Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

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Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A savage indictment of the genocidal policy Manifest Destiny, which effectively wiped out the indigenous civilisation of the US, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is a sad, sad book. It's long and dense, but eminently readable and a salutary lesson to us all.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 487 Date: December 1987
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099526409

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Do you know how the American West was won? Do you think that the American West was won, even? Because, for a lot of people, it wasn't. This is the story told by Dee Brown, it's the story of the people for whom the West was lost. It's the story of the American Indian peoples. (I'm saying Indian, not Native American because that is the term used by Dee Brown. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was published in 1971 - I think before we all became so careful about the terms we use). The Wild West. Is that how you think of it? Do you think of Billy the Kid, of "Wanted" posters, of gunfights? Or of prospecting for gold? Or of pioneers, wagon trains and homesteaders? Dee Brown wrote Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee thirty years ago. He wrote it to put different people in your mind's eye. He wrote it to redress the balance, if you like. This is the story of the Sioux, the Apache, the Navaho and the Comanche, the story of Sitting Bull, of Crazy Horse, of Geronimo and Chief Joseph. It's painstakingly researched and incredibly detailed but it's not dull. Brown has found the words of the native peoples of America from journals, court transcripts and from treaties and tied them into an historical narrative. And articulate words they are too. full of the beautiful and expressive imagery of an oral people.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee opens with Columbus and the early English settlers. Let's see how the Indians began to lose the West. It's about the concept of ownership really. Some of the first Indian land was ceded in 1625 by Samoset of the Pemaquid in what is now called New England:

"Samoset knew that land came from the Great Spirit, was as endless as the sky, and belonged to no man. To humour these strangers in their strange ways, however, he went through a ceremony of transferring the land and made his mark on a paper for them."

Thus it began. It was never going to be an equal struggle. For, of course, to the white settlers, America was a land of plenty. Rich, as it was, in space, fertility and mineral deposits, settlers came to this land in search of a better life. And who could blame them? As the tide of expansion flooded ever westwards so did the lands of the native peoples shrink. There just wasn't the room for both. The main narrative of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee begins with the long walk of the Navajos to one of the first reservations. This was in 1860 and was shortly after the American government had developed the policy of "Manifest Destiny" - the principle that white expansion was both inevitable and justified. How arrogant that sounds. I doubt destiny was manifest to the Navajo. They just wanted their home. Finally, through the offices of General Sherman, they were allowed back, although the forced march and the squalid reservation had decimated their numbers. They were the lucky ones.

It ends about thirty years later. So much happens in those thirty years I can't even begin to tell you here. The Indians fought for their land. Custer died at Little Big Horn. Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and all the other famous names struggled to keep their freedom. But the Indian Frontier moved ever westwards. Only thirty years later and that freedom to live, to roam over their own lands, to hunt, was gone forever for the native peoples of America. Many thousands of them were dead, killed in battle, or by starvation, or by disease on the ever-shrinking reservations. The buffalo herds were gone too. There are so many stories to tell. But you need to read from their words, not mine, that's the whole point. Through broken promise after broken promise, the land was lost to its people. Let me tell you one thing, albeit a little one - an Indian reservation was in need of blankets. They were sent blankets. They were sent unlaundered blankets from a hospital treating smallpox victims. These people had no resistance to smallpox. Of all the terrible deeds told by Brown; the stories of murders, of massacres, of the selling of children into slavery, of unfair negotiations, of treachery and broken promises, this one thing stands out in my mind. I think that's because the barbarity of it is so contemptuous, so careless. What an indictment of the way one people can treat another. The book ends with the story of Wounded Knee; the battle that became the symbolic end of Native American resistance to the white man.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is the saddest story of cruelty, bigotry, ignorance and injustice you'll ever read. The wrongs perpetrated against the native peoples of America are of a scale beyond words, certainly beyond any words of mine, or Brown's, or even the proud, sad, beautiful descriptions of the Indians themselves. But the truth is that we move on. We and our societies evolve. No one can turn the clock back. The Native Americans can't have returned to them their heritage, their land, or their way of life. And for the American people now, it would not be just that they should. But you know, there is a need for testament, for history, and for the preserving of knowledge, customs and culture. How else can we learn? Or build? Or go forward? What would there be to learn from, or build upon?

I think the best thing about Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is that it ties together the testament of the Native American peoples within the political and historical framework of events. I love oral history. I don't want to read about numbers, dates, facts - I want to read about people. I want to know what it was like to be there, how people from the past felt about the events in their lives and what their aspirations and dreams were. I want to know what made them happy, what made them sad and what they thought about everything, really. I want to know what their world was to them, not what it was to a dry, dusty chronology. This is what Dee Brown's book gives you. Filling his narrative are the voices of these famous men - Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise, Crazy Horse, and so many others. Their voices speak clearly from the past and articulate, in a way I never could, the pride, the vision, the sadness and the beauty of a culture and a way of life so cruelly destroyed. We can't bring them back, but we can remember them, and we should. We can also think about many other things. We can think of the value of the environment, of the virtues of tolerance, of justice and of inclusion for all, and we should do that too, however far removed the modern world and its ways are from the world and the ways of those long dead warriors.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is a big book in more ways than one. It's big of course because it's so important. It's also big because it's so long and so full of events and people. Don't let that put you off; once started you'll find it hard to put down. Brown writes well and finds even more expressive voices in the people he's writing about. You may have no great interest in what happened in the American West a century and a half ago but as you read you'll find that interest - outrage and sadness too. Of course atrocities were committed by both sides, and we don't hear much about the other side of things. I don't think it's a problem, however, for this book was written to redress a balance. Read it that way.

And I defy you to read it unmoved.

For a perspective on another time when one people perpetrated terrible things on another, try our review of Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Booklists.jpg Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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Buy Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown at Amazon.com.


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jillinnrichs said:

Hello, yes, I will definitely read this book after seeing your review. It has been at the back of my mind since reading a reference to it in a short story by Annie Proulx, so you have refreshed my memory. thanx jill.

Terence A Whiting said:

Your short passage has inspired me to purchase an account of what appears to be a way of life destroyed and lost forever like the dew before the sun.

Micky Creamer said:

They live a life in perfect harmony with nature & took very little from this world. How I would have loved to live their lifestyle a free bird. Admiralble citizens of the world desroyed by power of the cunning calculating greedy white folk who got to control & disruct anything that gets in their way. This mean streak in us has to be resolved else like the planet of the apes we will destroy everything. I look forward to the book. Thanks for the brilliant review.