Dec 042009
Authors: Chris O'Toole

Though Native American participation in the U.S. Civil War is largely unknown, CSU professors and researchers said, tribes throughout the country had a significant impact on the war’s outcome.

This idea was communicated to a crowd of about 35 students Tuesday through a showing of the History Channel’s documentary “Indian Warriors,” which illustrated the involvement of noted Native Americans — Stand Watie, John Ross and Ely Parker — who changed the course of the war, particularly in the West.

The government originally drove multiple Native American tribes out of the war’s hotbed to an area in present-day Oklahoma. However, that area proved to be geographically crucial for both warring sides, and the Native Americans were once again embroiled in the Civil War.

Native American experts said that that the video and Native American Awareness Month serve to correct the many misconceptions formed about the people.

“People need to know that we fought, but we did not have the right to vote. We were drawn to a side because of our land base during the Civil War,” said Martha Burnside, an Ethnic Studies researcher who had seen the video previous to Tuesday. “(Native Americans) wanted to fight for our homelands. The Native Americans in the North wanted to fight for the North and those in the South wanted to fight for the South.”

“Tribes were not recognized as humans,” said Burnside, who has ethnic roots in the Mid-Western Sacnfox tribe.

Burnside also added that while awareness puts truth behind what happened, the truth is not well known by most.

“Most people don’t understand sovereignty issues. Treaties were a result of giving up land (during the Civil War),” she said. “The tribes have their own governments, courts, jails and boundaries. When the federal government deals with another tribe, it’s like dealing with another state.”

Professors and members of the CSU Native American community said showing the film was necessary because its content is not taught as thoroughly in early education as it should be.

“This movie was chosen because it seemed like very little was known about Native American involvement in such historical events. When I was growing up, we weren’t taught about the effect that the war had on them,” said Ty Smith, the director of CSU’s Native American Culture Center.

“Native American involvement is taught on CSU’s campus but, unfortunately, at the lower K-12 level, there is no mention of Native American involvement,” Smith added. “Native American history gives a more in depth view of history. When you attend events like today’s, it gives you a richer understanding of American history.”

Associate Professor Greg Smoak, who introduced the film, said he was glad that the issue of the underexposure of Native American participation in the Civil War was brought to the light but said that the movie could have gone deeper.

While individuals including Ely Parker, a Union officer and Ulysses S. Grant’s commissioner of affairs, were shown as key players in the film, Smoak said that focusing on individuals “leaves the bigger picture out.”

“The video did not focus on the reasons for the conflicts (within) the Cherokee tribes, and the look on John Ross, chief of the Cherokees, was too brief,” said Smoak, whose background includes Native American history and U.S. military history.

Smoak also said that the movie could have included other conflicts during the Civil War in the West, including the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, as well as a highlight of those people within specific tribes who didn’t take sides and the expansion of American government.

Overall, those interviewed were pleased with how Native American Awareness Month has affected CSU to date.

“There’s always room for more education and awareness, and there are lots of misconceptions,” said Ethnic Studies Senior Researcher Barbara Plested. “Over 560 tribes are federally recognized, and they differ as far as language, economics, land base and culture.”

“There is a vast array of difference. This month really highlights the good things of the culture,” Plested said.

Staff writer Chris O’Toole can be reached at

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