In his account of the 500-year sweep of interaction between American Indians and Euro-Americans, British writer and historian James Wilson attempts to right some of the wrongs of earlier historians. Fitting 500 years of history into fewer than 500 pages is no small task, but part of Wilson's success is based on his weighting the second half of the 19th century the period when most of the decisions (i.e., mistakes) about the Indian problem were made. Wilson also gives the 20th century, especially the first half, ample space. The settling of the West, the displacement and near annihilation of the Indians, and the modern consequences of those events are treated fully.
For example, a century ago there were more than 300 [American Indian boarding schools] across the country with a combined enrollment of nearly 22,000, close to 10 per cent of the entire native American population at the time. These schools were the result of the Dawes Act of 1877, a piece of legislation that followed a nearly unbroken series of disastrous policies toward native peoples. The first of these schools to open, located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was made famous by its most renowned athlete, Jim Thorpe, and the movie based on his life. The sugarcoating job done by that 1951 film (starring the decidedly non-Indian Burt Lancaster) typifies the ongoing revisionism done by white American historians until relatively recently.
Of those boarding schools Wilson writes that native American schoolchildren were thrown into a hostile universe in which everything that made them what they were was systematically ridiculed and condemned. Not surprisingly, many did not survive and many who did survive were scarred for life. . . . He quotes Lakota spokeswoman Charlotte Black Elk who asserted that the Dawes Act was bureaucratic genocide. Children who were successfully civilized were not accepted by their own people. Attitudes persist, so it is easy to understand why little value is placed, even now, on a young person's leaving the reservation to attend a white university.
Throughout, promises were broken, treaties were broken, and the hearts and wills of many strong people were also broken. And yet today native people are again growing in number and importance. James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep affords a good overview of an unhappy segment of the American past.
Writer James Grinnell lives in DeKalb, Illinois.