Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

It is hard to know what to say about this book, when so much has already been said, and it was a difficult read. History of European expansion across the West in the 1700’s, from the Native American perspective. Well, it was written by a white man, but the account relates what the Native leaders recorded of events, battles and outcomes. Over and over the same story was told: local tribes welcomed the explorers and settlers they met, gave them food, land, sometimes taught them how to fish or hunt local game. Gave them permission to build roads, travel through their horse pastures and hunting grounds, mine for gold. Watched in dismay as wildlife was driven away and became scarce, protested when they were told they had to move, or stay in one place instead of following the game in their nomadic lifestyle. Made agreements to keep the peace in treaties they couldn’t read, and that weren’t kept anyways. Faced continually broken promises, were pushed into corners where the land was inhospitable, they met unfamiliar diseases, there was nothing to eat, provisions were inadequate. Saw their families starve, their women and children ruthlessly killed. Yes some of them retaliated but for the most part it sounds like overwhelmingly the white soldiers and settlers acted without mercy, treated them as less than human, and systematically tried to eradicate them from the earth. With many tribes they succeeded. The Native peoples didn’t have comparable weapons, and they were vastly outnumbered.

The book details many incidents I was somewhat familiar with: the battle of Little Big Horn, the massacre at Wounded Knee- but there are so many I’d never heard of. The chapters are set in more or less chronological order, each tells the story of a different tribe or Native leader. There is quite a bit of overlap as the stories are interconnected and the different tribes that had long fought over territory among themselves, came together to face their overwhelming enemy: us. Key groups mentioned include the Cheyennes, Sioux, Apache, Nez Percé, Utes, Navahos, Comanches and Kiowas.

My copy has a spread of photographs in the center with portraits of famous leaders: Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Victorio and dozens more. (There is no picture of Crazy Horse). I knew these names but not their stories, before. Their words are eloquent, the predicament they faced an outrage, injustice, a history we should be ashamed of. They were human just like us- some of them acted brashly, or in anger, or retaliated against settlers who had personally done them no wrong. Quite a few displayed a sense of irony or humor towards the soldiers and politicians that pushed them around. But for the most part, I got an immense sense of sorrow and anger from this book. It put into perspective for me what I read in Lakota Woman. Very good companion reads, but it makes the heart heavy.

Rating: 4/5
458 pages, 1970

4 Responses

  1. It amounted to nothing short of planned genocide and, to me, is probably the saddest bit of American history there is. (I’m not discounting slavery at all when I say that.) I’ve been studying up on some of the events you mention in your review despite how heartbreaking it all was. The people are still paying the price today for what was done to them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have a good friend who is one-half Navajo. He was raised by his white mother and is only just now connecting with some of his Navajo family up in Oklahoma. I’ve known him since he was a boy, and the funny thing is that none of us ever even considered the fact that he was Indian…even him.

    1. Many parts of this book seriously reminded me of pogroms and the Holocaust- villages burned to the ground, whole communities massacred, people shipped on train cars like cattle to an area where they basically lived imprisoned. It was atrocious. One of the things that really galls me is that Europeans justified all this to themselves by believing that they were actually “better than” being more “civilized” and advanced technologically- and yet look where that has got us. I honestly think the Natives had the better way, their lifestyle was completely sustainable whereas ours has grown so out of control it’s destroying the planet…

  2. Yeah, it seems like every time I think I’ve plumbed the depths of the awfulness of how Native people have been treated in America, there’s always more terribleness to discover. David Treuer (Ojibwe) wrote a book about Native activism called The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee that I’m very keen to read, as I think it’ll be an interesting perspective on a lot of things I don’t know about yet.

    1. I think I saw that book mentioned in the pages of Lakota Woman. Another I would like to read someday now, but I don’t know when- I can only read so much depressing material at one time.

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