Early in this anachronistic book, William M. Osborn writes that the best book on the American Indians of the 19th century is painter George Catlin's "Letters and Notes." Remarking how Catlin respected and admired the Indians, Osborn quotes him: "The North American Indian in his native state is an honest, hospitable, brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless yet honorable, contemplative and religious being."
"The Wild Frontier" concentrates on the warlike, cruel and revengeful elements of this description, especially the cruelty. It is one long catalog of the raids, murders and tortures committed by the Indians as the invading Europeans relentlessly pushed them west from the Atlantic Coast, west from the Mississippi valley and eventually out of California. Osborn dwells on this in wearying detail. Over and over, for page after page after page, he describes Indians scalping, burning and mutilating their captives.
Why? It is all in the service of accurate history, he says. He quotes historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. as saying that schools and colleges must teach history that is not "dictated by pressure groups, whether political, economic, religious or ethnic."
Osborn thinks that too much historical thinking about the indigenous Americans is too soft, that "revisionists" are rewriting Indian history hoping to help them, when they will only hurt them. Among the books he cites as "revisionist" is Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Osborn writes that many protesters against the war in Vietnam are now "college professors and leaders of the political correctness movement, which admittedly has contempt for American history." Indians, Osborn adds, "hold a special place in politically correct hearts."
"The rich, cultural history of the many tribes is well worth preserving and presenting, but falsification of certain aspects of Indian life is not," Osborn writes. And he attempts to appear fair. He lists what he calls atrocities of the settlers in the 300-year conflict between whites and Indians. But that list is much shorter than the Indians' atrocities that he describes.
Osborn does not regard the seizure of land and hunting grounds from the Indians as events to cause any disquiet in white souls. A retired lawyer by profession, not a historian, Osborn takes a lawyer's view of land ownership. The purchases, for example, of the Louisiana territory from France, Florida from Spain, the Gadsden purchase from Mexico and the purchase of Alaska from Russia meant that "under international law then and now, lands occupied by Indians in these territories purchased by treaty belonged to the government and not the Indians."
Likewise, land conquered by the Americans could not belong to the Indians because in law a conqueror acquires title to the land. It is therefore without precedent and amazing, Osborn argues, that the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 was established, arranging for the commission to consider Indian claims that land was wrongly taken from them. He notes that the Sioux were awarded $105 million because the government wrongfully took the Black Hills from them, which were theirs by treaty, and remarks, with apparent disapproval, that claims are still being pressed.
Osborn takes a similar lawyer's approach to the Trail of Tears, the removal of five tribes--Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Cherokee and Chickasaw--from the southeast to Oklahoma between 1831 and 1842. The tribes signed treaties of removal. Osborn ponders whether this removal, in which many Indians died, was an "atrocity." He often points out that writers of the time, including Catlin, said the Indians' new lands were excellent. Although Osborn recommends the reading of Catlin, there is no trace in his own work of Catlin's understanding for and empathy with the Native American.
Then why did Osborn write this book? Although he says he did so for historical accuracy, the tortures and mayhem he recounts are well-known to students of American history. The only discernible motive for Osborn's book seems to be a kind of ideological resentment toward Indians (he never calls them Native Americans) and their supporters. He quotes approvingly a writer who says that the $3 billion the U.S. government spends on Indians each year is largely wasted, and notes that the "settlers" provided Indians with many useful things, from guns to modern technology. Assimilation, he seems to suggest, is the only option left for them. Such reasoning suggests why "The Wild Frontier," contrary to its claim, is not a helpful contribution to the complex question of the place of Indians in America at the dawn of a new century.