Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is an historical account of what happened to the American Indians in the 19th C. when white settlers began to take over their territory. Dee Brown, known for his books about the West, was born in Alberta, LA, in 1908 (Scroggins 1). “His family moved to Arkansas when his dad died. From an early age, he loved to read, and his mother also loved to read. As a result, he always had enough reading materials available” (Scroggins 1). When Brown was 17, he wrote a story and sent it to a magazine (Scroggins 1).
“His first full-time job was printing name in Christmas cards. Later he became a linotype operator for the Harrison, Arkansas, Daily Times. (Scroggins 1)”. Afterwards, Brown went to the ArkansasStateTeachers College in Conway, Arkansas (Scroggins 1). “He lived in Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression. There, he met one of his favorite authors, Sherwood Anderson (Scroggins 1).
“His first book was Wave High the Banner (1942) and six months after it was published, he went into the army. He was in the army from 1942 to 1945” (Scroggins 1). During the 1960s, Brown wrote eight more books, and in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee moved into the best seller list (Scroggins 1).
“He likes to write nonfiction best, and he prefers to write about the past” (Scroggins 1). Other books by Dee Brown include Fighting Indians of the West, Trail Driving Days, The Settler’s West, Grierson’s Raid and Yellowhorse (Scroggins 1). “He has written novels, nonfiction and juvenile books. He won the Clarence Day Award from the American Library Association in 1971. He also writes about many historical figures in his books” (Scroggins 1).
“A recent publication is When the Century was Young: A Writer’s Notebook (1993). Today, he still uses a manuscript typewriter. He now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas” (Scroggins 1).
The book opens with Columbus arriving in America and seeing the Indians for the first time. The book mentions that he took ten of them to Spain so “they could be introduced to white man’s ways” (Brown 2). An event occurred on the journey that foretold what was coming in the future for the Indians: “One of them died soon after arriving there, but not before he was baptized a Christian. The Spaniards were so pleased that they had made it possible for the first Indian to enter heaven that they hastened to spread the good news throughout the West Indies” (Brown 2). This assumption that the Indians needed to be christened in order to enter heaven was just one of the naïve thoughts the white settlers had about the Indians.
From Columbus the book goes on to other white settlers coming to America and taking over the Indians’ land. At first, the Indians were told they could live anywhere they pleased west of the Mississippi. The area to the right belonged to the white settlers. However, as more and more white settlers came to America, the farther west the Indians were pushed. Some of the events mentioned in this part of the book are the discovery of gold by the white settler, which forced the Indians off of most of their lands, the Civil War and a brief summary of each of the Indian tribes that are mentioned throughout the book.
After the introduction, the book begins telling the story of each of the tribes per chapter, beginning with the Navahos. For most of the book, the Indians were unable to claim their own independence. The group of settlers who became soldiers always attacked the Indians and made sure they did what they were told and stayed where they were told (on the reservations).
When the Indians tried to fight the soldiers, the soldiers’ advantage over them caused their defeat. Eventually, the Indians would realize they could not fight the soldiers and after losing many of their people, women and children included, they went back to the reservation the soldiers put them on. Similar scenarios occurred with the Navahos, Santee Sioux, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Plains Indians, and Apaches. The Kiowas were the first to fight back with some results. Although they didn’t win the war against the soldiers, led by Kicking Bird the Kiowas were able to fight the soldiers off long enough to escape their reservation and find a place were they could hunt buffalo and live free.
But even the Kiowas victory was short-lived. The soldiers were able to find some of the Kiowas and hold them prisoners. Among them were the tribe’s great warriors, including Kicking Bird. As punishment for escaping the reservation and defying the soldiers, the great warriors were killed. This was another act to show the Indians that the soldiers controlled them.
Other tribes learned this harsh lesson when they too decided to fight the soldiers for their freedom. The Cheyennes were one of them. The soldiers decided to move the Northern Cheyenne to the south to join the rest of their tribe. The Northern Cheyennes were told they were only going down to look at the reservation, but when they got there and didn’t like what they saw, they quickly learned that the soldiers had no intention of moving them back.
The Northern Cheyennes quickly became ill and found it difficult to plant their food rather than hunt it. They made a plea with their agent to return to the north, but were put off again and again for over a year. They decided they would risk their lives and return to their home on their own. The soldiers caught up with them on the way, and a battle began. But the Cheyennes were unable to defeat the soldiers and were soon moved to another reservation as prisoners.
