Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory
by Paul VanDevelder
Reviewed by Marc Covert
In the introduction to his latest book, Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory, Paul VanDevelder sets the stage for a story which, on its surface, would seem a tired, oft-told account of America's westward expansion and destruction of Native American cultures.
(The use of "Savages" in his title and throughout the book, he explains, intentionally links his tale to an era when such words were common, and also "reminds us how easily the cultural judgments of an entire civilization can be carried in a single two-syllable word that more often than not described its users." The term "scoundrels" warrants no such caveat here; VanDevelder seems to let the word speak for itself.)
Far from a retelling of the accepted, Hollywood-style story of America's march to the Pacific, however, VanDevelder promises that this book, his follow-up to 2004's Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation, will "recontextualize and realign some of the major themes in America's story that have been mythologized and embroidered in many of our familiar, widely read and widely taught histories."
It's a promise he keeps. Savages and Scoundrels is a riveting, often chilling account of how a young, land-hungry nation went about inventing the laws and policies that enabled it to push aside a people who, by its own admission and landmark court decisions, held legal ownership of millions of square miles of ancestral land.
The book begins in 1951 with the story of Louise Holding Eagle, who left her small North Dakota farmhouse on the Upper Missouri River to buy groceries and returned that night to find her house, barn, chicken coop, husband and two children gone, removed without warning by the Army Corps of Engineers to make way for a huge Missouri River dam project, all in a seemingly perfectly legal manner.
The situation Louise Holding Eagle faced as she stared, aghast, at the condemned space where her home used to be raises the question, "How could this happen?" -- a question VanDevelder answers in a sweeping exploration of history that stretches far beyond American borders or even the American nation itself.
Many figures placed squarely in the "scoundrels" camp should come as no surprise to readers of American history: Andrew Jackson, whose harsh removal policies toward Indians resulted in countless abuses as well as Supreme Court cases; Gen. George Armstrong Custer; John M. Chivington, commander of U.S. troops at the horrific Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, described here in shocking, lurid detail. Others may result in raised eyebrows, perhaps none more so than Thomas Jefferson, who is singled out as "... alone among the Founders for being 'the originator of cultural genocide' of the American Indian."
Savages and Scoundrels steers clear of simply listing a litany of wrongs inflicted by a powerful nation on its indigenous population, and VanDevelder brings many historical and modern-day advocates for Native American rights into the light of day. Again, some will be familiar, such as mountain men Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick, who, with the Jesuit missionary Pierre De Smet and U.S. superintendent of Indian affairs David Mitchell, brokered the Great Smoke treaty at Horse Creek in 1851. Others, such as Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, whose 19th-century judgments in favor of Indian land rights affect court cases to this day, are noted here as significant yet underappreciated in the unfolding drama of U.S. history.
Two men who figured prominently in VanDevelder's previous book, Coyote Warrior, are revisited here: the late Martin Cross, who battled the federal government over the same Garrison Dam that flooded out Elizabeth Holding Eagle's land, as well as outright attempts by the U.S. government to dissolve all Indian tribes and treaties, and his son, Raymond Cross, who took up his father's work and, in 1992, won a $149.6 million award to the tribes whose land was unlawfully taken for the Garrison Dam project in 1949.
In many ways, Savages and Scoundrels ends on a note not so much positive as hopeful, quoting Indian law scholar Charles Wilkinson about the long list of treaties between the U.S. and Indian tribes: "Real promises were made on those plains, and the Senate of the United States approved them, making them real laws. My sense is that most judges cannot shake that. Their training, experience and, finally, their humanity -- all of the things that blend into the rule of law -- brought them up short when it came to signing opinions that would have obliterated those promises."
Whether those treaties and laws, first used as "stepping stones to the Pacific," will play a part in any reconciliation, "the only sensible path to a future worth living -- our Last Chance Saloon" -- remains to be seen.