The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Song of the Indian Wars is an epic poem in fourteen sections written in rhymed couplets and iambic pentameter. It is the fourth of a series of poems (“songs”) that form a larger epic, A Cycle of the West, which deals with a period of discovery, exploration, and settlement in American history (1822 to 1890). It was a period when American Indian cultures were being overcome by the migration of a powerful people (the Europeans) driven by their own needs and their dreams of a waiting paradise. This “song” deals with the period after the Civil War, a period of movement into Indian territory by whites and of resistance by the Plains Indians such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe. It ends with the death of its main character, Crazy Horse. The events were real events, and the poem’s central characters were real historical individuals.

The song opens with “The Sowing of the Dragon,” four years after Appomattox, as whites are looking westward to a land “clad with grains and jeweled with orchard.” Up along the bottoms of the Kaw, Republican, Platte, and Solomon Rivers come the sounds of wheel and hoof; “ten thousand wagons scar the sandy flat.” Ancestral pastures are gutted by the plow, and towns suddenly roar where there had been only space as wide as air. These “takers of the world” are of the “Cadmian brood,” sowing the dragon seeds of war. The Indians see the end of their sacred things and dread the dwindling of their holy places, so war sweeps down the rivers. Ox-driven caravans are plundered, and settlers are slaughtered.

In the next section, members of different tribes meet, torn between those who trust the treaties with the whites and those who remember only the broken promises. Spotted Tail, the voice of peace (now and later in the poem), urges conciliation; Red Cloud, the voice of war, urges resistance and carries the day. In the next section, a Cheyenne, Black Horse, comes to the Sioux and urges conciliation but is driven away by an angry mob. Red Cloud speaks again for war, supported by Sitting Bull. In the fourth section warfare begins when Indians attack a log train and soldiers from Fort Kearney scatter the Indians. The Army commander at Fort Kearney hears of a gathering of Sioux on the Powder River. Captain Fetterman boasts that he can easily destroy them, vows to wipe them out, and rides out to find them. He is ambushed, and he and his men are massacred. After the winter lull, Indians attack a wagon train near the fort. The soldiers escorting it crouch behind bales of hay, which the Indians set afire with flaming arrows; they then withdraw.

When summer comes, the Great White Father in Washington intervenes, closing the country to whites between the Missouri River and the Big Horn. Red Cloud is not convinced, however, and the next spring brings news from Kansas of women captured, men slaughtered,...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Song of the Indian Wars is an epic, one of five in Neihardt’s Cycle of the West. As an epic it has the traditional epic’s battle scenes. Each represents a different facet of warfare: the tense attack on the Wagon Boxes, the battle of Beecher’s Island, the massacre of Crazy Horse’s village; the ambush of Custer. The sympathy of the epic shifts in each scene between the white troops and the Indians. In each scene the intense battle action is interspersed with human details. At the Wagon Boxes, Old Robertson unlaces a boot and nooses the leather lace to reach between a trigger and a toe; another trooper sits cross-legged calmly picking jammed bullets out of a gun. At Beecher’s Island, Condon dashes out from behind a barrel of beans waving his rifle and shouting, “Come on! ye dairty blatherskites. We kin lick yez all,” before he falls beneath a shower of arrows.

The epic hero is Crazy Horse, Neihardt’s “ideal epic hero,” always portrayed as possessing courage in the face of overwhelming odds, always maintaining a certain dignity, even in death. Of the battle with Custer, Crazy Horse says, “I fought him and I whipped him. Was it wrong/ To drive him back? That country was my own.// I did not want to see my people die.// His soldiers came to kill us and they died.” The brother-in-law of Red Cloud, the advocate of warfare in the Sioux council, Crazy Horse was one of the principal chiefs of that tribe and one of the main leaders of those Indians who defied the authority of the United States for several years. Although a relatively young man, he...

(The entire section is 652 words.)