A prevailing force within the United States in the nineteenth century was the concept of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the entire continent was destined to be settled and ruled by (white) settlers from the East. In search of wealth or land, tens of thousands of settlers began moving west in the decades before the Civil War, quickly coming into conflict with the indigenous population: American Indian tribes that had long been settled on the land.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a historical account of this movement, and its effects on the American Indian peoples, as seen through their eyes. The period between 1860 and 1890 is the major focus of the book. This period represented the peak years of conflict between the white settlers, the military sent to protect them, and the American Indian tribes already present on much of the land. The period was bounded in the beginning with the start of the Civil War and ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, the last major incident between native tribes and the U.S. cavalry.
Dee Brown follows a sequential series of events, basing much of his work on American Indian accounts, including records of treaty councils held during formal negotiations between U.S. representatives and tribal chiefs. Even councils held in remote areas generally included interpreters and recorders. Chiefs or older members of the tribes were free to present their thoughts, even those recounting past events. The result was a rich history available to someone willing to search them out, as Brown did, in government archives. Many first-person accounts by the American Indians involved in these events can be found throughout the book.
Brown’s narratives of the tragedies that unfolded during these years are gripping in their pathos. It was said that the only promise the white people unfailingly kept was that they would take the land. Treaties would be made, promising that the land would remain within the hands of the native tribes in perpetuity. As Brown continuously documents, such treaties remained valid only until white settlers and the U.S. government desired the land. Members of the tribes would then be either moved again or killed. To many of the soldiers, it made little difference as to which occurred. General Philip Sheridan summed up this attitude with his statement “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
Brown completes his account of these years with the description of events at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Leaderless after the assassination of Sitting Bull on the Sioux reservation, hundreds of the Hunkpapa Sioux sought refuge with Big Foot and his people near Pine Ridge, in present-day South Dakota. Sighting a cavalry detachment, Big Foot placed his people under their protection in the vicinity of Chankpe Opi Wakpala, known as the creek at Wounded Knee. He ordered them to surrender any weapons to the soldiers. A gun discharged, probably accidentally, and soldiers began to fire indiscriminately. Before the firing ended, some three hundred American Indian men, women, and children were dead.