not off to a good start.

It gets worse. On page two, he says “George Washington attempted to intercede on behalf of the Indians,” and Andrew Jackson “truly believed…the Indians would be free from white usurpation” after they were “removed” beyond the Mississippi. Thus, already by chapter one, page two, he has the historical laundromat working at top speed, whitewashing the “Town Destroyer” and the “Indian Remover.”

Cozzens especially targets Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which he calls a “one-sided approach to the study of history.” But, in undoing Brown, Cozzens succeeds only in what I have already pointed out: whitewashing the genocidal efforts of the American government. A New York Times reviewer takes the bait, saying Cozzens “debunk(s) the main thrust of Brown’s one-sided book — that the government’s response to the so-called ‘Indian problem’ was genocide.” The reviewer concludes, “the academic fight for the true legacy of the Indian Wars — Brown versus Cozzens — has just begun.”

But the real fight to understand the “legacy of the Indian Wars” continues in life, as Indigenous Peoples worldwide defend themselves—their ways of life and their lands—against genocidal intentions and forces that remain operative today: colonial and neo-colonial extractive programs—and intentions—carried out under the rubric of “civilization.”

The present and the history remain invisible to those who don’t know the historical-legal-economic foundation of nation-states. The rash of books trying to deny genocidal intent betray an underlying allegiance to the notion that this present and that history are benign and inevitable.

The world edges closer to ecological collapse with every refusal to understand the consequences of eradicating the Indian way of life. Even if they provide a lot of historical details, books that obscure what we need to know do not deserve prizes.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.