A Look at “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown

*I originally published this on my Facebook page in 2009 and wanted to include it here.

www.siarchives.si.edu. Acc. 12-492, Box 4; Portrait of an identified male. Label on slide: I-BAE 3.

http://www.siarchives.si.edu. Acc. 12-492, Box 4; Portrait of an identified male. Label on slide: I-BAE 3.

I recently finished reading Dee Brown’s book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. If you are not familiar with it, it is the history of the American west from the Indian’s perspective using “council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions” from various tribes as well as U.S. Congressional records. It opened my eyes to who the true savages were in the fight for the American west. I already knew the Indians got completely shafted but I didn’t know the scope of it.

It’s always different after hearing the other side to a story. As an admirer of the Indian perspective and way of life, it is discomforting to read, and I wish everyone living under the flag of the United States of America would read it.

If you don’t know the history of this era, here is the simple version: The “white’s” forcibly and systematically pushed the Indians off their lands and wiped out their way of life for the greed of money, land, gold and silver. And it did not matter to the Americans in the least if they trampled over another human being in the process (it actually took an 1879 court case, Standing Bear v. Crook, to determine if an Indian even qualified as a “person”). That is the easy version. Anyway, it makes me mad as hell and I wanted to recommend it.  And instead of just leaving it at that, I’m gonna blabber on about it some more and include some select quotes from the book. So if it interests you, please keep reading.

To understand their perspective, you must first understand the Indian. Christopher Columbus wrote these words about his experiences with Indians, taken from the very first page of the book:

“‘So tractable, so peaceable, are these people,’ Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, ‘that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.'” (p. 1)

In my mind the Indians had the ultimate life. They had their own little bit of heaven on earth. They experienced the joy of living in the middle of Nature, hand-in-hand with it, and in a culture that placed importance on treating others the way they would want to be treated. Those gentle, peaceful characteristics of the Indians to which Columbus referred stemmed directly from the importance they place on things like trust and honor – quite different than the predominant culture around us today. The Indian way of life is an example of integrity. Similar to the ancient oriental culture, the Indians’ code of honor and trust is more important than anything. To say one thing and do another is simply unacceptable.

“‘The Cheyennes do not break their word,’ One-Eye replied. ‘If they should do so, I would not care to live longer.'” (p. 77).

I was just about to suggest that the Indians were too trusting, but maybe there is a better way of saying that. To say the Indians were “too trusting” suggests they were somehow at fault when, in actuality, it was the white man’s greed and dishonor which was the sole source of the problem. Regardless, the Indians trusted the Americans at their word, even through their continued broken promises and treaties. That was the most frustrating part of this book, for me. Each time the Americans would come to the Indians to request more land or a new treaty, I kept wanting to step into the tent and say, “Don’t do it! Don’t trust them!!” Time after time, the Americans proved they were not to be trusted, but by the time the Indians finally realized this fact, there was nothing left to fight for and no one left to fight with. The American war machine successfully divided and conquered the Indians, destroying them and their peaceful way of life, all for the sake of money and power.

Unlike the white’s culture, the Indians’ way of life did not revolve around the want of material possessions and comforts. I think that is what I admire most. Likewise, they do not understand the concept of “owning” land.

“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”
– Tashunka Witko (Crazy Horse) (p. 274)

They lived in harmony with the Earth, taking only what they needed to survive. The respect of Life and Nature is at their core. They were self-sufficient and perfectly content with their simple, peaceful way of life but the whites – too consumed by their greed to understand – felt it was their duty to “correct” and “civilize” the Indians for their own sake.

Personally, I think the Indians had it right. It’s ironic how our modern-day culture now strives to be “green” and respect the Earth, when the Indians were on top of this way of life centuries ago. It’s a shame that the early Americans were too focused on conquering them to actually learn anything from them. Hear this excerpt referencing Nathan Meeker, a government official complaining about the Utes band of Indians in Colorado in 1879:

“‘Their needs are so few that they do not wish to adopt civilized habits,’ Meeker complained to the commissioner of Indian Affairs. ‘What we call conveniences and comforts are not sufficiently valued by them to cause them to undertake to obtain them by their own efforts… the great majority look upon the white man’s ways with indifference and contempt.’ He proposed a course of action to correct this barbaric condition: first, take away the Utes’ hundreds of ponies so that they could not roam and hunt, replace the ponies with a few draft horses for plowing and hauling, and then as soon as the Utes were thus forced to abandon the hunt and remain near the agency, he would issue no more rations to those who would not work. ‘I shall cut every Indian down to the bare starvation point’, he wrote Colorado’s Senator Henry M. Teller, ‘if he will not work.'” (p. 374)

Over time the Indians were divided and moved from their native lands and herded into ever-shrinking reservations, often treated as no better than cattle. In meetings with government bureaucrats in Washington, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces Indians pleaded his case for justice this way:

“I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men… Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises… You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases… I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.” (p. 330)

“Gall,” a Hunkpapa war chief shared his perspective this way:

“We were born naked and have been taught to hunt and live on the game. You [Americans] tell us that we must learn to farm, live in one house, and take on your ways. Suppose the people living beyond the great sea should come and tell you that you must stop farming and kill your cattle, and take your houses and lands, what would you do? Would you not fight them?” (p.293)

And the Indians had no way to fight the propaganda war. The American perspective was that the Indians were nothing more than uncivilized savages, as that was what the local newspapers told them:

“‘It is too often the case,’ Crook said, ‘that border newspapers… disseminate all sorts of exaggerations and falsehoods about the Indians, which are copied in papers of high character and wide circulation, in other parts of the country, while the Indians’ side of the case is rarely ever heard. In this way the people at large get false ideas with reference to the matter. Then when the outbreak does come public attention is tuned to the Indians, their crimes and atrocities are alone condemned, while the persons whose injustice has driven them to this course escape scot-free and are the loudest in their denunciations. No one knows this fact better than the Indian, therefore he is excusable in seeing no justice in a government which only punishes him, while it allows the white man to plunder him as he pleases.” (p. 405)

Eventually the Indians lost their native lands, their way of life and their liberty. They were forced from their way of life and made to take on the selfish ways of the white man, relying on the government for rations since they could no longer hunt.

“I thought God intended us to live, but I was mistaken. God intends to give the country to the white people, and we are to die. It may be well; it may be well.” – Standing Bear (p.359)

The Indians never stood a chance. Their peaceful, trusting manner and primitive weapons was no match for the kind of power, marketing and weaponry money can buy or the greed that comes with it. What selfishness and “the love of money” did to the Indians and their way of life was nothing short of genocide.

I think it’s a powerful book and one every person should read. There is a lot more I want to get into, branching off into some deeper questions, but this note is too long already. I’ll post more another time. In the meantime, if you’re looking for reading material, consider Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown.


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