Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West



When Dee Brown's history of the American West, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was first published in 1970, it was unlike anything readers had seen before. For a century, legends and stories about the Old West had told of events from a strictly white perspective. According to popular belief, heroic men such as General George Custer bravely battled savage Indians to open up the American landscape and spread the light of civilization from coast to coast. It was seen as the "manifest destiny" of white Americans to take control of the land. In the history that was written by the victors, the Indians were cast not only as treacherous and violent, but also as an outright threat to freedom and progress.

Brown's exhaustively researched history shattered those myths. Events once seen as sources of pride for Americans, such as Custer's last stand at Little Bighorn and the "battle" at Wounded Knee, were suddenly recast as the shameful consequences of decades of mistreatment of American Indians. To support these views, Brown pored over countless historical documents, including official government reports and personal eyewitness narratives; a surprising amount of the book's text consists of direct quotes by both American Indian chiefs and white government officials. In their own words, they reveal how the government repeatedly violated treaties and instigated violent conflicts with tribe members who played no part in attacks against whites.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was the first historical account of the expansion of the American West to be told from an American Indian point of view. It is not, however, a one-sided account. Brown relies on facts to reconstruct the events he describes, which are seldom as clear-cut as some would like to believe. In many cases, he tells of senseless killings of settlers by American Indian warriors, including the Santee slaughter of traders and soldiers near Fort Ridgely in 1862 and the killing of hated government agent Nathan Meeker and his white workmen on a Ute reservation in 1879. Brown also tells of white men such as General William Tecumseh Sherman and General George Crook who, despite spending many years battling Indians across the West, also fought bravely for the reasonable treatment of tribes like the Navahos and the Poncas.

Far from being a comprehensive history of relations between whites and American Indians, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee focuses on the thirty-year period from 1860 to 1890, often referred to as the final three decades of the "Indian Wars." Each chapter of the book is devoted to the ongoing saga of a different tribe or group of tribes. Because of this limited scope, some well-known tribes such as the Hopi and the Pawnee are mentioned only in passing if at all. Brown instead focuses on those Western tribes whose relations with whites were particularly troubled.

The book has proved steadily successful since its initial publication, selling over five million copies worldwide. In 2001, Owl Books released a thirtieth anniversary edition featuring a new preface by the author. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has become required reading for many American history courses and continues to capture the imagination of readers who want to learn more about American Indian culture. As Brown notes in his preface to the 2001 edition:

Small though the comparative number of Indians is, almost all other Americans seem to have an earnest fascination for their history, their arts and literature, their attitude toward the natural world, and their philosophy of human existence.


Chapter 1: "Their Manners are Decorous and Praiseworthy"

The first chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee provides historical background about relations between Native Americans and whites prior to 1860. The chapter subtitle is taken from a letter written by Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, in which the explorer praises the Native Americans he has encountered as peaceable, sweet, and gentle. Columbus then kidnaps ten members of his host tribe, the Tainos, and takes them back to Spain so they may "be introduced to the white man's ways."

Over a century later, after hundreds of thousands of Native Americans have already been killed by Spaniards throughout the Caribbean, the first English settlers land in Virginia and Massachusetts. Like Columbus, the settlers are generally welcomed without hostility. Over the next two hundred years, though, the white settlers become so numerous that eastern Native American tribes can no longer remain on their traditional lands. In the 1830s, the surviving tribes are relocated west of the Mississippi River to a "permanent Indian frontier" established by the United States government. There, they are promised that whites will not disturb them. It does not take long before this promise is broken. The period from 1860 to 1890 sees the virtual extermination of Native Americans throughout this "permanent" territory.

Chapter 2: The Long Walk of the Navahos

The Navaho people occupy land later known as New Mexico. They form an uneasy friendship with the white soldiers who inhabit the string of forts being built throughout their lands in the early 1860s. They trade with the soldiers and even engage in horse racing competitions at Fort Fauntleroy. In 1861, amid accusations of cheating after one race, soldiers inexplicably launch an attack on Navahos outside the fort, killing women and children.

