Richard's Reviews > Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
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's review
Jun 22, 2009

it was amazing

Dee Brown, Head Librarian at the University of Illinois, has written a number of histories and novels with the American West and Civil War as his main themes, dated both before and after he wrote "Bury My Heart" while in his 60's. Almost 40 years after its first printing, this book is still in print. It shows that the common perceptions of the "winning of the West" have been based on a flawed viewpoint, since they do not represent a winning proposition for all Americans. Brown writes from an alternative perspective of looking through the eyes of the Indian, by looking East instead of West, toward the source of the downfall of the tribes who inhabited the Great Plains, Southwestern Desert and Pacific Northwest.

The title of the book is derived from a phrase in the poem "American Names" by Stephen Vincent Benet. A film version of the book, based on its last two chapters, was aired by HBO Films in 2007. The title of the book was also used in a song by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The book's historical context occurs between 1860 and 1890 when, as Brown tells us, the culture and civilization of the American Indian was finally destroyed.

A reoccurring process is depicted in which the members of each tribe, in turn, found their fortunes changed from living freely in their ancestral homelands to living as wards of the federal government, usually in a state of neglect, on reservations. "Bury My Heart" contains example after example of the broken treaties, unkept promises, undelivered food and clothing or annuities needed for purchasing life necessities by the Indians.

The process that led to this plight usually started with a commission being sent from Washington to negotiate a treaty for ceding some native land for construction of a road or railroad right-of-way. Forts would be built along the way for the protection of commerce, and a flood of land speculators and settlers would come into the area in numbers that the Indians never anticipated. Land "reserved" for the natives to live on would usually be trespassed upon, especially when gold was discovered on Indian land. Representatives of the tribes, who, Brown states, exhibited almost universal trust in the original government treaty negotiators, would be surprised to find their pleas for enforcement of the treaties' perpetual protections of their rights to fall on deaf ears. Despite the best diplomatic efforts of some of the Indian leaders, violence would usually erupt.

Thus the wheels were set in motion to subdue the "savages" by sending the Army against them. The Indians were good fighters and knew how to survive in their homelands. However, they had the disadvantage of constantly having to move people of all ages and their possessions in order to elude a pursuing Army, which could stay in the field until the natives were worn out and starved from running. Occasionally the Army would get the jump on a whole tribal encampment and subdue it by a process of wholesale massacre against all inhabitants, young and old, as occurred at Sand Creek and at the Washita. This is a simplification of complex events that unfolded in different ways at different times, but it demonstrates how the legal cards were stacked against the native Americans.

Brown has been criticized for repetitious reporting because he has documented repeating scenarios of disaster for numerous tribes. The book is, however, a comprehensive indictment of the governmental incompetency and corruption which broke the spirit of the western tribes. Specific mention is made of the "Indian Ring" which included officials ranging from the Grant administration's Secretary of War to Indian Agents who were taking bribes from companies with licenses to trade on the reservations. Little public outrage was stirred up when this and other scandals erupted in Washington, since the common perception of Indian relations at the time was based on the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, in which the white race was determined to be destined to take over the earth from inferior, aboriginal races.

Brown has meticulously researched and reported the subjugation of Manuelito and the Navahos; Little Crow and the Santee Sioux; Black Kettle and the Southern Cheyennes; Red Cloud and the Oglala Sioux; Cochise and Geronimo of the Apache; Satanta of the Kiowas; Ten Bears of the Comanches; Kintpuash (Captain Jack) of the Modocs; Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce; Little Wolf and Dull Knife of the Northern Cheyennes; Standing Bear of the Poncas; Ouray of the Utes....

By 1890, all of the great western tribes were remnants of what they once were. The mighty Sioux, who with their allies defeated Long Hair Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876, found themselves forced to give up all but a 35,000 acre "Great Sioux Reservation" within a year of that victory when the U.S. Congress moved to pass a law voiding the 1868 treaty which had given them the Black Hills "forever." By 1890, their leaders had been coerced into breaking up their land holdings into small parcels surrounded by land grabbed by white immigrants, for $1.50 per acre.

Hope was restored to the Indians through one last desperate development, which explains the choice of wording for the title of the book. A Paute Messiah named Wovoka founded a new religion, the Ghost Dance. News spread around the reservations like wildfire, about the future arrival of a Christ who would visit the Indians and renew the earth the following spring. This Christ was an Indian, who would bury the whites with a new layer of soil over the earth and bring back the buffalo and the Indians' dead ancestors. The path to salvation was to constantly dance the Ghost Dance.

The government became absolutely paranoid about all of this new incessant dancing on the reservations and wanted it stopped. Lists were compiled containing names of the "fomenters of disturbances." Sitting Bull, famous leader of the Sioux, was on the list even though he had warned his followers against engaging in the dance; he was assassinated when Indian police were ordered to arrest him on Standing Rock Reservation.

The fate of another accused fomenter, Big Foot of the Minneconjou, provided the foundation for the selection of the title of this book. He was taking his band to safety at the Pine Ridge agency when he was intercepted by the calvary 13 days after Sitting Bull was killed. The Indians were instructed to set up their tepees at an Army camp along Wounded Knee Creek during the evening of December 28, 1890. The next morning, the calvary commander ordered the Indians disarmed prior to arresting Big Foot and others on their list. A shot was fired during an argument over the surrendering of someone's rifle, and violence ensued. The few disarmed Indian warriors fought hand-to-hand with soldiers while their families tried to escape, but most were caught in the crossfire of the Army artillery which had been trained on the tents of the Indian encampment. According to Brown, 300 of the total 350 Indians at Wounded Knee were killed there, including Big Foot.

Dee Brown makes extensive use of the oral histories created from the translated and transcribed verbal statements Indian leaders made during councils with white officials, particularly during the 1870's and 1880's. These provide a record of supporting evidence for showing the inaccuracies in the traditional myths of America's creation theory, and for debunking the prevalent stereotypical attitudes toward aboriginal peoples. Quotes from many of these statements, showing the eloquence and reasonableness of the Indian treaty council representatives, are used to preface each chapter. Unfortunately, as Brown laments, the Indians had no one willing to publish and disseminate their stories contemporaneously with the events they describe.

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June 1, 2009 – Finished Reading
June 22, 2009 – Shelved

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