Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

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The Song of the Indian Wars is an epic of westward expansion and the displacement of Native Americans after the end of the American Civil War—one of the great archetypal movements in the history of the world. White people with their dreams are migrating into the vast expanses of a land that is new to them but ancient and holy to Indians. The poem is a record of a confrontation with tragic overtones for both parties.

The story is told impersonally but with an overriding compassion for both sides. It avoids stereotypes and alternates between the viewpoints of Indians and whites, both involved in a struggle neither fully understands. For the Indians it is the end of sacred things and the dwindling of holy places; for the whites it is the promise of a land “clad with grains,/ Jewelled with orchard.” For Indians it involves displacement from their homeland, for whites an unexplored frontier to be conquered and settled. Neihardt saw the Indian Wars as a confrontation between the old and the new, a “watershed of history.” It is a struggle fraught with tragedy: the wounded and dead in the massacre of Crazy Horse’s village and the vast expanse of white bodies strewn across the valley at the Little Big Horn.

Blair Whitney, in John G. Neihardt (1976), sees in this epic the fulfillment of the destiny of a race (whites of European descent) and the triumph—for good or ill—of Western civilization. The struggle brings out the best qualities of the immigrants—intelligence, strength, heroism, and faith. Yet it also involves the demise of a radically different culture of equal value. One, the European, is a logical, rational, acquisitive culture; whites are the masters of technology. The other, the Indian, is a spiritual culture with very simple technology that uses the land for hunting. Praying is an integral part of the Indian faith. Neihardt’s theme, Whitney continues, is selfishness versus unselfishness. In the section entitled “The Yellow God,” the heading has a double meaning: the debasing greed for gold sought by the invading prospectors, and the blond “yellow god” Custer, who has come to the Black Hills to protect them. The irony shows in Neihardt’s lines describing this “errant Galahad” searching for an unworthy grail and mistaking “the color of the gleam.” The Indian Wars were more than a fight over territory; they were also contests between two ways of life. The Indian cannot understand the white drive to conquer the earth, to acquire more and more land. Neihardt symbolically portrays a confrontation between buffalo and train.

This epic is also about a sometimes hostile nature. At times it seems as though the elements had cursed the plains. Burning August gives way to the sudden, chill monotony of rains, and horses must struggle against the suck of gumbo flats and hills of clay. Crows and buzzards hover overhead. In the wagon train, women and children sometimes sicken and even die. The dead must be buried along the trail. The Song of the Indian Wars, as Aly observes, is about ordinary men who are transformed into heroes by events, who are struggling against impossible odds to preserve values they cherish. It “represents the universal striving to sustain life, and the pathos of a world where brave and noble men must attack each other in a mistaken attempt to satisfy the same human needs.”