Soon after, General James Carleton enters the New Mexico territory and demands that the Navahos abandon their homeland. They are to relocate to reserved Indian land at Bosque Redondo, where other tribes such as the Mescalero Apaches have already been sent by force. Carleton enlists frontiersman Kit Carson to burn the Navahos' crops and take their livestock so they can be more easily forced from their land. He does so, destroying even the tribe's most prized achievement: meticulously cultivated peach orchards, over five thousand trees strong. Most of the Navahos surrender and make the long walk from their ancestral lands to the reservation at Bosque Redondo. A few rebellious chiefs like Manuelito elude capture for two years, but all eventually end up at the Bosque.



Dorris Alexander Brown, known throughout his life as "Dee," was born on February 28, 1908, near Alberta, Louisiana. His father died when he was five, and his mother moved the family to Arkansas shortly thereafter. His great-grandfather was an acquaintance of Davy Crockett, and Brown was fascinated by family anecdotes about the legendary man. He was also intrigued by real-life Native Americans he met as a youth; he found that they were not at all like the Indian savages depicted in the movies he saw.

While in college studying history, Brown began working in the campus library. This led to a career first as a government librarian and ultimately as a librarian and professor of library science at the University of Illinois. While working as a librarian, Brown's interest in history led him to write both fiction and nonfiction in his spare time. His first book, Wave High the Banner (1942), was a novel based on the life of Davy Crockett.

Subsequent books dealt almost exclusively with the Old West, with many delving into the untold stories of Native American tribes and their histories. Though he wrote or contributed to over twenty-five books—two of which won awards from the Western Writers of America—his crowning achievement is generally considered Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Brown, who continued writing into his nineties, died in 2002 at the age of ninety-four.

After spending years suffering in the reservation's poor conditions—infertile land, undrinkable water, and widespread disease—the Navahos are visited by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who promises to return them to their homeland. Sherman is mostly known for his merciless war tactics against both Confederates and Indians, but he often fights for the rights of Indians confined on inhospitable reservation lands. In 1868, the Navahos sign a new treaty with the whites; although they lose much of their most fertile land, they are allowed to return home. They are, as Brown puts it, "the least unfortunate of all the western Indians."

Chapter 3: Little Crow's War

By 1862, the Santee Sioux in the northern part of Indian Territory are squeezed into a narrow stretch of land alongside the Minnesota River. They have lost most of their land through unfavorable treaties, and due to the costs of fighting the Civil War, the government fails to pay money promised to the tribe. Their hunting grounds depleted, the Santees seek provisions from the government-run agency warehouses in their territory. One of the traders there tells the Santee they should "eat grass or their own dung."

Soon after, four hungry young Santee men foolishly kill five white settlers to prove their bravery. Knowing the whites will seek vengeance, the tribe, led by warrior chief Little Crow, decides to attack one of the government agencies first. Twenty whites are killed; the trader who suggested that the Santees eat grass is found dead, his mouth stuffed full of grass. The Santees also attack a nearby fort and town, but are soon overwhelmed by white forces. Most surrender, believing they will all be spared.

However, over three hundred of the Santees are tried and sentenced to death for the murders of whites. Eventually, President Lincoln commutes all but thirty-nine of the death sentences. It is later discovered that two of the men executed were not on the list of those condemned.

The last of the free Santee chiefs, Little Crow, is shot down in 1863 by white Minnesota settlers for a bounty. The surviving Santees are relocated to a reservation in Dakota territory in 1863; at least one out of every five Santees is dead by the end of their first winter there.

Chapter 4: War Comes to the Cheyennes

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, living in what would come to be called Colorado Territory, are tragic victims of miscommunication. In the 1850s, they sign land treaties written in English, and are told years later that the documents do not contain stipulations they were told would be included. In 1864, one of the Cheyenne chiefs, Lean Bear, rides toward a large group of white soldiers by himself to speak to the officer in charge. As he approaches, the soldiers open fire, killing him. The soldiers continue firing on other Cheyennes, who are then forced to fight back. Because of this, the colonel in charge of the area orders officers to "kill Cheyennes whenever and wherever found."

