Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The dynamics of Native American military effectiveness: Horses from the southwest, firearms from the northeast

It’s a rare and joyous thing when you can read an article that changes how you look at an entire subject. This happened to me a couple of days ago when I read an article that one of youse recommended, “The Inter-Tribal Balance of Power on the Great Plains, 1760-1850,” by Colin G. Calloway.

Frederic_Remington_-_The_Parley_-_Google_Art_Project
Frederic_Remington_-_The_Parley_-_Google_Art_Project

It’s a rare and joyous thing when you can read an article that changes how you look at an entire subject. This happened to me a couple of days ago when I read an article that one of youse recommended, “The Inter-Tribal Balance of Power on the Great Plains, 1760-1850,” by Colin G. Calloway.

It’s a rare and joyous thing when you can read an article that changes how you look at an entire subject. This happened to me a couple of days ago when I read an article that one of youse recommended, “The Inter-Tribal Balance of Power on the Great Plains, 1760-1850,” by Colin G. Calloway.

I’ve read a few books on American Indian wars, but none of them hit me like this short article. The key points of the article are:

— “The culture of equestrian nomads of the Great Plains was relatively short-lived.”

— “the spread of horses and guns [caused] great upheavals in native power structures”

— “The flow of horses on to the plains from the southwest and the diffusion of guns from the northeast meant that the location of a given society had a great effect on its survival potential.”

— “the Comanche . . . were the richest tribe in horses”

— When the price of wolf skins dropped in London, “The Atsina found that their wolf skins now brought them far less in trade than did the beaver pelts of their Cree enemies, and, as a consequences, the Cree were able to attain superiority in firearms.”

— “A major reason for the decline of the village peoples was the fact that they were more vulnerable to epidemics than were the scattered nomads.”

— “By the mid-nineteenth century the Sioux had reached the height of their power. . . . Nor was the Sioux/American clash a case of white civilization robbing innocent savages of lands they had held from time immemorial. It was a clash of two expanding empires, with the most dramatic battles occurring on lands only recently taken by the Sioux from other tribes…. The victory of the U.S. Army was only hastened by the face that many plains tribes regarded the Sioux, and not the Anglo-Americans, as their greatest threat.”

Frederic Remington/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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