Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path: A Superb Little Book

Indian Country Today

Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path: A Superb Little Book

The book should be required reading everywhere to understand the tragedy, duplicity and stupidity of 19th century US policy, while giving a closer look at the leader known as Black Hawk

Roger L. Nichols, a professor at the University of Arizona, is one of the nation’s leading scholars of American Indian history, with more than a dozen books and about 50 scholarly articles. The first edition of Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path, initially designed for classroom teaching, came out in 1992. After a quarter of a century, Nichols has lots more to say.

It is too bad the press has not marketed it as a “trade book,” because it is extraordinarily well written, has no technical jargon and does not engage in debates with other scholars. Nichols clearly and engagingly tells the complicated history of U.S.-Indian relations in the upper Mississippi Valley from the Revolution to the 1830s. He recounts the history of the Sauk and their often grim and violent relations with the Osage, Menominee and Sioux, and their alliances with the Mesquakie, Winnebago and Kickapoo. All of this is shown through the eyes and experiences of one of the most famous leaders in American Indian history: Black Hawk, or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (1767 – October 3, 1838).

In 1832, Black Hawk led the Sauk in the short war that bears his name. Curiously, it is one of only three post-colonial Indian wars named for Native leaders. The others are Tecumseh’s War (1811-13) and Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868). With the exception of the mostly futile attempts to defeat the Seminole in the Florida Territory, Black Hawk’s War was the last U.S.-Indian conflict east of the Mississippi River. It ended in disaster for the Sauk, and left Black Hawk in leg irons as a prisoner of war. Few people know much about the war other than it ended in massacre of women, children and Indian soldiers, and that Abraham Lincoln served as a militia captain. He saw no combat, but learned how unpleasant military service could be. The war was short and bloody, and when it was over, the Sauk permanently moved west of the Mississippi.

Who was Black Hawk? In 1831, Black Hawk attended a meeting at Rock Island, Illinois, where Gen. Edmund P. Gaines ordered the Sauk to abandon the traditional center of their nation at Saukenuk, along with buildings, well-tilled farms and graves of ancestors. Saukenuk was on the Rock River, just south of the present day city of Rock Island. (Unlike the whites, who built their cities right on the Mississippi River, the Sauk were smart enough to respect the power of the Father of Waters, and built a few miles from it, knowing it often flooded and wiped out everything in its path.) The Sauk chiefs at the meeting were ready to acquiesce to the inevitable and leave their homes.

The aging warrior Black Hawk arrived at the meeting with a band of followers carrying bows, full quivers of arrows, “lances, spears, and war clubs.” Black Hawk held no official position among the Sauk, but he was a former war chief, a respected elder and a warrior of great fame and honor. As soon as Gaines stopped talking, Black Hawk vehemently denounced him, declaring, “we are determined to hold onto our village.”

Gaines demanded to know “Who is Black Hawk?” The aging warrior responded, “I am a Sauk. My forefather was a SAUK! And all the Nations call me a SAUK!” A year later, Black Hawk would lead his people into battle one more time, in a futile effort to hold his village.

Nichols paints this Sauk as a conservative, often inflexible, man, steeped in the traditions of his people, trying to preserve a culture and way of life against the tide of history – and white settlement and military power. The war did not have to happen, Nichols writes. Black Hawk claims he never wanted a war, but only crossed back into Illinois (from Iowa) to claim his rightful land, or to move north into Wisconsin. He sent some of his warriors to negotiate with Americans under a flag of truce. The American soldiers shot at the Indians instead and the unnecessary war began. This is one of the many moments in this book where we see tragedies that might have been averted.

After the war, the Army imprisoned Black Hawk for about a year, in St. Louis, Missouri, and then Virginia. He was in part a prisoner and in part a famous guest. He sat for portraits, met with dignitaries and his captors made him tour the U.S., seeing the vast cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. He witnessed a man ride in a hot air balloon, travelled on the newly invented trains, and returned to Iowa understanding the impossibility of making war on such powerful enemies. Back in Iowa, Black Hawk was a local celebrity and dictated his autobiography, which is one of the earliest autobiographies of a Native leader. The Life of Ma-Ka-Tia-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk, was published in Cincinnati in 1833. It was a minor best-seller and brought fame and honor to Black Hawk in the last years of his life.

His celebrity remains. Parks and historic sites are named for him. The U.S. Army honors his memory as a warrior with the famous Black Hawk helicopter. I suspect Black Hawk would smile at the irony of the descendants of his enemies honoring his bravery and military skills in this way. At the other extreme, the National Hockey League team in Chicago bears his name—and then desecrates it with a racist, cartoonish caricature that looks nothing like Black Hawk. What makes the Chicago Black Hawks mascot particularly awful is that we know what exactly Black Hawk looked like. During a trip to the East in 1828 and during a year of incarceration in 1832-33) a number of famous painters, including George Catlin, Charles Bird King, Richard M. Sully, and John Wesley Jarvis, did his portrait. The Black Hawk State Historical Site in Rock Island has a plaster cast of his head from about 1830 and a respectful statue of the great Sauk leader. Not surprisingly, none of these portraits resemble the cartoon of a Native man that serves as the mascot for the hockey team, perhaps surpassed only by the mascot for the Cleveland Indians in over-the-top racism.

This superb little book ought to be required reading everywhere so all Americans can see the tragedy, duplicity and stupidity of U.S. policy in the early nineteenth century while also appreciating the wisdom, bravery and sometimes stubborn failures of Black Hawk. Like all great leaders, he is flawed, imperfect and also heroic. His humanity jumps from this book to our own world.

Paul Finkelman, Ph.D. is the John E. Murray Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, and in the fall of 2017 will hold the Fulbright Chair in Human Rights at the University of Ottawa. His book, Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court will be published by Harvard University Press in January 2018.