Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee Summary

Dee Brown

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

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Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee Summary

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When Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was first published in 1970, it was the first time, for many readers, that the history of the American west was available from a native perspective. Previously glorified events such as Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn and so-called Battle of Wounded Knee were now cast in dubious, if not shameful light.  To prepare for the book, author Dee Brown pored over eyewitness descriptions, historical documents, and council records to present a thoroughly-researched and balanced account of the American conquest of the Old West. “Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward,” said Brown of his finished work. The result received positive reviews and has never gone out of print. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has sold over 5 million copies and has been translated into 17 languages.

Rather than a complete account of the relationship between European settlers and Native Americans, Brown focuses primarily on the 1860-1890 era, the last thirty years of the ‘Indian Wars.’ The first chapter attempts to bring the reader up to speed on the years before 1860. White settlers in the east were generally greeted without violence but their increasing numbers and demand for resources put a strain on the relationship. By the 1830’s, the surviving tribes are largely moved across the Mississippi River to what is then deemed permanent Indian territory. The remainder of the book is a survey of Indian tribes in the Western half of the country, this so-called permanent home for Indians, and the events that led to their demise.

The next couple chapters are a narrative of false treaties and relocation. The Navajo, after an un-easy truce with American soldiers ends in violence, are sent to an inhospitable reservation. Eventually, William Tecumseh Sherman facilitates a new treaty and the Navajo return home, albeit with much of their most fertile land no longer in their hands. Likewise, the Santee Sioux scrape a living off an increasingly small reservation alongside the Minnesota River. Hungry, some young Sioux kill five white settlers to prove their worth. In retaliation, over 300 Santee Sioux are tried and sentenced to death for murder. What remains of the tribe is relocated to the Dakota Territory, where 20 percent die in the first winter.

The book moves on to describe some gruesome massacres and battles. 150 Indians, mostly women and children, are massacred at Sand Creek in Colorado. Sioux and Cheyenne tribes offer a fierce resistance in Powder River country, and Red Cloud is branded a hero. American troops leave in 1868, but over the next 20 years their treaty with the American government is re-interpreted or ignored until it has little meaning. Meanwhile, Black Kettle, who survived the Sand Creek massacre, is killed at his own peaceful camp. When a Comanche leader surrenders, General Philip Sheridan replies, “The only good Indians I saw were dead.”

Switching gears, the novel describes President Grant’s relationship with Ely Samuel Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Iroquois. Parker befriends Grant as a civil engineer before the Civil War sends Grant to stardom. When Grant becomes president, he appoints Parker as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The position, however, is a thankless one and Parker is ostracized by politicians for his heritage and his generous handouts to starving tribes. To avoid tarnishing Grant’s reputation, Parker resigns after two years of service.

A few chapters focus on Indians whose initial friendly relations with white settlers turn sour. Apaches welcome settlers to New Mexico only for the newcomers to wrongly arrest Indians for stealing cattle. Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack by settlers, faces betrayal from his own people as well as whites. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull’s force at Little Bighorn River annihilate Custer’s soldiers when they enter the Dakota territory, land given to the Indians in a treaty, to remove them and begin mining gold. The Nez Percé tribe in the Northwest prides itself in its peaceful relationship with whites. Again, however, whites wrongfully accuse Indians of stealing livestock. As a result, Grant opens their valley for settlement and they leave.

The troubles don’t stop. The Cheyenne endure a harsh exodus and are split into two groups after an attack. A sympathetic commander allows one of the groups to stay at his fort until a reservation spot is settled, but in the end, the losses are great. The Poncas, who had not resisted settler encroachment nor acted violently, suffer a similar fate, as do the Utes in Utah.

The last two chapters return to tribes discussed in previous chapters. The Apache form a resistance under the leadership of Geronimo until 1886, when he surrenders. Meanwhile, Sitting Bull returns to the United States under the protection of a treaty. The Ghost Dance movement asserts that Jesus has returned as an Indian and will vanquish the white men. Sitting Bull is blamed for stoking the fires of this movement and is killed. Lastly, a Minneconjou tribe is obliterated at Wounded Knee.

Several themes repeat themselves throughout the decline of these Indian tribes. Indians are relocated from their homes to lands that are nearly always undesirable, dangerous even. Communication barriers allow the government to leave out important information in treaties or re-interpret them. Additionally, whites often attempt to assimilate Indians into their culture, viewing American culture as more civilized. Read together, the accounts in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are a brutally honest depiction of a people long denied the recognition of their suffering.