Wounded Knee- probably one of the most well-known of the Indian Wars, right up there with Custer’s Last Stand. Somehow I made it to my junior year of high school without ever really researching the Battle of Wounded Knee, but our literature assignment gave me perfect reason and opportunity to knuckle down and get that done. For the assignment, I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, one of the most critically acclaimed accounts of “the systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the nineteenth century.” (see back cover) After reading it, I think this is a pretty great summary of the book. It truly is a thorough, logical account of the Midwestern and Plains Indians, but it doesn’t lack emotion like so many nonfiction history books these days. I wept for Black Kettle, cheered for young Crazy Horse, shook my fist at Army General after Army General, and felt my soul drop into my shoes at the Battle of Wounded Knee.
One of my favorite details about Bury My Heart was that at the beginning of each chapter, Brown listed a sort of timeline for the rest of the world so that going in you would have an idea of what was happening around you. That helped me connect a lot of events and realize more fully how recent these tragic events are to our nation, which brought the facts home even more. Understanding that 1890 was only 126 years ago was huge for me- this was only what, three generations ago? My grandfather’s parents were probably alive then, and yet I know more about the Revolutionary War and the Black Plague than I do about the Indians’ fight for their homeland and battles like Wounded Knee.
Another thing I loved was the open perspective. Anymore, modern historical literature seems to be under the impression that the whole Western Expansion deal was good guys versus bad guys- and it wasn’t! Nothing is here. It wasn’t ‘angry white men murdering all the Indians for no reason,’ and it wasn’t ‘angry redskins murdering all the white men for no reason.’ Brown took a fair look at men like Custer and Red Cloud for who they were and what they did, not what various prejudices ask us to buy into. The fact is, Indians were just as mean as white men sometimes, and white men were just as innocent as Indians other times. It fascinated me how quickly the Indians learned cruel and disgusting ways of retaliation from the white men, which made me think about how much we teach others in everything we do. Even in war! The white men arrived and fought dirty with the Indians, hacking off their limbs and ravishing their women, and the Indians learned to do it right back the next time.
The book focused mainly on tribes like the Sioux and Cheyennes, the ones who fought a number of the major battles. Even at that, it was a little hard for me to follow which chief was from where and did what with whom, but if I focused hard and flipped back a few pages I could usually figure it out. Being unversed in nonfiction, I was worried about getting bored with just the facts, but Bury My Heart was so much more than just the facts. Brown takes facts and cites a billion sources in the back of the book, bracketing chapters with quotes and heartbreaking paragraphs from Indian lips, but in between he fills the pages with emotion and compels the reader to follow the brutal, tragic tales of tribe after tribe fighting for everything they had and losing anyway- losing everything they had and being sent to barren reservations with no food in drastic conditions. I don’t cry over books and I don’t really get into nonfiction well, but I literally could not put this one down. Brown makes their struggles become more relevant to me than the riots in North Carolina today.
The information is well-ordered, being strictly chronological and generally well-flowing. Brown took a wider focus with Bury My Heart; instead of zeroing in on just the Cheyenne or just the Sioux, he compiled all of their histories into one. This makes it easy to get a lot of information all at once, but that information is a little jumbled up at least in my own head. I know I’ve got a pretty hefty list of deeper research projects right now.
It’s hard to narrow down the book into a few paragraphs of ‘this is what it was about’ because truly, it was about so much. Bury My Heart is about the Indians’ war for their freedom, it’s about the white man and his arrogance at times, it’s a heart-wrenching story of a desperate people struggling to survive while the men in power run amuck over everything the Indians thought they could count on. It’s a story of failed interpretations and miscommunications, as demonstrated by the many treaties that were signed and then turned out to not mean what the chiefs thought they meant at all. It’s almost a picture of why democracy is so hard to pull off- the big centralized government back in Washington may have meant well for the Indians; at least, President Grant was certainly not out to annihilate them, but the government’s good intentions meant nothing to the rugged army generals whose first thoughts were to take out the Indians altogether.
Every chief or warrior comes alive on these pages, making it more than just a list of facts. There’s distinct dialogue between chiefs and generals, similar to a novel but this rings truer than that- this is more satisfying. This is my nation’s history, and it sure isn’t pretty but it’s what made us who we are today.
I’m left with a lot of questions after reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. It’s a stellar book, it’s full of information and it’s beautiful to read, but it does something very few modern fiction authors know how to do anymore: it makes you think. Brown will tear your heart out as you watch Black Kettle fight for every inch he has, and ultimately lose everything- but he leaves you with no “this is what was right, this is who was wrong.” In some ways, that may be the best part. Instead of being a shove-it-down-your-throat-until-you-see-it-my-way kind of book, this is a these-are-the-facts-and-I
‘M-going-to-break-your-heart-with-them-but-what-you-do-with-it-is-up-to-you kind of a deal. That’s the kind of empowerment we need more of today; just giving people the honest facts and making them think about it without forcing an angle down their throats.
It took me about a week to read Bury My Heart, and it shouldn’t even have taken that long because I read about three hundred pages in one night. Riddled with cliffhangers and action scenes, the deadline wasn’t the only thing making it impossible for me to put this one down. History is getting so boring these days- people are forgetting how to teach it, but Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee surpassed my expectations of a history book. Instead of being slow and dry and factual, this book came alive and draws readers in by the heartstrings. It’s obvious that Brown cared a lot about his topic, just from the passion and emotion in the writing. If all history books were written like this, I’d wind up with a doctorate and a Ph.D in history.