Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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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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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 permitted the building of roads and military posts in Indian territory, but no land was surrendered by the Indians. The Pikes Peak gold rush in 1858 resulted in the arrival of thousands of white prospectors, ranchers, and farmers to the lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. In...

(This entire section contains 1730 words.)

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spite of the loss of much land, the Indians remained peaceful until 1864. Black Kettle, the Cheyenne chief, heard about the experiences of the Navajo and the Sioux; he hoped to spare his people that suffering. War did break out in the spring of 1864, when soldiers attacked some Cheyenne on the South Platte River. The fighting ended in November with the well-planned Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyenne by a United States Army force under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington.

In the next two chapters, Brown’s account returns to the Sioux, centering on Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Sioux. It describes the Powder River Invasion of the northern Great Plains by white gold-seekers, traders, and United States Army regiments in 1865. Red Cloud was trying to keep the area between the Black Hills of South Dakota and Big Horn Mountain in Montana as the domain of the Indians, including bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho as well as the Sioux. In 1866, the United States government began preparation for a road through the Powder River country into Montana. The result was Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868), beginning with the Fetterman Massacre of a contingent of soldiers in an ambush in December, 1866. After two years of conflict, Red Cloud triumphantly signed a treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, that closed the Powder River road. The exact terms of the treaty after ratification by the United States Senate were disputed, but it did result in several years of peace.

Chapter 7 continues in the recounting of the struggle of Black Kettle of the Cheyenne and other Indians of the central Great Plains against white occupation of their lands. This includes the great council at Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas in October, 1867. Although Black Kettle could only bring a few Cheyenne, more than four thousand Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho were present to negotiate an honorable peace with the United States government. At this meeting, Ten Bears of the Comanche gave an eloquent appeal on behalf of the Indians. Brown later includes a quote from that speech. The saddest incident in this chapter is the death of Black Kettle, who survived the Sand Creek Massacre, in another massacre led by George Custer in November, 1868. This chapter also includes the infamous words of General Phil Sheridan: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” which over time became “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

After discussing the visit to Washington by Red Cloud and other Sioux chiefs, and attempts to clarify terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, Brown moves to the Southwest and Cochise with the Apache warriors. The story, now becoming all too familiar, begins with Cochise welcoming white soldiers to his territory, even allowing a mail route and a stage station to be established. False accusations by an army officer and attempted arrest in 1861 convinced Cochise that all whites had to be driven from Apache territory. After his father-in-law, Mangas Colorado, was murdered by soldiers while a prisoner, open war broke out. The Camp Grant Massacre of unarmed Apaches in 1871 revealed the futility of Cochise’s efforts. Although other Apache chiefs remained on the warpath, Cochise made peace in 1872.

In Chapter 10, the scene moves to the West Coast and the Modoc leader, Captain Jack. The account begins with attempts at cooperation and ends with Captain Jack’s being hanged in 1873. The next chapter, “The War to Save the Buffalo,” is an excellent account of the last major effort by the Indians of the Great Plains to preserve their traditional life. Brown includes part of the emotional speech given at the Council of Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867 by Ten Bears, who best tells his own story: “I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls.” This chapter includes more accounts of abuse by Custer. The story of Quanah Parker, the Comanche war chief whose mother was captured as a small child and raised as a Comanche, is another highlight of the chapter.

Chapter 12 of Brown’s chronology returns the reader to the Sioux in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Red Cloud is joined in this narrative by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other Sioux leaders. In 1874, after the discovery of gold, the Black Hills were invaded by white miners. The miners were followed by soldiers under Custer. The war that followed ended in July, 1876, with the death of Custer and his men in the Battle of the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

The next four chapters record the flight of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce from their home in the Northwest, the final Cheyenne subordination, the troubles of the Poncas and Standing Bear, and the removal of the Utes from their Rocky Mountain homes to undesirable land in Utah. Chapter 17 is a good account of the last Apache resistance, first by Victorio, then by Geronimo. After years of violent rebellion, Victorio was killed by Mexican soldiers in 1880. Geronimo then led the opposition until his surrender in 1886, after which the once-fierce Apache were in subjection to the United States.

The last two chapters are a fitting conclusion to a fascinating and disturbing story. Brown describes the Ghost Dance, a ritual attributed to Wovoka, a Paiute from Nevada. The dance was supposed to bring back dead Indians and the buffalo and eliminate whites from Indian lands. Sitting Bull of the Sioux, after years of Canadian exile, imprisonment in the United States, and appearances as a feature in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, became an advocate of the Ghost Dance. Growing despair among the Sioux intensified interest in the dance and led to Sitting Bull’s death on December 15, 1890.

In the confusion that followed Sitting Bull’s death, one group of his followers joined Big Foot, also a Ghost Dance advocate. On December 28, Big Foot’s group was taken into custody by the U.S. Army and forced to camp along Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota. The next day, as the Sioux were being disarmed, a minor incident involving one deaf warrior led to the massacre of the Sioux by the soldiers. Of about 350 people in the group, 51 wounded were left to be taken to the Pine Ridge Sioux Agency.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a factual account that needs no artificial elaboration. The pages of history are opened to many examples of the United States’ inhumanity. The wounded from Wounded Knee were taken to the Episcopal Mission at Pine Ridge. Above the pulpit, four days after Christmas, a sign declared, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”


Chapter Summaries