John G. Neihardt’s writings described what today would be called a “clash of civilizations,” only this one involving a category of humanity not traditionally associated, unfair though that has been, as a genuine “civilization.” Without judging, but with the full measure of brutality implied, Neihardt, in The Song of the Indian Wars, presents as basically inevitable the protracted conflict that pitted European settlers against Native tribes. In his epic poem, Neihardt references “Gray Fox,” a commanding officer in the U.S. Army, who systematically leads his troops against those who had laid claim to land now sought by whites. In part X, the author writes:
“Still wilder rumors grew,
They told of soldiers massed against the Sioux
And waiting till the grass was good, to fall
On Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Gall . . .”
The westward expansion of the United States following the Civil War was carried out with ruthless efficiency, driven by racist attitudes and the suggestion that expansion across the continent was the God-given duty of this still-new nation. Long columns of American soldiers marched inexorably across the land, laying claim to every inch of territory they could on behalf of the United States. At the head of those columns were the officers, majors, colonels and generals, the latter in particular reflecting the struggles they had endured, especially those hardened by the Civil War. They wore beards and exuded authority. Neihardt captures this image in his references to the Gray Fox:
“. . .The Gray Fox marching up the Bozeman road.
How long a dust above his horsemen flowed!
How long a dust his walking soldiers made!
Neihardt’s stanzas present the image of an indomitable American army marching ever-forward, leaving devastation in his wake:
“For now the hunted prairie people knew
How powerful the Gray Fox camp had grown
On goose creek; how along the Yellowstone
The mounted soldiers and the walking ones –
A multitude – had got them wagon guns . . .”
And so it was marching down the Tongue
The Gray Fox seeking for the hostile bands,
Saw nothing but the desolated lands . . .”
As The Song of the Indian Wars continues, the destruction of native cultures is rendered plain, and the killing of all manner of native peoples described (“our babies died, for many lodges burned, and it was cold”). “Gray Fox” is actually a reference to General George Crook, one of the U.S. Army’s more successful leaders during the Indian wars. In Neihardt’s volume When the Tree Flowered: The Story of Eagle Voice, a Sioux Indian, the author discusses General Crook in a more conventional narrative form, calling him by this moniker (“Gray Fox”). In The Song of the Indian Wars, Gray Fox continues to be a constant presence in the conflict, but one gets the sense that in the poem, as opposed to the historical narrative of When the Tree Flowered, “Gray Fox” is more than General Crook. Rather, he represents the all the officers who led this genocidal campaign against the native tribes who populated the continent. Neihardt makes clear, however, that it was not personal; it was only business.