Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reading Notes: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is A book that makes you cry.)

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one - they promised to take our land, and they took it. (Red Cloud)

For anyone who has studied modern American history, the history of colonisation, the American West, Native American history, or any related sub-fields, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a deeply familiar text. First published in 1970 and never out of print since, Brown, in this book, tells the story of the American West, but from the perspective - and using the voices - of the indigenous people who suffered, died and were ultimately dispossessed through the process. Brown covers many of the "famous" Native American personalities of the mythologised Wild West - Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Little Crow, Standing Bear, Red Cloud - and, using their words and the multiple evidences in documentary sources, he reveals them for the leaders - and heroes - they were.

I first read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. An Arts / Law student, I'd decided to major in History on the Arts side and was fully intending to make Renaissance & Reformation my period of study; indeed, all the units I did in first and second years were within this area. Due to a scheduling snafu in third year, however, I wasn't able to squish Ren & Ref in between my extra law subjects, so I picked the only history subject that did fit - Modern and Contemporary America (one semester apiece).

I was quite astonished by how much I loved these units, and how fascinating I found American history generally. My exposure to the study of the Americas had been limited to a fairly general coverage of the American Revolution and the Civil War in high school. The university courses took up where the Civil War ended, and covered reconstruction, Westward expansion, women's suffrage, the Depression, the world wars, Korea and Vietnam, hippies and radicalism, and ended with Reagan.

While it was all deeply interesting, the element that pinned me was American Indian history - in particular, American Indian resistance and radicalism. (If this month's theme had been "A book that makes you angry", I would've picked the other seminal text for me in this field - Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which deals with the American Indian Movement of the 1960s-70s). And in this field - especially when when talking about the history of Western expansion - Dee Brown's book is the first and best of many successors that tell a different story to the triumphalism and romance that dominates mainstream narratives of colonisation.

Dee Brown is a wonderful writer - he writes history with the emphasis on story, not theory, and while his research is good, this book carries the reader along with the potency of the narrative, not with a heavy weight of further reading. He writes of the Long Walk of the Navajo; of Red Cloud's War; of the war for the Black Hills; of the flight of the Nez Perces; of the exodus of the Cheyennes. In all these stories, Brown shows the consistent theme of government faithlessness with American Indian peoples; of deals betrayed, treaties ignored, peace agreements violated. Driven by an overpowering hunger for land and resources, European people took the West, and Brown never lets the reader mistake it - it was taken at the expense of the people who already lived there. Their rights, their land, their animals, their way of life, their lives.

And if there wasn't more than enough in all of this to make a heart of stone bleed, Brown ends his account with the traditionally-accepted terminal point of the Indian Wars - the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, where almost 300 Lakota women, children, elderly and unarmed men where slaughtered by the US army after the soldiers were startled by a single shot let off by a young Lakota man. The victims had been rounded up by the army for the crime of being part of a banned Lakota religion, the Ghost Dance.

This is women, and children, and old people.

It is hardly possible to overstate what a horror it was. 300 Lakota dead, about half shot dead at the time and about half from exposure and wounds. They were unarmed and they had surrendered to the US troopers who then shot them, in cold blood. Lakota leader Black Elk later wrote about Wounded Knee:

"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...
The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

And whenever I read about Wounded Knee - whenever I think about it - I am overcome with sadness, and the tears flow. Not just for the end of the Indian Wars, and all that meant for Indian people. Not just for the end of dreams and hopes. Not just for the breaking of promises and the betrayal of vows.

I cry because I think about the mothers, trying to shield their children with their bodies from the soldiers' bullets. I cry because I think about those children, their bodies broken and bleeding, fading from life on a winter hilltop in South Dakota. I cry because they have come to stand, in my mind, for all the innocents who've been murdered in wars of aggression over all the centuries. And for all the mothers who couldn't save them, no matter how they tried.

I recommend Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It's not an easy read, but it is an important one.


  1. It wouldn't be an easy read, but I think I'll add it to my reading list. I mostly studied European history, only a little American, and would love to have more knowledge.

    (Actually funny to think, we *almost* could have crossed paths in a History course or two at Uni - but I went through a year or two earlier than you.)

  2. I have read, particularly last year, a lot of books written from the persepective of the "native" in regard to colonization (actually, it is covered quite a bit in The Color Purple as well in relation to the colonization of Africa as seen from the viewpoint of Celie's sister, Nettie). I think I have always felt more anger than sadness, although it is always tinged with that, at what the white man has done to others in the name of wealth. But, like you, as soon as they bring children into it, the tears will flow. I am not sure they would flow so easily if i was not a mother myself, but the idea that anyone could harm children is always distressing.

    I have to say that my own studies in history have been fairly limited to Australian history, and mostly to major world events. i love that there are so many books out there available for even the younger readers to understand what has occurred throughout history in ways that are easily accessible to them.

    Here's a link to a (very short) review I did on a junior/young adult book on this subject last year http://www.apermanentflux.com/2011/11/weetamoo-heart-of-the-pocassets/
    The Royal Diaries series is a great one for girls and shows several examples of colonisation across North & South America, Africa and Asia.