The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1182

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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, and trains burned along the Santa Fe Trail. A contingent of cavalry pursues the Indians, who stop their withdrawal, then turn at Beecher’s Island and attack. Beecher is killed, and the soldiers are surrounded for five days until rescued by reinforcements.

In the eighth section, after his victory at the Battle of Washita, the reputation of General George Armstrong Custer, “The Yellow God,” spreads throughout the West, and for four years there is peace. Then Custer leads his army into the Black Hills of the Dakotas, an area which they discover is a “paradise of deer and singing streams.” Their reports spread back east and bring a stream of whites with dreams of wealth to be exploited. Alarmed, the young Sioux gather and chant their war songs to the drums. Many of them join Sitting Bull at the Tongue and Powder Rivers. The government in Washington orders all Indians to go to reservations or be declared hostile, but Crazy Horse’s people stay where they are. The cavalry rides into their camp and sets fire to the lodges where the Indians lie asleep; they leave a trail of blood. The surviving Sioux flee in panic up the slopes of the mountains, later returning to find a destroyed village; the village settles down, now only a “miracle of patches.”

When the news of the massacre spreads among the Sioux, the young braves are aroused. The whole white world seems to be sweeping the prairies. The braves set out on a series of raids, but the whites are joined by many from the traditional enemies of the Sioux—the Roos and Crows. The Sioux turn to the Great Spirit for help, raising a pole in the center of their village and performing the Sun Dance. The white army gathers its forces to clear a path for Custer, who then proceeds recklessly, not waiting for the reinforcements. The Indians attack. After the dust settles, there is nothing but bodies “gleaming white the whole way to the summit of the hill.” A brooding silence reigns. Reinforcements arrive, but too late. Reno scatters the Sioux, who flee to Big Horn Mountain.

In section 13, despite their victory, the Sioux lose heart. The people are listless. Their only hope is flight, but they are uncertain as to where they should flee. They turn eastward. General Crook follows their diverging trails, which reveal that they are “like quails before the hunter.” Crazy Horse and Gall, with their people, have vanished. Crazy Horse turns westward instead and reaches the valley of the Powder River, where he hopes they will find peace. In January, however, news arrives of approaching soldiers. Crazy Horse’s people flee to the head of the Little Powder River. Spotted Tail, still the advocate of peace, comes and urges compliance with the whites, and Crazy Horse finally brings his people in. As the last Sioux comes into the reservation, Crazy Horse says, “Now let my people eat.”

After a while, news comes how Nez Perce leader Joseph, undaunted, has fought the whites and reappeared down the Yellowstone River. Hearing this, the whites now fear what Crazy Horse might be thinking, since he has left the reservation and gone to the camp of Spotted Tail, his uncle and the advocate of peace, to be with his people there. The white officer asks him to return to Camp Robinson for talks, in all sincerity promising him that no harm will come to him. Crazy Horse believes him and comes to the fort, but when he arrives he is hustled among bayonets to a barred room. Frightened, he struggles. A soldier, now also frightened, panics and stabs him. Lying on the floor, Crazy Horse sings his death chant, “I had my village and my pony herds/ On Powder where the land was all my own./ I only wanted to be left alone./ I did not want to fight,” and dies. Crazy Horse’s mother and father come to get the body, and they bear it away on a pony-drag to lie somewhere among the Badlands: “Who knows the crumbling summit where he lies/ Alone among the badlands?”

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652

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 was the most respected man in the tribe. The name “crazy” is a poor translation of the Sioux word witko, which means “magic” or “enchanted,” referring to his supposed special and sacred vision. Neihardt places him in juxtaposition with the whites’ idea of a great general, Custer, who possesses their ideal kind of courage. Crazy Horse is heroic like a lonely man bravely fighting the sea.

The Song of the Indian Wars, like all true epics, is the mirror of a society—in this case, that of the Plains Indian. It reveals its structure in peace and in war, along with details of daily life and tribal mores. It focuses on the several tribal chiefs, on tribal and intertribal councils for decision making, and on the details of ceremonial procedure. It records the great orations before the councils, most of them accounts garnered from the memories of someone present. The nomadic life is portrayed, as the tribes from time to time fold their tepees and wander up the rivers. As war looms, the young men chant to the drums, and a sacred pole is raised in the center of the village, where the men perform the Sun Dance. Indian strategies in warfare are described: the flaming arrows, the surprise raids, the dissolving of the trails they leave behind, and the fading away after defeats—and sometimes after victories. There is the ceremony in donning the war bonnet and the death-paint. There are the prayers to the Great Spirit, the body-drag for the dead.

Neihardt’s method of composition was unique. He believed in a prodding demon as the motivating force behind his poetry, compelling him to preserve a “great heroic race-mood that might otherwise be lost.” As Lucile Aly tells it in her John G. Neihardt (a 1976 monograph in Boise State University’s Western Writers Series), “To recreate the mood, he began each session byimmersing himself in the atmosphere until he reached a near trance state,” working and reworking each line. Indian language, for which Neihardt had a well-tuned ear, translates into elevated speech appropriate for an epic—straightforward, dignified, and poetic. The poem often achieves a special, emotionally elevating cadence, especially in the orations before the councils.