Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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Brown attempts to explain the plight of modern-day American Indians, too often the victims of poverty and hopelessness and often presented as caricatures, by showing what these proud people once were. If they appeared naïve in their dealings with white people, it was only because they were left with little choice. Their land would be taken anyway.

Conflict between native tribes and Europeans began almost immediately upon the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. As Brown notes, word of European barbarism was quickly outpaced by the spread of conquest. Within three centuries, white settlers had reached the Mississippi River, pushing native tribes before them.

Brown has used the period between 1860 and 1890 to illustrate the conflict between native peoples and the U.S. military. Each chapter presents events that occurred during specific years within that era, as viewed by individual tribes or tribal leaders. The result is a long series of descriptions, often depressing, of cruelties inflicted on innocent people.

The Sand Creek affair was typical of the dealings between American Indians and the U.S. military. Motavato (Black Kettle), as chief of the Southern Cheyenne, recognized the futility in fighting the white people and was willing to make every effort to promote peace. Just prior to the start of the Civil War, Black Kettle agreed to settle his people in a small region near Sand Creek, in present-day Colorado. In return, they would be allowed freedom of movement to hunt buffalo. For some years, peace was kept. Although distrustful of the Cheyenne, Major Edward Wynkoop, the commanding officer at nearby Fort Lyon, was at least willing to deal honestly with them; over time, he developed a strong respect for the tribe. Yet, the author uses Wynkoop to illustrate the duplicity inherent in the white people’s dealings. Because Wynkoop had become “too friendly,” he was removed as commander. Colonel John Chivington had no such compunction. Leading a black regiment of cavalry, Chivington attacked the native settlement along Sand Creek in November, 1864. Black Kettle’s tepee was in the center of the camp, an American flag flying above it. Before Chivington ended the rampage, more than three hundred men, women, and children, including Black Kettle’s wife, had been killed. Even Kit Carson, no friend of American Indians, was sickened by what he called a massacre. Black Kettle himself escaped, only to be killed several years later in a similar attack led by George Armstrong Custer.

Brown moves his story from event to event in similar fashion. Outnumbered, with little recourse, the American Indians rarely triumphed. Only Red Cloud, the chief of the Oglala Sioux in areas of Montana and South Dakota, could be said to have won a peace. The U.S. Army had built several forts in the region soon after the Civil War to protect settlers moving through the area, a trail that passed through Sioux hunting grounds. In what was called Red Cloud’s War, the Sioux besieged the forts until, in 1868, the U.S. government agreed to abandon them. Ironically, the peace with Red Cloud would endure.

Yet, as Brown continually notes, such a peace was an exception. More typical was the unrelenting pressure of western movement, pushing the native tribes until there was no longer anywhere to go.

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Critical Context