Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee quickly became the most compelling history book I’ve ever read. Published in 1970, it chronicles a crucial window in America’s long genocide against indigenous people. Between 1865 and 1890, the combined force of the US Army, major corporate interests, and white settlers shattered powerful Indian tribes that were thriving in their ancestral lands. Vast expanses of land were ethnically cleansed during this 25-year period and made into American states like Colorado, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, cleared for railroad, agriculture, and mining interests. Chapter One provides a succinct summary of colonial brutality against Indians from Columbus up to the 1800s, serving as a useful backdrop for the rest of the work.
Style and Structure
With all its tension, twists, and characters locked in conflict, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee reads like a tragic story instead of an average history book. It’s much more magnetic than, for example, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s work is, of course, groundbreaking and tells the centuries-long history of the oppressed in the US, but it often reads like a dry record of events. On the other hand, Brown’s book was as captivating as it was devastating. Though it reaches almost 500 pages, I wanted another 500 by the time I was done with it.
Brown dedicates each chapter to a specific tribe, analyzing their struggle to survive the invading US government. Through extensive research including both government and indigenous sources, Brown describes the long chain of negotiations, treaties, massacres, and battles that shaped what became the American West. He tracks internal tribal politics as well, how leaders like Sitting Bull and Red Cloud rose and fell depending on the strategies they cooked up to confront government deception and military massacres.
Description of the Sand Creek Massacre, where around 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne were killed after the US military promised them safety:
“…hundreds of Cheyenne women and children were gathering around Black Kettle’s flag. Up the dry creek bed, more were coming from White Antelope’s camp. After all, had not Colonel Greenwood told Black Kettle that as long as the United States flag flew above him no soldier would fire on him? White Antelope, an old man of seventy-five, unarmed, his dark face seamed from sun and weather, strode toward the soldiers. He was still confident that the soldiers would stop firing as soon as they saw the American flag and the white surrender flag which Black Kettle had now run up.
Medicine Calf Beckwourth, riding beside Colonel Chivington, saw White Antelope approaching. ‘He came running out to meet the command,’ Beckwourth later testified, ‘holding up his hands and saying Stop! Stop! He spoke it in as plain English as I can. He stopped and folded his arms until shot down.’ Survivors among the Cheyennes said that White Antelope sang the death song before he died:
Nothing lives long
Only the earth and the mountains.”
History is Our Present
The indigenous struggle for dignity and freedom continues to this day. The Zapatistas—an indigenous, libertarian-socialist militant group—declared war on the Mexican state in 1994, demanding work, land, and independence. They currently control substantial portions of Chiapas in southern Mexico. The Mapuche people in Chile are using sabotage tactics and direct action to fight the business interests that threaten their land. Thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians took to the streets in 2019 and successfully stopped the government from imposing an IMF-backed austerity package. And in 2016, thousands of protesters assembled at the Standing Rock reservation in freezing temperatures to reject the Dakota Access Pipeline, a pipeline which leaked 5 times in its first 6 months of operation.
I recommend this book to everyone. It’s crucial to understanding today’s United States. Books like this one help you see past the narratives that the powerful create to justify their power. There is no making America great again. It was never great for the majority of people living in it.