Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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Summary and Analysis Chapter 3: Little Crow's War

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Little Crow: Chief of Mdewkanton Santee Sioux who led the struggle against the Army.

Colonel Henry H. Sibley: Army colonel, leader of Sixth Minnesota Regiment in battles against Santee Sioux, who oversaw the conviction and hanging of 38 Santee Sioux.

In the summer of 1862, the Santee Sioux are suffering from a year of poor crops and little game to hunt, and are seeing more and more of their lands occupied by white settlers. The tribe has become angry at the U.S. government’s failure to distribute annuities to them and the fact that they have no control over the credit system the government has imposed as a way to procure food supplies. When four young tribal men kill three white men and two white women, a dispute arises within the tribe: One side wants to fight the whites, while the other wants to seek peace with them. Frustrated by their mistreatment, the Santees decide to attack Fort Ridgely. The attack on the fort fails, but the Santees go on to ravage the town of New Ulm. Colonel Sibley and his Army troops go after the Santees in response to their attacks, and after a debate, the Santees decide not to surrender the roughly 200 white and half-breed prisoners they had taken during their attacks. The Santees fight and lose a crucial battle near the Yellow Medicine River. After their defeat, 303 Santees are condemned to be executed, and the 1700 Santees not condemned are taken to Fort Snelling. President Lincoln orders 39 of the 303 Santees to be executed, and after a reprieve is granted to one Santee, the 38 others are hanged on December 26, 1862. Chief Little Crow is then killed by white settlers on July 3, 1863, and chiefs Shakopee and Medicine Bottle are sentenced by a jury to hang. The Santees are taken to a reservation at Crow Creek on the Missouri River.

The chapter opens with a pessimistic tone: by the summer of 1862, nothing was going well for the Santee Sioux. Their crops were failing, and the tribe was largely controlled by the agency traders. Again, readers see whites failing to keep their promises to the Indians, and after the tribe is insulted by trader Andrew Myrick, it’s not surprising that the tribe decides to go to war. In Brown's retelling, it is the Indians who tell of their experience of the war, not the whites. American history has traditionally taken the perspective of the white settlers, and defeats for the Indians were seldom causes for dismay. But with Brown's approach, upon reading of the Indian's failure to take Fort Ridgely and gain command of the Minnesota Valley, the readers sense that the Santees’ decline is probably inevitable. Then, when 303 Santees are sentenced to death, the question of why these men were to be executed merely for fighting on the losing side of a war arises. Only 38 of the 303 are hanged, but upon learning that the government of Minnesota had put out a 25 dollar bounty for Santee scalps and that the Santee reservation was situated on barren land, one wonders if the whites would have ever accepted living alongside the Santees at all.

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