Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Analysis

Dee Brown

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

A prevailing force within the United States in the nineteenth century was the concept of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the entire continent was destined to be settled and ruled by (white) settlers from the East. In search of wealth or land, tens of thousands of settlers began moving west in the decades before the Civil War, quickly coming into conflict with the indigenous population: American Indian tribes that had long been settled on the land.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a historical account of this movement, and its effects on the American Indian peoples, as seen through their eyes. The period between 1860 and 1890 is the major focus of the book. This period represented the peak years of conflict between the white settlers, the military sent to protect them, and the American Indian tribes already present on much of the land. The period was bounded in the beginning with the start of the Civil War and ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, the last major incident between native tribes and the U.S. cavalry.

Dee Brown follows a sequential series of events, basing much of his work on American Indian accounts, including records of treaty councils held during formal negotiations between U.S. representatives and tribal chiefs. Even councils held in remote areas generally included interpreters and recorders. Chiefs or older members of the tribes were free to present their thoughts, even those recounting past events. The result was a rich history available to someone willing to search them out, as Brown did, in government archives. Many first-person accounts by the American Indians involved in these events can be found throughout the book.

Brown’s narratives of the tragedies that unfolded during these years are gripping in their pathos. It was said that the only promise the white people unfailingly kept was that they would take the land. Treaties would be made, promising that the land would remain within the hands of the native tribes in perpetuity. As Brown continuously documents, such treaties remained valid only until white settlers and the U.S. government desired the land. Members of the tribes would then be either moved again or killed. To many of the soldiers, it made little difference as to which occurred. General Philip Sheridan summed up this attitude with his statement “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

Brown completes his account of these years with the description of events at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Leaderless after the assassination of Sitting Bull on the Sioux reservation, hundreds of the Hunkpapa Sioux sought refuge with Big Foot and his people near Pine Ridge, in present-day South Dakota. Sighting a cavalry detachment, Big Foot placed his people under their protection in the vicinity of Chankpe Opi Wakpala, known as the creek at Wounded Knee. He ordered them to surrender any weapons to the soldiers. A gun discharged, probably accidentally, and soldiers began to fire indiscriminately. Before the firing ended, some three hundred American Indian men, women, and children were dead.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Vietnam and the My Lai Massacre
When Brown first published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970, the United...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The setting is extremely important in this book. The action takes place in the mid- to late-1800s, when a...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • 1860-1890: U.S. soldiers engage in several wars in the American West in an attempt to acquire the lands of the...

(The entire section is 272 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • On a current map of the United States, plot all of the existing Native-American reservations. For each one, include a brief description of...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was adapted as an audio book in 1970 by Books on Tape.

(The entire section is 17 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Brown’s sixth novel, Creek Marys Blood (1980), takes place in the nineteenth century during the westward expansion...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Holt, Rinehart and...

(The entire section is 310 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Beal, Merrill. “I Will Fight No More Forever”: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963. Using the words of Chief Joseph, Beal makes the account of the Nez Perce in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee easier to understand. Emphasizes Nez Perce efforts to live peacefully with white settlers. Includes photographs and sketches.

Brown, Dee. Tepee Tales of the American Indian. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979. Describes the culture and heritage of the Indians. Contains good illustrations by Louis Mofsie.

Fixico, Donald L. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the Indian Voice in Native Studies.” Journal of the West 39, no. 1 (January, 2000): 7. Discusses how the book persuaded American citizens to pay greater attention to Native Americans and their history. Brown’s book also encouraged the emergence of an Indian voice in academia and created a significant change in the study of Native Americans.

Hagen, Lyman B. Dee Brown. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1990. Brief overview of Brown’s life and work.

Hyde, George. Red Cloud’s Folk. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1937. Covers the history of the Sioux from 1650 to 1878. Provides background on the dominant tribe of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, including the history of Red Cloud’s family.

Underhill, Ruth. The Navajos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. Covers the origin of the Navajo, the first tribe discussed in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, up to the time of publication. Includes good photographs, maps, and a bibliography.