Second only to the myth of Indian as ecologist is that of red brotherhood. Although physically similar, the Indian peoples of what is today the United States were a diverse lot. There was no common language, culture, or identity. A few groups of Indians evolved political organizations—the Iroquois League of the Five Nations was the most sophisticated—but most did not advance beyond tribal groups who generally lived in a state of war or intermittent hostilities with neighboring tribes. Many tribes did not even have a common name for themselves, going by terms that simply meant “people” or “folks” or something that differentiated them only from beasts in the forest. They did have names for their neighbors, though, referring to them as the “slithering snakes” or “sons of she-dogs” or “little adders” or other, equally insulting, pejoratives.
White encroachment aroused no general Indian hostility. To the contrary, whites were often welcomed as allies by one tribe against a nearby enemy. Most of the time, when Indians fought, they fought each other, not whites. Fighting whites was only a temporary interruption of their traditional intertribal warfare—just as fighting Indians was only a temporary interruption of white intertribal warfare. The English and the French spent more time, money, and materiel fighting each other in the New World than they did fighting Indians.
In the first major Indian-white conflict in New England, the Pequot War (1637), most of the tribes in the area allied themselves with the English settlers against the Pequot. The Narraganset, the Niantic, and even the Mohegan, who were cousins of the Pequot, were allies of the English and sent hundreds of warriors to fight the Pequot. The Pequot were a powerful and ruthless tribe who had arrived in the area only three or four generations earlier. Through the most brutal warfare imaginable, they had reduced the older tribes of the region to vassalage or slavery. The very name Pequot means “destroyers of men”—an appellation well earned.
Now, with the aid of the whites, the subjugated tribes were anxious to wreak vengeance. The Mohegan especially enjoyed decapitating Pequot. Having observed the Mohegan practice, Capt. John Mason, leader of the colonial forces in Connecticut, noted, “Happy were they that could bring in their [Pequot] Heads to the English.” As the tide of battle turned against the Pequot, their leader, Chief Sassacus, and 40 of his warriors sought refuge with the Mohawks. Instead of giving the Pequots sanctuary, the Mohawks held the Pequots prisoner, torturing and then decapitating them. Chief Sassacus’ head was delivered to the whites as a token of friendship.
The Pequot War was not an exception but the rule and continued to be so until the last Indian resistance was extinguished. Even Tecumseh’s great Indian confederation was essentially a creation of the British during the War of 1812 and collapsed as soon as they withdrew their support. Nor did conditions change in the trans-Mississippi West. The first significant conflict, the Arikara War (1823), was typical of conflicts until the end of the century.
The Arikara—or Rees, as the French fur traders and American mountain men called them—lived in earthen lodges in villages along the Missouri River in North Dakota. They depended mostly on agriculture for food, raising corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans. They fortified their villages for protection against horse-mounted marauding Sioux by building barriers of driftwood and willow branches. The Rees traded with other Indians and with whites, mostly fur traders or trappers. An unpredictable bunch, the Rees more than once attacked travelers after feigning friendship and a willingness to trade. They did so in 1823 when a party of 30 American mountain men, paddling canoes loaded with furs, stopped to trade. Only half of the mountain men survived the surprise attack, and many of those who did were badly wounded. When the survivors reached Missouri and told the tale of Arikara treachery, Maj. Benjamin O’Fallon, the Indian agent for the Great Plains, organized a force to punish the Rees. Included in the Missouri Legion were 80 mountain men, Col. Henry Leavenworth and 230 soldiers, and more than 700 Sioux warriors.
The Sioux could hardly contain themselves. So great was their enthusiasm that they galloped ahead of the Missouri Legion and engaged the Rees in front of the Arikara village. When the whites arrived, they could not fire for fear of hitting their Sioux allies. Seeing the mountain men and soldiers take up positions around the village, the Rees retreated inside their fortifications. Behind them, they left a dozen dead Rees. The Sioux pounced on the bodies and quickly hacked them to pieces. Then, after tying cords to the severed arms, legs, hands, and feet, the Sioux dragged the body parts in a triumphal procession around the village. The whites watched the grisly spectacle with fascination and horror, not realizing they were witnessing only the opening act.
An old Sioux chief soon appeared with one of his wives. Immediately, in front of the village and with a war club in her hand, the squaw began raining blows upon the body of a dead Ree. At the same time, the chief taunted the Rees for allowing a squaw to club the corpse of one of their braves. The final act came when a Sioux shaman arrived, crawling on all fours and snorting like a grizzly. Then, with his own teeth, he tore mouthfuls of flesh from the body of a dead Ree.
Night fell before any more fighting could take place. The next day, the whites poured fire into the village, while the Sioux stripped the Arikara cornfields. Presently, the Rees emerged from their village, signaling their desire to parley. Colonel Leavenworth jumped at the chance. The Sioux, fearing they would have no more opportunities to kill Rees, were upset. When the calumet was proffered, the Sioux refused to participate. Smoke the peace pipe with the Rees? No way. The Sioux left for parts unknown. There was no red brotherhood.