Indian Chiefs Essay - Critical Essays

Russell Freedman


One of the most important criteria when evaluating a collective biography is to determine whether it has a unifying theme, one that goes beyond the choice of subjects with something in common. The six subjects of Indian Chiefs were all leaders of their tribes during the period following the Civil War, when the surge of white settlement began in the West, the buffalo were exterminated in great numbers, and Native American tribes were relegated to reservations. Freedman portrays each chief as a unique individual, one who in his own way tried to meet the challenge of leading his people in this time of crisis. Despite their common leadership during a particular period, however, there were major differences in the approach that each chief believed was appropriate for dealing with the problems brought upon his people by the whites. Several of the chiefs advocated peaceful means of handling white settlement and thought that cooperation was the best way to secure some part of the tribal way of life for their people. Others maintained that militant resistance was the only way to retain their traditional ways. In some cases, there were divisions within tribes or changes from pacifist approaches to more militant ones as cooperation proved futile. Yet the ultimate conclusion, and the larger irony to be found in Freedman’s work, is that, whatever stance was taken, the Native American way of life was, inevitably, to be destroyed. It is this unifying element, this pervading sense of tragedy, that gives depth to the biography and results in a major impact on the reader.

Another strength of the work is Freedman’s choice of insightful quotations, such as the one by an old Kiowa woman: “We...

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