The Reluctant Conquerors


Few men in the West raised more unusual questions about both cultures than Captain John Bourke. He entered the campaigns, he wrote later, “with the sincere conviction that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and that the only use to make of him was that of a fertilizer.” But the notebooks of this odd, inquiring soul reveal a man haunted by the details of the enemy’s life. Mastering several Indian languages, Bourke produced an impressive series of monographs on native religious ceremonies, and in 1895 he became president of the American Folklore Society. Learning proved corrosive to his early cultural pride, and at the end of his army service he was willing to admit that “the American aborigine is not indebted to his pale-faced brother, no matter what nation or race he may be, for lessons in tenderness and humanity.”

Admittedly, Captain Bourke’s appreciation of native culture was more complex than the respect paid by other Indian fighters. Acknowledging the red man’s fighting prowess and noble character, Bourke was more deeply interested in Indian snake ceremonies and scatological rites—mysteries thoroughly repulsive to most white sensibilities. Indeed, his interest in these ceremonies was as intense and sustained as were his protestations of “horror” during each “filthy” and “disgusting” rite. He put all this scholarship and his rather prurient curiosity to work in Scatalogic Rites of All Nations , where he observed such “orgies” throughout the development of Western civilization, even surviving in nations of what he called “high enlightenment.” Here was no sentimental accommodation with Indian culture but a panoramic reminder to the white race of its own barbaric past. Thus the Indians’ vices, no less than their virtues, set up a mirror before the advancing Christian whites.

It did not, of course, deter the whites. However noble their image of the savage may have been, it is important to recognize in all of these Indian fighters a fundamental conviction that the price of civilization was not too high. Aware as they were of the ambiguities of their mission, their sympathies and remorse never swayed them from their duty, and no officer of tender conscience was provoked to resign his commission.

How were such mixed emotions sustained? In point of fact, the military’s apologia for the red man answered certain professional and psychological needs of the workaday Army. The Army, for both noble and ignoble reasons, wanted to assume control of the administration of Indian affairs that had been held by civilians—a few good words for the long-suffering red man smoothed the way to this goal. Further, by praising the Plains Indians as relentless and efficient warriors the military justified its own ruthless strategy—and setbacks. Nor was frontier ethnology exactly disinterested; close study of the Indians often yielded military advantage for white men. And while empathy for the enemy clearly made the assignment to “redeem” the Indian more painful, there were some emotional satisfactions to be derived from even the most generous attitudes toward the Indians’ way of life.

In some instances an officer’s respect for the primitive’s unfettered aggressiveness happily loosened his own. Thus General George Schofield, commander of the Department of the Missouri, could confess that “civilized man … never feels so happy as when he throws off a large part of his civilization and reverts to the life of a semi-savage.” When Schofield acted on his own advice on a long hunting trip, he returned invigorated, recording that “I wanted no other occupation in life than to ward off the savage and kill off his food until there should no longer be an Indian frontier in our beautiful country.” One of Sherman’s aides reached a similar ominous conclusion after saluting the red man’s way of life. This officer was deeply impressed by his colleagues’ glowing reports of the nobility of Indian religion, and, he mused, There is no doubt the Indians have, at times, been shamefully treated. … And there is no doubt a man of spirit would rebel. … However, it is useless to moralize about the Indians. Their fate is fixed, and we are so near their end, it is easy to see what that fate is to be. That the Indian might be collected, and put out of misery by being shot deliberately, (as it would be done to a disabled animal), would seem shocking, but something could be said in favor of such procedure.

This puzzling mixture of aggression and regret is less surprising if we take into account the ways, according to contemporary psychologists, that anger and frustration can give rise to these contrasting emotions. The officer corps was enraged by much of what it saw happening to America. The Indians’ tactics seemed horrible yet ingenious. Their culture was repellent, but also alluring for its integrity. At the same time, evident in the reports and memoirs of these officers is a disturbing sense of having been abandoned by their own unworthy civilization. Army training and experience prevented these men from acting out their anger, and some anger was instead internalized and expressed in the mourning and guilt they exhibited so frequently. Their appreciation of the native Americans for what they had been was combined with a determination to punish a society for what it refused to become. Their fight for civilized settlement as it should be was troubled by their anger that some virtues, retained by the Indians, were slipping away from the white man.