What now are called “the Indian wars” ended about a century ago, and the participants in those battles are dead without exception. After 1886, when Geronimo and his band surrendered, there were no more off-reservation wild Indians. Native Americans had become an administrative, not a military problem. The reservations would become a policing system where the Indians were fed and where halfhearted attempts were made to teach them to farm.

Good intentions were the vehicle for passage of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. According to the do-gooders who pushed this measure, the best future for Indians was assimilation, which meant making them become like all other Americans. To accomplish this, Indians were encouraged to take up a homestead of some 160 acres. In short, the intent was to break up Indian tribal governments, dissolve the reservations, and force each Indian head-of-family to accept a homestead and send his children to a white school. Indians clearly were to be forced to forget their tribal customs, religion, and heritage.

Yet the tears of the living mingled with the blood of the dead and formed a fertilizer that fed an enduring crop of hatred and misunderstanding—on both sides. Despite the efforts of men of reason, red and white, the Indian wars have continued into the 1980’s, and no end is yet in sight. In 1924 Indians were given citizenship, but today a debate continues about what type of citizens they should be.

The fundamental cause of this continuing war between the two races is the same that caused the conflict when the weapons were arrows and bullets, not clenched fists and hard words: two philosophies of life in direct opposition. The sons of Spain, France, and England who came to the New World thought they had a right to this land because of their superior civilization. They were unwilling to allow a few tribes of what they thought to be “uncivilized natives” to have domain over a continent of fertile acres, good grass, and mineral wealth. The old order, said the newcomers, had to give way.

Yet these Americanized Europeans brought with them the intellectual baggage of their ancestors, including the Christian emphasis upon the sacredness of life and the sanctity of property. To salve his conscience, this newcomer had to convince himself somehow that the Christian ethic and the Anglo-Saxon common law on property pertained only to “humans”; if Indians were something less than human, they could be robbed and killed with impunity.

From the time of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock to the third quarter of the 19th century—a quarter of a millennium—whites told each other that Indians were murderers of men, rapers of women, kidnappers of children, and thieves without peer. General Philip Sheridan encapsulated this philosophy in his famous comment, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” which at once became both justification and inspiration for further killing. General John Pope, commanding the Division of the Missouri, wrote in January of 1880, “Everybody knows beyond the probability of dispute that the Indians on this reservation (like all the Apaches) are a miserable, brutal race, cruel, deceitful and wholly irreclaimable—although for years they have been fed by the government and ‘civilized’ by their agent, they are in no respect different from what they were when the process began.”

With officials in high places expressing such sentiment, little wonder that it filtered down to become ingrained in the hearts and minds of those who settled the West. Benjamin Butler Harris, bound for the gold fields of California in the spring of 1849, was told by a settler on the banks of the Brazos River in Texas, “Shoot at every Indian you see and save them a life of misery in subsisting on snakes, lizards, skunks, and other disgusting objects.” In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined “Aborigines” as “Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.” Many frontier Americans agreed with this definition and did their best to make it come true.

Simultaneously the Indians needed no propaganda to ready themselves to kill and take property. In most tribes the view of humanity was limited to the members of the immediate tribe. Killing was murder only when done within the tribe. Those who did it outside the tribe gained social and political standing as well as material wealth through plundering the goods of the deceased. Such had been their attitude long before the coming of Europeans. When battles went against a tribe, slavery—and worse—was the lot of captives, while many tribes practiced the most terrible cruelties in torturing the men captured in battle.

When Native Americans and immigrating Europeans met each other in what now is the United States, each side felt not only that it was right but also that it was a positive good to kill and rob the other. Murder too often had been dignified, bringing with it honor and standing and something that was equated with “manhood.” War between two such cultures was inevitable. And because the newcomers were numerically superior and more advanced technologically, their ultimate victory was inevitable.

Yet when the shooting stopped in the 1880’s—when the tribes had been forced to accept permanent reservations—Native Americans did not disappear. True, the physical threat they posed was gone. No longer did the lonely frontier settler fear the hoot of an owl or the howl of a coyote. Therefore he began to change his image of the Indian. He at last conceded that Native Americans were human, but not adult. They were wards of the government, subject to oversight by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indian was seen as a child—and a drunken, lazy one at that. It was nobody’s business if the frustrations of reservation life turned some Indians to alcohol.

