Outside editor at large Hampton Sides has a gift for homing in on some of the most intense and violent moments in history. Winner of the 2002 PEN USA Award for non-fiction, he wrote about Bataan Death March survivors in his first book, the bestselling Ghost Soldiers (adapted into the film The Great Raid), and pivotal moments in modern America, such as 9/11, in his second book, Americana. His latest work, Blood and Thunder (available October 3 from Doubleday) takes readers back to the glory and violence of the American West from 1846 to 1868, when Indians, Spanish, Mexicans, and Americansthe latter led by Kit Carsonfought bloody battles while staking their claims in the New World. For his book, and an article he wrote for Outside's October issue, "The Place Where Two Fell Off," Sides explores Arizona's Canyon de Chelly, where, in the winter of 1864, Carson and his men finally forced the Navajo out of their longtime home. In August 2006, Sides spoke with Outside's CHARLES BETHEA from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about his five years of research, the controversial Kit Carson, and one of the most tragic, brutal chapters in American history.
OUTSIDE: In "The Place Where Two Fell Off," a Navajo guide takes you into Canyon de Chelly. Is this one of the overlooked natural wonders of the West?
Clearly, you aren't the average tourist. Did your guide know you'd done some background reading?
[Laughter] We traded a lot of stories. It's amazing to me how differently the Navajo view history. The stories I've read in books didn't jibe with half the anecdotes he told me. It presents an interesting problem for a historian who's trying to figure out how to honor Native American oral history-and remain true to what's been written. Sometimes you just can't reconcile it. You have to accept that these stories are never going to intersect.
How difficult was it to sort through those discrepancies for Blood and Thunder?
As an author, you present multiple versions for the reader and say, "This story's been passed down through the Navajo oral tradition" and leave it at that. You can't overcome discrepancies with finesse.
At least Canyon de Chelly is a rock-solid source. What role does it play in your book?
It's the spiritual heartland of Navajo country, and the narrative keeps circling back to it. When the Americans were trying to conquer the Navajos, they felt this need to capture Canyon de Chelly like it was the Navajo capital. It was a meeting place and a sanctuary of last refuge. To control Canyon de Chelly was to control the Navajo people. That was the belief, and it ended up being true with Kit Carson's campaign.
Your best-known book, Ghost Soldiers, focuses on forgotten violence. Is that what drew you to this time in American history?
There's a national cemetery in Santa Fe that's full of traditional gravestoneslike Arlington, but smaller. A lot of the stones say things like KILLED BY SAVAGES. The guys called out here to fight probably had the same qualities we celebrate in soldiers from other wars, but we now consider their war morally suspect. We swallowed the West up without realizing we'd inherited this bloody series of tribal feuds. The similarities to our current war are striking. Then there's Kit Carson, who fought and led so many of these battles. He crops up everywhere in New Mexico, and I wanted to know more about him.
Does Carson have any living relatives?
There's John Carson, who's a teacher and rancher in La Junta, Colorado. He looks a lot like his great grandfather. He actually played him in a documentary. He basically rode around on a horse and looked like Kit.
How does Blood and Thunder compare with Ghost Soldiers?
Superficially, the stories are very similar. This one's about a long siege, a surrender, a forced marchessentially another death marchto an exile experience, and then, finally, the return home. But the question of who the protagonists were is more complicated.
Have the Navajo recovered from their march?
In a lot of ways they haven't. They still talk about it like it happened yesterday. And they really hate Kit Carsonunderstandably. What's different about the Navajo war from many other Indian wars is that the Navajos completely surrendered and moved 350 miles to another location. Kit Carson didn't really fight Indians so much as destroy their crops and livestock, arresting anyone he found. He conquered the Navajos by starving them to death. And I think that's a particularly bitter pill for the Navajo to swallow, even today.
Kit made 2,000-mile transcontinental treks the way we take weekend walks. Would you have gone on one?
No. The landscape may have been pristine and full of tribal groups with their own cultural integrity, but in almost every other respect it was a Hobbesian bloodbath. You couldn't travel anywhere without fearing for your life. Medicine was unbelievably crude. There was no law, and thus no outlaws. Anyone who feels nostalgia for this period is naïve the bloodshed and the massacres and the torturing and the corpse mutilationit's just unbelievable.
The title of your book references this ultra-violence, but is there any subtext to it that readers might not know of?
It comes from the literary genre that originally made Kit Carson famous. The early westerns were these cheap, terribly written, almost comic novellas called "blood-and-thunders." The title is meant to capture the tension that was part of Kit Carson's life and the myth of the West. It also just sounds like a western.
The Navajo chief Narbona tried nobly, but without success, to make peace between his people and the "new men." What's his legacy?
The Navajos aren't interested in celebrating individual leaders. Even today they're a consensus-oriented tribe. Whites say, "Take me to your leader." They say, "We have tribal elders, we have medicine men " The Navajos finally said, "OK, if there's a leader, it's Narbona. He's one of our oldest and greatest warriors." He may be the first Navajo to emerge from tribal anonymity. He's almost the George Washington of the Navajobut they would never say that.
How would you classify Carson historically?
He went everywhere, knew everybody, and was something of a gentleman. But he's most known for the brutal war on the Navajos. Kit Carson's name has become shorthand for "white domination" among tribes. He's lately started to eclipse Custer as the bad guy in Indian America. But he was much more complicated than Custer. And his relationship to Native Americans was more varied. I don't let Carson off the hook morally, but I don't think comparisons to Hitler are fair, either.
So who's the villain?
The real villain is his boss, General James Carleton, who came up with the scorched-earth policy of moving the Navajo. He wanted Carson to be more ruthless. He was a Calvinist New Englander, an insufferable disciplinarian, who thought he knew what was right for the Indians and just rammed it down their throats. Everything he said and wrote made me wince.
Does context bail any of these guys out?
There were basically two schools of thought: one was to exterminate the Indians, who were "incapable of being socialized and civilized." A lot of the enlightened people believed thateven Mark Twain. Kit Carson believed the alternative: Set aside large land masses, so the Indians won't be contaminated by the white man but will gradually learn to assimilate and become proficient with agriculture. It's still a horribly patronizing and naïve view, but little else was discussed in Washington.
Could anyone in Hollywood handle this film? I'd love to see Tarantino's take on the Battle of Mule Hill.
Russell Crowe would be an amazing Kit Carson. He could capture his schizoid side. Kit was, by all accounts, a sweet-natured, wonderful man: a great father, loyal friend, and abiding husband. He learned the culture and languages of different tribes. Everyone was fond of him. But then he'd snap-these unbelievable frenzies of violence. Not many actors could pull that off.
What's your next battle?
Between this book and Ghost Soldiers, it's been one solid decade of mayhem and destruction. I'm going to take it easy for a while and stay away from anything that has to do with massacres and bloodshed.