Robert G. Hays chronicles the "Indian problem" precisely as it was explained to Americans through the editorial columns of the New York Times between 1860 and 1900, the years when battles between white settlers and Native Americans split a nation and its spirit apart.
Covering the final forty-one years of the nineteenth century, Hays’s collection of Times editorials gives readers what current accounts cannot: perspectives by contemporary writers with unique insights into the public images of Native Americans and their place in a nation bent on expansion. The authentic voices of a national newspaper’s daily record speak with an urgency both immediate and real.
These editorials express the unbridled bitterness and raw ambition of a nation immersed in an agenda of conquest. They also resonate with the struggle to find a common ground. Some editorials are patronizing and ironic: "Yet it seems pitiful to cage so fine a savage among a herd of vulgar criminals in a penitentiary." Others include a willingness to poke fun: "Many persons on the platform were astonished to find that an ‘illiterate barbarian’ could handle the weapon of sarcasm. The truth is that the Indians spoke far better than ninety-nine out of a hundred members of congress." And yet others evince an attitude of respect, which set the tone for reconciling national ambition with natural rights.
In some instances, the Times allowed Native Americans to tell their own stories, as in this eloquent, moving account of the testimony of Satanta, the warrior chief of the Kiowas: "A certain dim foreboding of the Indians’ fate swept across his mind, and in its passage lit his eyes up with a fierce light, and his voice rose to a pitch of frenzy as he exclaimed: ‘We don’t want to settle—I love to roam over the prairie; there I am free and happy."
History demonstrates that the costs of owning one’s soil and one’s destiny remain without measure. Many of the problems blocking the progress of Native Americans continue unsolved: unemployment, infant mortality, suicide, crime, alcoholism, and poverty. Following such works as Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Hays looks back on the records of national history for the roots of our challenges today.