Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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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

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Vietnam and the My Lai Massacre
When Brown first published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970, the United States was engaged in an undeclared war in Vietnam, and the U.S. public was inclined to revisit the country's guilt over the past treatment of Native Americans. The parallels between the United States-sponsored massacre of Native Americans in the 1800s and the United States' actions in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s were not lost on readers of Brown's book. This insight was especially available in 1970, when twenty-five U.S. Army officers and...

(This entire section contains 406 words.)

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enlisted men were indicted for the 1968 massacre of hundreds of civilians in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai. Despite Army efforts to cover up the incident, a few concerned soldiers who were either at or near My Lai helped bring it to light, and the story was quickly picked up by the national media. Only a few men were actually tried for their part in the massacre, and only one—Lieutenant William Calley—was found guilty. Calley was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. However, three years later, President Nixon intervened and secured Calley's parole. Shortly after this incident, polls indicated that for the first time since the war began, a majority of Americans opposed the United States involvement in Vietnam.

American Indian Movement (AIM)
At the same time, Native Americans in both Canada and the United States began to organize and protest in many isolated regional events. In 1968, four men established the American Indian Movement (AIM). The group wanted to host a demonstration to help promote Native-American issues and at the same time help to unify the various separate Native-American groups. In 1969, AIM received its opportunity. Following a convention in San Francisco to discuss Native-American issues, the Indian Center that was hosting the convention caught fire and burned to the ground. Realizing that there were no government funds to build a new Indian Center, a group of Native Americans, supported by AIM and calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes, seized Alcatraz, the famous island-based prison that had lain empty since 1964. Citing treaty rights that stated Native American rights to surplus government land, the group demanded that the government let its members turn the defunct prison into a cultural-educational center. Individuals occupied Alcatraz peacefully for twenty months until they were removed by federal marshals. With nationally recognized protests like the one staged on Alcatraz, AIM became more visible.

Literary Style

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The setting is extremely important in this book. The action takes place in the mid- to late-1800s, when a large number of white settlers emigrated to the frontier American West seeking property, gold, or both. Some Native Americans moved to other areas, thinking that there was room enough for both races. However, the land, which had been large enough to accommodate countless tribes, was quickly overrun by white settlers and military troops. Some, like Sitting Bull, tried to leave America for a new setting. Brown states: ‘‘He decided there was no longer room enough for white men and the Sioux to live together in the Great Father's country. He would take his people to Canada.’’ The setting is also important for military strategy. Many battles in the book are determined by the location and terrain on which the battle is fought. Native Americans are often able to beat much larger forces because they know how to use the western terrain to set effective ambushes, to hide, or to defend themselves.

Point of View
The book is written mainly in the third-person omniscient viewpoint. This broad viewpoint gives the author unlimited power to move through time and space and in and out of characters' minds as necessary. For example, Brown notes during the description of one battle that ‘‘Roman Nose was wearing his medicine bonnet and shield, and he knew that no bullets could strike him.’’ Like many such descriptions in the book, Brown combines historical facts with his own assumptions about Roman Nose's thoughts and motivations to bring the historical figure to life. Interspersed with these descriptions, Brown also includes first-person, eyewitness accounts, such as speeches, proclamations, and official records. For example, one Native American notes, “From a distance we saw the destruction of our village.… Our tepees were burned with everything in them.… I had nothing left but the clothing I had on.’’ These intimate accounts—from both Native Americans and white people—lend credibility to Brown's descriptions, but they also help the reader to understand what it was like to be involved in this conflict.

Brown includes powerful and violent imagery in his book, which is to be expected in a book that details several wars. Though many cultures adhere to war rules that forbid certain actions, such as killing women and children or mutilating bodies, during the battles to win the West, U.S. soldiers engaged in certain acts, which were even then considered war crimes. For example, as Captain Nicholas Hodt notes of a spontaneous massacre of Navahos, he saw a soldier killing ‘‘two little children and a woman. I hallooed immediately to the soldier to stop. He looked up, but did not obey my order.’’ Hodt orders the man to turn himself in as a prisoner but notes that even some of his superiors engage in the slaughter. Another eyewitness, Lieutenant James Connor, this time at Sand Creek, overheard ‘‘one man say that he had cut out a woman's private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick.’’ These and countless other chilling images of mutilation, murder, and desecration help to underscore the great injustice and cruelty perpetrated upon Native Americans.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1860-1890: U.S. soldiers engage in several wars in the American West in an attempt to acquire the lands of the Western frontier from the Native Americans who live there.

    Late 1960s-Early 1970s: U.S. soldiers engage in an undeclared war in Vietnam, purportedly in an attempt to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

    Today: An increasing number of U.S. soldiers occupy several parts of the globe as part of the U.S. war on terrorism.

  • 1860-1890: The United States government attempts to destroy Native-American culture.

    Late 1960s-Early 1970s: The American counterculture movement rebels against the ways of the wealthy corporate establishment, and many hippies dress like Native Americans and adopt their close-to-nature ways of life.

    Today: On September 11, 2001, terrorists destroy one of the most prominent symbols of U.S. wealth and international power—the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

  • 1860-1890: The plight of Native Americans is rarely represented accurately in U.S. newspapers and books. In addition, many Native Americans cannot write in English, so they are generally unable to inform the white public of the injustices they face.

    Late 1960s-Early 1970s: N. Scott Momaday a Native-American author, wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 for his novel House Made of Dawn. The novel depicts the difficulties Native Americans face when trying to fit in among other Americans, and it helps to spark an increase in writing by and about Native Americans.

    Today: Many Native-American authors, such as Sherman Alexie Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko have earned critical and popular success with works that depict the plight of contemporary Native Americans.

Media Adaptations

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970; reprint, Owl Books, 2001.

Gilder, Joshua. ‘‘Who's on First.’’ In New York Magazine, Vol. 13, No. 14, April 7, 1980, pp. 76-77.

McNeil, Helen. “Savages.” In New Statesman, Vol. 82, No. 2115, October 1, 1971, pp. 444–45.

Momaday, N. Scott. ‘‘When the West Was Won and a Civilization Was Lost.” In New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1971, pp. 46–47.

Rechy, John. ‘‘The Flaws to Make a Fiction Shine.’’ In Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 3, 1983, pp. 2, 9.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “They Were the Land's.” In New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1980, pp. 10, 22.

Further Reading
Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. Anchor, 1996. In this compelling set of profiles, Ambrose weaves a narrative that compares Crazy Horse to General George Armstrong Custer. As Ambrose shows, before the two leaders first met in battle at Little Big Horn in 1876, their lives were remarkably parallel.

Andrist, Ralph K. The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plain Indians. Reprint, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. This seminal work in Native-American studies, first published in 1964, describes how Native Americans were crowded into increasingly smaller areas by the massive westward expansion of white settlers.

Hirschfelder, Arlene. Native Americans: A History in Pictures. Dorling Kindersley, 2000. This book offers a detailed overview of Native-American history from ancestral times to the present day. It contains hundreds of photos, illustrations, maps, profiles of major Native-American leaders, famous quotations, and informative sidebars.

Nies, Judith. Native American History: A Chronology of a Culture's Vast Achievements and Their Links to World Events. Ballantine Books, 1996. Nies gives a thorough timeline of the major events in Native-American history, from prehistorical times until 1996. Using a two-column format, she places these events next to the other world events from the same year, giving readers a context within which to understand the Native-American events.


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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.


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