Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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What is the overall message of Dee Brown's, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee? What was it's effectiveness? 

Brown's book advanced a pro-Indian agenda that stressed the humanity and cultural worth of Native Americans by emphasizing the many atrocities committed against them.

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The overall message of Dee Brown's 1970 nonfiction account of the Native American experience during the decades of European and American expansionism, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was that, while history is written by the victors, the vanquished have a story to tell, and that of the continent's indigenous population was particularly tragic. In a prologue to his study, Brown noted the wealth of histories written of the years from 1860 to 1890 that created the legends and myths of American history while largely ignoring the human costs and injustices the occurred at the expense of that indigenous population. As he wrote of that phenomenon, "[d]uring that time (1860-1890) the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed, and out of that came virtually all of the American west . . ." In the chapters that follow this prologue, Brown meticulously describes the ramifications for Native Americans of the westward expansion of European/American settlers. The massacres perpetrated by both sides, with the Native Americans largely acting in defense of their land and of their very existence, were a horrendous consequence of that expansionism, and the ultimate result was the disappearance forever of a way of life and of societies that may not have reflected Anglo-Saxon ideals but that were certainly humane and worthy of preservation nevertheless. In short, Brown illuminated the ugly side of Manifest Destiny before such depictions became popular.

Was Brown effective in advancing his agenda? That is difficult to say, but he certainly contributed substantively to the retrospective revisionism that began to emerge in both literature and in film. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was an important introduction to many students and others into the causes and nature of the Indian wars, helping to humanize the underrepresented by depicting indigenous tribes as the civilized communities that they were. Films like Little Big Man, I Will Fight No More Forever, and Soldier Blue, and additional literary works like Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse shifted the moral balance towards the Native American population by emphasizing atrocities committed in the name of European colonialism. In this sense, Brown's work was indeed effective.

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