The Poncas were another tribe who attempted to leave their reservation and be on their own. When the runaways were captured, Standing Bear pleaded for their lives. He made history when his case was pleaded in court. He was the first Indian to be awarded the same rights as the white man. Standing Bear won his case and the judge ordered that the Poncas be released. However, the soldiers claimed that the Indians were not citizens and therefore the order meant nothing. Although at this time Standing Bear was free, the Poncas weren’t.
The Utes, Rocky Mountain Indians, decided to try a different strategy against the white men. They took their story to the press. When they were offered one piece of land but the treaty they were supposed to sign indicated a smaller piece, the Utes’ chief, Ouray the Arrow, held out until the Utes got what they wanted. But then a new agent, Nathan C. Meeker, showed up.
Meeker was determined to take everything away from the Utes. This time, he used the press against the Utes by telling them lies about the Utes, accusing them of things they had not done. The Utes denied the accusations and insisted they wanted peace. As the accusations between Meeker and the Utes flew back and forth, a new fight broke out between the Indians and the soldiers. Like the other wars between the Indians and the white settlers, eventually the Utes surrendered after losing many lives and soon disappeared.
The Apaches seemed to have the most freedom of any of the Indians. Although they too were placed on a reservation ruled by an Indian agent, they were given the freedom to govern themselves. Their agent, John Clum, forced the military to withdraw from the reservation and replaced them with a group of Apaches to police their own agency, as well as establishing an Apache court system to try offenders. This system seemed to keep the peace on the reservation.
Because of the success of the Apache reservation, Clum was ordered to take charge of the Chiricahua reservation and move them to the Apache reservation. Only half of the Chiricahuas left with Clum. Most of those who were left fled across the border to Mexico. Geronimo was among the leaders of this group. Clum was ordered to take one of his Apache police to Mexico and bring Geronimo and the others back to the reservation. Afterwards, the Army moved a company of soldiers to the reservation. This angered Clum, and he asked that the military be removed. But the soldiers remained and Clum resigned.
Clum’s resignation began a series of chaotic events. The number of Indians on the reservation increased and supplies decreased. The Chiricahuas attempted to leave the reservation. The Apache police went after them but only recaptured their horses and mules, letting the people go. For a while, the Chiricahua warriors lived on their own in peace. But then an old charge of horse stealing came up against one of the chiefs, Victorio. Lawmen entered the reservation to place him under arrest. Victorio escaped and was determined to do everything he could to defeat the white settlers.
Victorio’s determination once again began a chaotic chain of events. Many Apaches were slaughtered and many warriors escaped as Victorio’s battles increased. They returned later, heavily armed and determined to win their people’s freedom and the freedom of any Apache who wished to join them in Mexico. Each outbreak at the reservation brought more and more soldiers.
To bring order to this chaos, the Army brought in General George Crook. He ordered removal of the white squatters and miners from the reservation, brought in more rations and promised the Apaches they could once again build their homes and govern themselves. Crook also made an agreement with the Chiricahuas to return to the reservation, promising that things would be better. Both arrangements worked for about a year. Then one night Geronimo and some of the other warriors got drunk and left the reservation for Mexico once again. As a result, Crook was reprimanded and Bear Coat took over.
Bear Coat sent soldiers, Apache scouts and civilian militia into Mexico after Geronimo and his warriors. The Mexican Army was after them as well. Eventually, Geronimo surrendered for the last time. He and his warriors were shipped to Fort Marion, Florida, along with many of the Apache scouts. Because of the horrid conditions, their old enemies offered them part of the Kiowa and Comanche reservation. Geronimo and his exiles moved to this reservation to live out the rest of their lives. Later, Geronimo was buried there.
Just as Geronimo and his warriors tried to live free in Mexico, Sitting Bull and his band of Sioux tried to live free in Canada. Sitting Bull tried to get a reservation in Canada for his people but his request was denied because he was not a Canadian resident. Eventually, the Sioux returned to their reservation in the United States. But Sitting Bull was not granted the pardon he was promised if he returned. Instead, he was held as a military prisoner. He was released in time to testify at a hearing of his tribe against the commission. The Sioux believed that they were tricked into signing away their land in exchange for livestock. They were told that they were signing papers only to receive the livestock.
The hearing soon turned into an account of how the Sioux had been treated during Sitting Bull’s lifetime, including all the promises the government had broken. The result of Sitting Bull’s testimony was an angered commission. They reprimanded him and told him that if he wanted the Sioux to be free as the white men were, then the government would make them as white men. The commission appointed an agent to the Sioux reservation that they believed could “destroy the culture of the Sioux and replace it with the white man’s civilization” (Brown 400). Despite these circumstances, Sitting Bull remained popular with the Sioux.
