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Book Review: Andrew Graybill, The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West

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The borderlands historian Andrew Graybill’s latest book is an extremely readable saga into the great complexities of what it has meant to be mixed-race in the American West. The Red and the White is a set of family biographies from one Montana family that originated with the marriage of a fur trader and a Piegan woman. Spanning the early 19th through mid 20th century, Graybill demonstrates the complexity of race in the American West, where mixed white-Native American families faced both opportunity and discrimination, choosing between two different and competing worlds (and often having choices made for them).

At the center of the story is the Marias Massacre. Many of the major massacres of Native Americans by Americans are well-known to us–Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, Washita. The campaigns to eliminate the Lakota and Nez Perce, the forced marches of the Cherokee and Navajo–these have become part of our national memory. Some are spots of national mourning and remembrance. The National Park Service has played a leading role in this, negotiating the tremendously tricky and contentious politics around Sand Creek, renaming Custer Battlefield as the Little Big Horn, etc. Native Americans themselves have played a leading role in creating these newer ways of understanding the expansion of Europeans across the North American continent. Visiting Wounded Knee is a powerful and disturbing experience because of the poverty and palpable anger of the people who live at Pine Ridge. Another example is how the Pequot Museum forces visitors to hear about the genocide against their people by the Puritans in 1637.

Yet the Marias Massacre–and many other events–remain almost completely unknown to everyone who is not a historian of the American West. In 1870, the Second U.S. Calvary attacked a Piegan (which are part of the larger tribe called the Blackfeet) encampment and massacred all they could see. Around 200 people were killed that day, even though this encampment probably had nothing to do with the violence that led to it. Central to this event was the murder of a fur trader named Malcolm Clarke.

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Site of the Marias Massacre

Graybill tells five stories over three generations around the Clarke family. He begins with Coth-co-co-na, a Piegan woman who would marry trader Malcolm Clarke in 1844. We can’t know all that much about the details of her life, especially the early years, so Graybill uses this as an introduction to how rapidly the world is changing for the Blackfeet in the early 19th century. Horses, guns, fur traders, disease, and white American expansions had completely turned the lives of northern Plains people upside down and the worst was yet to come.

The second biography is of Clarke himself. A hot-tempered man kicked out of West Point, he roamed around a bit before moving to the upper reaches of the Missouri River, where he became one of the most successful fur traders in the region. His marriage to Coth-co-co-na was far from unusual during this period, as white traders had many reasons to take indigenous wives–sometimes for love, sometimes for trading advantage, often for both. Those relationships were often fluid, as was not uncommon for many native peoples and which gave white traders the advantage of avoiding the stigma of interracial sex if they reentered white society. But Clarke and Coth-co-co-na were together until the day he died, in 1870, after growing violence between whites and the Blackfeet led to his murder in a planned attack by members of his wife’s family.

When Clarke was murdered, the American military response became the Marias Massacre. This story is told through Clarke and Co-co-co-na’s son, Horace Clarke. As a mixed-race child in a transforming world that did not have much of a place for people like him, Horace had to make a decision when his father was murdered: would he side with this father’s people or his mother’s? He chose the former and was there during the Marias Massacre. Yet he chose to live most of his life among the Piegans despite his role in the violence. He married a Piegan woman and established a homestead near what is today East Glacier Park, Montana, serving as a mediator between the government and the Piegans.

One literature this book really contributes to is the effect of the Civil War on the West. By 1870, with William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan in command of the postwar Army, the military had taken the lessons they learned in defeating the Confederates and applied them to Native Americans. In 1868, the Army massacred a group of Cheyenne at the Washita Massacre in what is today western Oklahoma. The death of so many innocents there caused widespread criticism in the east and stung the military. Sheridan wanted to avoid a repeat of this in putting down the Blackfeet but when he was unable to do so, and such a truly horrific massacre of people who had done nothing wrong took place, Sheridan defended himself. He wrote to Sherman, “Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg or Atlanta because women and children were there?” What these generals failed to see was the moral complexity of the world in which they lived and that different opponents might need different strategies. In fact, William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, and other ex-abolitionists still fighting for social justice actually rallied enough opposition to strip the military of quite a bit of authority over Indian affairs in the aftermath of the Marias Massacre.

Malcolm and Coth-co-co-na’s daughter Helen had an even more fascinating tale. She went to Minnesota to live with her father’s family after his death, moved to New York and then Europe where she became an actress for a short time, although with seemingly very positive feedback for her height (she was 5’10” in a time of short people), her look, and her acting ability. She then returned to Montana, probably because she ran out of money, where she became the first woman (along with another at the same time) to win election to public office in Montana. Then in 1890, she moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the wake of the insidious Dawes Act to work for the federal government as an allotment agent, convincing the Ponca and Otoe peoples to give up most of their land. Despite all of this, she lived in poverty for most of her life, had her own land allotted when she moved back to the Blackfeet reservation, and eventually lived with her brother at the end of their lives.

Finally, Horace’s son John lost his hearing as a baby, yet became one of the West’s most renowned artists. Working primarily as an animal sculptor in wood, he sold pieces around the nation and received major commissions later in his life. He married a white woman yet identified very strongly as a Piegan, posing with headdresses on and creating art based around traditional Piegan ways of life.

Detailing how each of these five complex people negotiated the fraught racial terrain of western and American history is fascinating because unlike so many of these stories, such as that of the Bent family of Colorado, this does not end in disaster for most family members. Rather these are stories of great complexity, adding significantly to our understanding of race and the West. Strongly recommended for LGM readers.

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