And now a hundred years have passed, a century in which some reservations have been broken up and allotments made under terms of the Dawes Act. Indian governments were dissolved, and some tribal ways were forgotten. The old attitudes persisted well into this century in movies as white audiences cheered when the bugles blew and the cavalry charged to disperse war-painted warriors bent on plunder and pillage of circled wagons behind which valiant but outnumbered pioneers fought for their lives.

Yet there came a reaction in attitude as the nation moved farther from the days of raid and counterraid. By the 1930’s, some people wanted a change. John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the New Deal, pushed for passage of the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act of 1934; this reversed the policy of allotting individual plots of land to Indians. Collier encouraged the tribes to return to their old ways of government and to pursue native arts and crafts, tribal religion, and tribal social customs.

Under terms of the Wheeler-Howard Act, the Indians did reorganize their governments and began to push for “redress of past wrongs.” These included free medical care along with a host of social programs that brought in an entrenched bureaucracy, both white and red, with a vested interest in continuing the arrangement of Indian wards being taken care of by the “Great White Father.” Moreover, just after World War II, the Indians were encouraged to institute suits for land taken from them, and the federal government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars as a result.

The Comanches were given a generous settlement for lands taken from them on the High Plains from south of the Arkansas River deep into West Texas. But the Comanches, who moved out of their original Rocky Mountain home in the early 1700’s, conquered this land from the Apaches, who, in turn, had taken it from its previous owners sometime between 900 and 1200 A.D. The Comanches sued the United States for wrongfully taking this land from them, and were handsomely paid. Using the same logic, the Apaches ought to sue the Comanches.

And so the pattern continues. The Indians charge that they should continue to receive special treatment—and appropriations—based on what happened 100 or 200 years ago. And non-Indians, wallowing in guilt for the actions of ancestors (usually someone else’s), continue to pay.

This is a pattern whose only result can be a continuance of the Indian wars. Whites, so long as they continue to pay, will never recognize the Indian as anything other than a child. Indians, so long as they continue to demand such appropriations and vilify whites as perpetual oppressors, will guarantee themselves second-class citizenship as wards of the government.

Neither side has made a concerted effort to see the other as adult human beings. Recent books, some of them on the best-seller list for months, have been propaganda of the old type, wretched as history and biased in attitude, making no attempt to achieve a balance between the races. These have pictured the Indian as human and the white as inhuman, the Indian as environmentally sound and the white as a destroyer of Nature, the Indian as living in harmony with the universe and the white as a discordant intruder. Pronouncements by militant Indian leaders—and some liberal whites—have reinforced the stereotypes by portraying whites as ogres who have degraded the noble Red Man.

At the same time, many of the practices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are designed to perpetuate the status of the Indian as a child—and the Indians have been quick to point this out. Yet when Ross Swimmer, now heading the BIA, talks of doing away with government programs that perpetuate the second-class status of Indians, it is the Indians who protest the loudest.

Neither side is yet wholly able to concede the other the status of adult, caring humans. The sins of our fathers have indeed plagued us for the biblical seven generations and more.

And in these crosscurrents of prejudice and hatred, all Americans have lost. The melting pot has not worked. In fact, some insist violently that it should not work. Is not the fabric of our republic strong enough to withstand variant cultures and ethnic groups? Must the taxpayers of the 1980’s pay for the sins of the I680’s? Does blood descent from someone wronged a quarter of a millennium ago entitle a person to free medical, educational, housing, and welfare benefits?

If indeed the American people believe in the credo of the Founding Fathers that “All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then what we need today to solve the enduring Indian-white problem are men of reason, not men of rage; men of humanity, not men of hate; and men of breadth of spirit and understanding, not men who preach meanness and misunderstanding. To the extent that both Indian and white have denied one another the status of responsible humans, both have demeaned the republican ideal.

To the extent that hatred and war have prevailed, we have belittled the ideals and concepts of the Founding Fathers—and desecrated our own humanity. Every blow, physical and verbal, red and white, has diminished us and damaged the fabric of ourselves. To continue a system of special privilege based on the sins real and imagined of the past three centuries—and the sins are on both sides of the racial barrier—is to continue the Indian wars into an indefinite future.

The great chief of the Sioux, Crazy Horse, might well have been addressing today’s problems when he stated, “The war will end when the Indian is treated as every other American.”