Because of his popularity, Sitting Bull became a celebrity. He was invited to the celebration of the Northern Pacific Railroad driving in its last spike. A fifteen American city tour was arranged for him. On this tour, he created “such a sensation that William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody decided he must add the famous chief to his Wild West Show.” After the tour, Sitting Bull declined more offers in order to stay with his people. At the time, there was more talk of their lands being taken away.
Once again, the commissioners tried to get the Sioux to sign away their lands. But only 22 would sign. This was not enough for the required three-forth signatures. Not ready to ignore the treaty, which promised the Sioux that their lands would not simply be taken, the commissioners began trying to recruit more signatures. Sitting Bull and his followers remained adamant about not allowing their lands to be taken away. But they lost the battle and the land was broken into smaller pieces for the white immigrants.
About a year later, a Minneconjou named Kicking Bear visited Sitting Bull. He told Sitting Bull of a voice he heard commanding him to “go forth and meet the ghosts of Indians who were to return and inhabit the earth” (Brown 406). So they met up with other Indians and went in search of the ghost. When the Messiah arose, it was an Indian. He told the Indians about their ancestors and taught them the “Dance of the Ghosts.” The Indians who witnessed it went back to the reservations and taught the rest of their tribes the dance.
Soon, almost all the Indians were doing the dance. It angered the government to see the Indians practicing this new disturbance, and set out to arrest Sitting Bull for teaching it to the Sioux. Not wanting to create a great disturbance, it was decided that Sitting Bull would be removed from the reservation before being arrested. But the Sioux would not allow Sitting Bull to be taken and formed a large group of Ghost Dancers, enough so that they outnumbered the police. One of the Ghost Dancers, Catch-the-Bear, pulled out his rifle and fired at Bull Head, who had Sitting Bull in his custody. Bull Head fired back but instead shot Sitting Bull. Almost simultaneously, another bullet was fired and killed Sitting Bull instantly.
After Sitting Bull’s death, the Ghost Dance became a ritual among the Indians. They believed it would soon bring them peace and freedom from the white man. The Indian Chiefs began moving their tribes away from the reservations. As they fled, some were captured and wounded. To avoid any fighting, the soldiers brought their captives to Wounded Knee. Weapons were taken and rations were handed out. Tents were searched for weapons. Only two rifles were found, one of them belonging a young Minneconjou named Black Coyote, who was deaf. He raised the gun above his head claiming that it was his. The soldiers ordered him to put it down, but of course he could not hear them. Before he had a chance to put the weapon down, the troopers grabbed it from him, spinning him around when there was a great crash. Black Coyote fired his weapon and the soldiers fired back. The violence that followed killed nearly all the men, women and children. Twenty-five soldiers were killed as well. The wounded were brought to Pine Hill where a makeshift hospital was made out of a church. Four days after Christmas, the wounded arrived at the candle-lit church. A sign hung that read “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” (Brown 418).
The book deals with one of the most tragic times in our history. As I read it, I found myself becoming angry with all that happened to the Indians. Their home, culture and freedom were stolen from them from strangers that they welcomed to their home. As more and more settlers came, more and more was taken away from the Indians.
Although I felt a lot reading the book, I had trouble reading most of it. I found that I was reading almost the exact same story chapter after chapter. Each chapter dealt with a different tribe, but the same thing happened to all of them: the settlers came and took most of their land; the Indians were told where they could live; and as soon as they settled onto their new land, the soldiers came and attacked them. This was the basic structure of most of the chapters.
I know the book is an historical account of the Indians’ demise, but it was rather dry. As I mentioned, the structure didn’t seem to change from one story to another. I also had trouble keeping up with all the historical figures mentioned throughout the book. There were a lot of names and places to remember.
The story itself was very emotional. I felt many different emotions as I read what happened to the Indians. Mostly, I felt angry. But I also felt sad and frustrated about what they went through.
As a journalist, I found the story to be very structured. But as a reader, I found the structure to be very boring. However, all the facts were there and the author definitely captured the high emotions of the story.
From reading the book, I learned that you have to find out the whole story from many different perspectives and report your findings as accurately and as fair as possible. But through my opinion of how the book was written, I also learned that you need to write a story so that it captures the audience’s attention without letting go.