Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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Critical Overview

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Brown's 1970 publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee marked the first time a white author had written a book about the colonization of the American West from the point of view of Native Americans. As a result of this unique perspective, the book was received very well by critics and popular readers, who made it a best-seller. In her 1971 review of the book for the New Statesman, Helen McNeil notes that ‘‘the new perspective is startling.’’ McNeil also says that one of the most powerful aspects of this ‘‘Indian historical viewpoint lies in its contrast to the vulgarity of the ‘Turner thesis.’’’ McNeil is referring to Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 proclamation, which claimed that it was the settling of the frontier lands that gave modern Americans their distinct character because they had to work hard in the new, unfamiliar land. As McNeil notes, Turner’s thesis considered the frontier to be ‘‘empty land’’ and did not take into account the Native Americans who were killed or displaced. McNeil compares this type of imperialistic thinking to that found in the Nixon White House; she states that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—which was published at the height of the Vietnam War—is very timely. Says McNeil:

Now that Vietnam has brought the United States to the point of accepting national guilt for the first time, this scholarly and passionate chronicle … has attained US bestsellerdom by fixing the image of the nation's greatest collective wrong: the extermination of the American Indian.

Other critics notice the similarities to the situation in Vietnam. In his 1971 review for the New York Times Book Review N. Scott Momaday a prominent Native-American author, refers to the American ‘‘morality which informs and fuses events so far apart in time and space as the massacres at Wounded Knee and My Lai.’’ Momaday also praises the book as ‘‘a story, a whole narrative of singular integrity and precise continuity; that is what makes the book so hard to put aside, even when one has come to the end.’’

A decade later, upon the publication of Brown’s Native-American novel Creek Mary’s Blood (1980), some critics used the opportunity to discuss how they liked it much less than Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Says Joshua Gilder, in his review of the novel for New York Magazine: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ‘‘had a sweep and an authenticity due in large measure to his letting the Indians speak for themselves.’’ Gilder finds this quality missing in Creek Mary’s Blood. Likewise, in her 1980 review of the novel Leslie Marmon Silko another prominent Native-American author, notes that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was brought alive through ‘‘the strength and conviction of Dee Brown's view of this history.’’

Not all critics compare Brown’s later novels with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. In his review of Killdeer Mountain (1983) in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, John Rechy acknowledges Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as ‘‘a moving, resonant book.’’ However, Rechy says that one must also ‘‘ignore the expectations aroused by’’ this book, when critiquing Brown's later works. Rechy is the rare critic that does this. Even today, Brown’s reputation rests primarily on Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, even though he has also written many novels and children's books.

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