“Since the Indians could not write, the history of their wars has been set down by their enemies, and the story has been told always from the hostile view……since the wars are now distant in time, the Indians’ own descriptions of these battles may be read without much prejudice.”
This is a fantastic book and a ‘must’ for anyone interested in the history of the American West. George Bird Grinnell was in touch with many of the characters through talking to people who were there, so he offers a very interesting and a rather different perspective than many of his contemporaries. The problem with native American accounts is that generally it was military historians who were asking the questions, and apart from problems of bias on their part, it is unlikely that they would be freely talked to by native Americans. It is stretching credulity to think that straight forward answers were likely. Take for example, the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A man dressed in uniform brings you in to ask about it, and you were there. Are you going to admit it? Are you going to tell him what he wants to hear?
George Bird Grinnell was different, for he had spent years among the native Americans, studying and befriending them. He therefore builds up a very interesting and unique view of many of the events. Sometimes he is very reliant on George Bent’s memoirs as told to George E Hyde, but he is at his most fascinating when relating accounts which he has gathered himself. Dee Brown showed us the differences in culture by the native American name for the battle which the new Americans called the Battle of the Rosebud River”: Where the sister saved her brother. Grinnell tells us that the brother, Comes in Sight, was still alive at the time he wrote his book, about sixty years old and living in Oklahoma.
I was interested to discover that he accompanied the Pawnee on a hunt in 1872, and was a naturalist on Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills in 1874. While the relevance of the former to this work is slim, it is a little disappointing that he made no mention of the latter in “The Fighting Cheyennes”. Perhaps it was an embarrassment to him by the time he published the book in 1915.
In his preface George Bird Grinnell makes the following observation: “Since the Indians could not write, the history of their wars has been set down by their enemies, and the story has been told always from the hostile view……since the wars are now distant in time, the Indians’ own descriptions of these battles may be read without much prejudice.” Grinnell, to his credit, began to redress the balance.