Friday, July 31, 2020

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: 
An Indian History of the American West
Dee Brown
Published 1970
American Non-Fiction

This was an emotional read. I could not read it without empathy, compassion, heartache, or vexation.

Dee Brown wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, which covers American history, 1860-1890, from a collective perspective of the American Indian. Brown utilized interpreted documents from treaties, interviews, and eyewitness accounts to tell this comprehensive story that had never been told before this publication.

Brown suspected that what he had learned about American Indians was false, and in his investigation he sadly found that his initial supposition was correct. He collaborated his sources from government documents, no less, and produced a very shameful account of the U.S. government's confiscation of the West from the American Natives.

Crow Chief - George Catlin

I was not very surprised by the conclusion of the book because in my years of reading history with my children, I, too, learned that the United States government took everything from the Natives and what they didn't "take," they pushed whatever Indians were remaining onto reservations to live out their lives as they could, which was nothing like what they did before the Europeans came. The U.S. government disarmed them, seized their hunting grounds, travel routes, and access to natural resources.

Many of the Natives did not want to adopt the European or American way of life, living stationary lives, building a home, or learning agriculture. They were nomads and travelled to hunt. Yet, some of those who did eventually assimilate were removed and forced onto reservations anyway. Furthermore, reservations were traps, and over the years, the boundaries were redrawn tighter and tighter, giving the survivors less land to live on.

What did astound me was how consistently trusting the Indians were to be fooled into signing treaty after treaty. It wasn't that they did not know about the tricks; it was that they continued to believe the U.S. soldiers and generals. Most of the time they did not understand the details of the treaty, but they signed anyway. And within months or a few years of signing, they would lose the extent of the area they were permitted to live and hunt, eventually culminating in a battle with the soldiers; and if not completely eradicated, then survivors were rounded up and moved to an area reserved for them for the remainder of their lives.

Sitting Bull, Lakota
I thought this was really sad: a senator lectured Sitting Bull after the Chief described the poor condition of the Indians on the reservation:
You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government and all you have and are today is because of the government. If it were not for the government you would be freezing and starving today in the mountains. 
How insulting!

The Indians loved liberty. But maybe what they appreciated more than that was the land. White Thunder said:
Our land here is the dearest thing on earth to us. Men take up land and get rich on it, and it is very important for us Indians to keep it.
And maybe this was another conflict, as to why they could not assimilate into the white man's culture. One government employee who sought to "correct this barbaric condition" explained:
Their needs are so few that they do not wish to adopt civilized habits. What we call conveniences and comforts are not sufficiently valued by them to cause them to undertake to obtain them by their own effort...the great majority look upon the white man's ways with indifference and contempt. 
Of course, there were soldiers, commanders, generals, and government officials who were sympathetic to the Indians, and they did what they could to see to the protection and preservation of the people and their land; however, it was usually short lived or the sympathizer was outnumbered.

There is no way around this story. It is a very regretful truth about American history. The eradication was not only perpetrated by the U.S. government through soldiers, but also by settlers moving west or miners in search of gold.

To be fair, the Indians also committed ruthless acts of murder on settlers and soldiers. They fought as much as they could to prevent the confiscation of their land by what they saw as an invasion and theft. But sadly, they, too, will have to answer for their sins. There is no justification for murder of other humans, whether they were settlers encroaching on land or soldiers following through with orders from the government.

Buffalo Hunt, Chase - George Catlin

A major theme I found throughout this particular history was REVENGE. Indians and soldiers alike sought revenge and believed each was justified in the savage killing of another human being. It was just astounding how neither could see this wicked truth. While there were attempts on both sides to live peaceable with the other group, both were in conflict because they refused to value the other as human beings and worthy of living.

Another thing I learned from this history is that I don't think we read history to learn from it, in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the same mistakes; but instead we think we are justified in our revenge because of past sins; this is why we continue to perpetrate injustices; conflict will never end.  It doesn't matter our race. Regretfully, in our hearts, we selfishly want to prove we are correct or justified in our hatred, theft, and murder.

I think these were good words by Chief Joseph, which he spoke to the leaders in Washington DC:
Let me be a free man - free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself - and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.
Chief Joseph died on September 21, 1904, of, what an attending physician reported as "a broken heart."

Chief Joseph, Nez Pearce


  1. I love that painting -- Buffalo Hunt. Beautiful. I have Native American in my DNA (from the west, anywhere from Mexico to Canada, apparently), so I'm keenly interested in the history of the tribes located primarily in that area, as well as that of the American West. I am drawn to the Cheyenne as well as the Comanche experience, so perhaps I'm descended from one of those tribes. There isn't much of them left in my blood, but it's enough to make my heart feel home bound when I read of them. We also have some Southern Algonquin, but strangely the pull to these tribes is less for me.

    (I also have a lot of Irish and felt very patriotic about Irish history well before I knew it or had read anything about the history. Now that I know I'm interested in learning more.) x

    I have this book on my list & am very interested. Thanks for sharing. x

    1. You will appreciate this history. I believe it concentrated on the Plains Indians especially.

  2. I have heard of this book, but never read it. I'm sure it is very sad. However, we cannot return to the past and Native Americans no longer have to stay on the reservation. The biggest problem ailing them today is drugs and alcohol.

    1. Sharon, This is true. We cannot return to the past. And I am of the opinion that their way of life could never have been preserved...bc this is the way of the world. All of us must move along with it or be trampled underfoot. There is no way to stop it. I cannot imagine life on a reservation today is better than what we have now. All they are doing is clinging to the past. It is one thing to preserve the traditions for ceremony and family, but now is the time to live!