In his column ''Custer's Indian Allies'' (Zephyr May 4), Mitakuye Oyasin reveals a major reason why the American Indians fared so poorly against the White Man -- they let tribal rivalries get in the way of racial unity. Had the Red Man united against the White, the whole history of this country would have been different.
But long before the first European set foot on this continent, tribe was fighting tribe. When White settlers arrived, they simply played one tribe off against another.
When tribes did unite, it was a different matter. The best example is the League of the Iroquois. Its original Five Nations were the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Seneca. Formed about 1575, the League defeated one powerful enemy after another. Only a combination of French firearms and a deadly epidemic in the 1660s could defeat them. But they rebounded from this low point to become even more dominant for the next century.
During the 1680s and 1690s, the French and their Huron allies attacked the League repeatedly without success. By the turn of the century, the Five Nations -- numbering fewer than 20,000 people -- were masters of the area from the Ottawa River to the Cumberland, from Maine to Lake Michigan. After 1712, the Five Nations became Six when the Tuscarora were driven out of North Carolina and emigrated north to join their Iroquoisan kin.
The League, who controlled the only water level route from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, successfully played the French and English against each other. During the French and Indian War, they remained neutral as a League, but William Johnson recruited some unofficial warriors to help the British win the battle of Lake George in 1755. He also married a Mohawk maiden named Molly Brant and became guardian to her brother Joseph. Eventually, the British captured Montreal, and the war ended in 1763. With the French no longer a power in the area, the League had to deal with the British.
Soon, the Crown itself took exclusive control of Indian affairs from the squabbling Colonies and taxed the Colonies for the cost. This, of course, helped spur the Revolutionary War. William Johnson's Mohawk brother-in-law Joseph Brant allied the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca with the British. The Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the now-united Colonies. The division ended the power of the League forever. After the war, most of the Tory Iroquois went to Canada, and their lands were opened to White settlement.
Which brings us to the ''Fighting Illini.''
The Illiniwek or Illinois Confederation was a loose group of tribes including the Peoria, Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Tamaroa who once roamed Illinois from Lake Michigan (they called it Lake Illinois!) to the Illinois River valley. But pressure from the Iroquois League forced other tribes into northern and eastern Illinois, who in turn forced the Confederation toward the Illinois River. (The ''Fighting Illini'' were always fighting -- to preserve their way of life!) Eventually, the Iroquois invaded Illinois in 1655 and the resultant tribal wars reduced the Confederation to second rate status. When the French established trading forts at Creve Coeur and in the American Bottom, the Illini were unable to resist them and even clustered many of their villages around them for protection.
So, when Pontiac, the Ottawa leader, came to invite the Illini to join his alliance in the 1760s to expel the British from Ohio and Indiana, the Confederation played it cagey. They already had the protection of the French forts, so they decided to emulate the powerful Iroquois League and remain officially neutral. Promised French support did not appear for Pontiac, yet his alliance kept the British out of the area for three years before he signed a peace treaty in 1766. The Illini never did join the war, but they did try to take advantage of British bribes for peace and signed the 1766 Oswego Treaty.
On the way back from New York, a bitter Pontiac argued with an Illinois chief and stabbed him. The chief did not die and neither did the enmity between Pontiac and the Illinois.
When he went to Cahokia in April, 1769 to try to encourage a new uprising, Pontiac was tomahawked by a Peoria warrior while visiting the now-British trading post. Infuriated by the murder, the Ottawas and their allies swept down on the Illinois Confederation, killing all they could and driving the rest across the Mississippi where the survivors intermarried with other tribes and passed from the pages of history. (The last known Illini were moved from Illinois to a Kansas reservation in 1832.)
The sad lesson to all of this is that tribal politics did as much to undermine the Indians as the greed and racism of the Whites.
As William Brandon puts it in The American Heritage Book of Indians: ''The usual picture of land hungry White settlers irresistibly pushing the Indians back, ''clearing the Indians out,'' is naively oversimplified for any period, and basically wrong for the decisive years before 1800... In its early phases the progress of the North American frontier was at least as much a creation of Indian politics and attitudes as white pressures.
By 1876, when Custer died at the Little Bighorn, no Indian alliance could hope to prevail. And the Sioux, driven out of their forest home onto the prairie in the late 1600s by the Chippewas, (who had in turn been driven west by the Iroquois League) would feel the White Man's wrath until Wounded Knee broke them forever.