Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Summary
by Dee Brown

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Overview

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a nonfiction novel by historian Dee Brown, which examines the torrid history of race relations between whites and Native Americans.

  • Brown notes that though some white settlers attempted to coexist with Native Americans, most settlers attempted to violently exterminate native groups.

  • Brown spends much of the book recounting the battles and massacres that resulted in the deaths of many important Native American leaders.

  • The book ends with a recount of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which was sparked by a misunderstanding involving a deaf Sioux warrior and American soldiers.

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The title of this book, a poetic line from Stephen Vincent Benét’s “American Names,” introduces Dee Brown’s history of the Indians in the American West. Brown presents a factual as well as an emotional account of the relationship among the Indians, the American settlers, and the U.S. government. The massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, provides the backdrop for the narrative. In his introduction, Brown states the reason for his work. Thousands of accounts about life in the American West of the late nineteenth century were written. Stories are told of the traders, ranchers, wagon trains, gunfighters, and gold-seekers. Rarely is the voice of the Indian heard. The pre-European occupant of the land was classified only as a hindrance to the spreading of American civilization to the West Coast. In this book, Brown seeks to remedy the historical injustice done to the Native American. The author declares that the reader will not finish the book with a cheerful spirit but will come away with a better understanding of what the American Indian is and was. Punctuating the book throughout are photographs of and quotations from those whose story is being told.

The opening chapter of Brown’s chronological account begins with the attitudes of different groups of Europeans toward the natives they encountered in America. Although Christopher Columbus expressed admiration for the natives of the West Indies, the Spanish were often brutal. The English, capable of brutality when the occasion called for it, usually tried subtler methods. Included in this chapter are the initial relationships between the Indians and the government of the United States. Brown relates early indignities against Indian leaders, including that of the skeleton of Black Hawk, a Sauk and Fox chief who resisted American expansion, being on display in the office of the governor of the Iowa Territory. Black Hawk was the grandfather of Jim Thorpe, an Olympic gold medal athlete in 1912.

The remaining chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are a survey of the Western Indians, tribe by tribe, event by event, and leader by leader. The story begins with the Navajo of the Southwest, led by Manuelito. Like many later Indian leaders, Manuelito at first tried to be realistic and to accept the presence of Americans in their territory on reasonable terms. When those terms were violated by the Americans, the Navajo retaliated. The result was war that involved atrocities on both sides. Brown supports his narrative by direct quotes from participants in the conflict, such as a white soldier’s account of a massacre of Navajos at Fort Wingate in New Mexico in September, 1861.

Brown next turns to Little Crow, a chief of the Santee Sioux in Minnesota. After many years of trying to adopt the white man’s lifestyle and dress, even visiting President James Buchanan in Washington, Little Crow became disillusioned and angry during the summer of 1862. The result of that anger was Little Crow’s War. The war ended with the Santee Sioux moving west to the Great Plains and with Little Crow’s scalp and skull being put on display in St. Paul.

Chapter 4 begins with a meeting at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1851. Leaders of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Crow, and several smaller tribes met with United States government representatives. The agreements made there...

(The entire section is 3,039 words.)