In Chapter One of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s history of the consequences for Native American tribes of the push westward by the expanding United States of America, Brown opens with a quote from Tecumseh of the Shawnees that immediately and effectively establishes context for the text that follows:
“Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun.”
Tecumsah was a major figure in the history of Native American resistance to white expansion across historically tribal lands, allying his Shawnee tribe with the British in the War of 1812 and continuing his militant defense of indigenous prerogatives until his death at the hands of American troops in 1813. He witnessed first-hand the destruction of Native cultures and lives as what would become known as “Manifest Destiny” moved inexorably westward. Before these developments, however – well before these developments – Brown reflects upon the history of European settlements in North America and the cultural and spiritual genocide that would precede the physical genocide that directly resulted in the destruction of native tribes. Brown begins his history with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and this explorer’s observations of the natives whom he encountered upon his arrival in “the New World.” Writing to the queen and king of Spain, who had commissioned his voyage, Columbus wrote of these indigenous tribes:
“So tractable, so peaceable, are these people . . . that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.”
Brown then proceeds to describe how Columbus exploited this naiveté and innocence to advance the European agenda of colonizing this virgin land, subjecting the natives to forced labor and kidnapping some to transport back to Spain as though they were animals captured in Africa for transportation to American zoos to be gawked at by more advanced species and civilizations.
Chapter One of Brown’s history describes in detail the physical, spiritual and economic destruction wrought by European settlers upon the indigenous tribes who had inhabited these lands before the Europeans’ arrival. As Brown describes those early 17th Century transitions, “By the time Massasoit, great chief of the Wampanoags, died in 1662 his people were being pushed back into wilderness. . .Between 1795 and 1840, the Miamis fought battle after battle, and signed treaty after treaty, ceding their rich Ohio Valley lands until there was none left to cede.” The passage of time following Columbus’ arrival would witness the utter destruction of ways of life for the benefit of European settlers and colonies:
“Long before the last of the Tainos died, their simple agricultural and handicraft culture was destroyed and replaced by cotton plantations worked by slaves. The white colonists chopped down the tropical forests to enlarge their fields; the cotton plants exhausted the soil; winds unbroken by a forest shield covered the fields with sand.”
Brown’s opening chapter to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is intended to establish the context in which the modern-era American Indian Movement (AIM) would rise up in the latter half of the 20th Century in militant opposition to the continued degradation of native culture and traditions. The United States would fight a bloody civil war over the issue of slavery, and would gradually address the issues of racism and racial segregation that defined much of the nation’s history. It would not, however, adopt similarly “progressive” policies with regard to the Native American population that remains mired in poverty and the associated emotional and physical ailments that usually accompany such repression and economic destitution.