Later, when many Cheyennes and Arapahos have already surrendered weapons and relocated their camp to an area near one of the soldiers' forts, they are attacked by the colonel's forces one morning at sunrise. Chief Black Kettle raises a U.S. flag and a white flag of surrender on a pole in the camp and tells the women and children to gather around it for protection. The soldiers ignore the plea for truce and murder the Indians indiscriminately, mutilating the bodies afterward. Almost one hundred and fifty Indians are killed, most of them women and children. This event soon comes to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Chapter 5: Powder River Invasion

The tribes of the Powder River country (now part of northeastern Wyoming) include the Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes. In 1865, during their summer medicine ceremonies, they hear news of white soldiers approaching their land from four different directions. They dismiss this as rumor, and even ignore Cheyenne warrior Little Horse's report that he saw the soldiers approaching an Arapaho camp. Little Horse and his family move out of the camp, and the next morning soldiers attack it.

Two other columns of soldiers make their way through Powder River country as well, but they face massive resistance from many Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. These soldiers lose their battle, but the Indians know that more will soon come.

Chapter 6: Red Cloud's War

As the Indians of the Powder River country fight to drive the whites from their land, treaty commissioners make their way toward the disputed territory. They want to meet with the warrior chiefs, especially Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux, to arrange peace treaties that would allow white settlers safe travel through the Powder River country to Montana and Idaho. While many of the Indians favor peace, the whites' roads traverse important hunting grounds that cannot be relinquished. The government presses forward without a treaty; the Indians fight back, routing an entire company of soldiers in a battle that the whites call the Fetterman Massacre. After hearing of this and other failed attempts to stop the fighting, government officials in Washington decide to remove their soldiers from the Powder River country so they can secure peace with the Indians.

A peace treaty is signed in 1868, and Red Cloud emerges as a hero for his people. However, over the course of the next twenty years, the terms of the treaty are disputed, reinterpreted, and ultimately ignored by the very government that issued them.

Chapter 7: "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian"

By 1866, most of the southern plains have been cleared of Indians. Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, after surviving the Sand Creek massacre, has moved many of his remaining people to lands south of the Arkansas River as directed by the government. Some warriors refuse to leave the plains, though, and General Philip Sheridan is put in charge of all the forts in Kansas. Sheridan begins an indiscriminate reign of terror across the region, attacking even Black Kettle's peaceful camp just as other soldiers had done at Sand Creek; this time, Black Kettle does not survive. Soldiers kill one hundred and three Indians at Black Kettle's camp, only eleven of those being warriors. Sheridan's merciless tactics drive many groups to surrender. When a Comanche leader surrenders some of his tribe, he assures Sheridan that he is a "good Indian." Sheridan replies, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

Chapter 8: The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa

Though he is known to whites by the name Ely Samuel Parker, Hasanoanda—later called Donehogawa, Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois—is a full-blooded Seneca Iroquois. He changed his name as a young man in an attempt to be taken seriously by white people. Although he faces much discrimination, Parker works hard to become a successful civil engineer, and becomes friends with Ulysses S. Grant before the Civil War catapults Grant to national attention. During the war, Grant helps Parker win his right to fight for the Union. After the war, as a Brigadier General, Parker travels west to survey the treatment of Indians by the government. When Grant is elected president, he appoints Parker as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Parker is given control of a bureau rife with corruption, assigned the thankless job of trying to secure fair treatment of Indians even as the government whittles away Indian territories to accommodate the westward spread of white settlers and industrialists. He is resented by many politicians, both for his straitlaced behavior and his Indian ancestry. In 1870, he is attacked for failing to follow proper procedures when providing rations to Indian reservations, even though such action was necessary to prevent widespread starvation. Worried about tarnishing the image of his friend the president, he resigns as Commissioner of Indian Affairs after just two years of service.

Chapter 9: Cochise and the Apache Guerrillas

Cochise is the leader of the Chiricahua Apaches in an area that later became parts of Arizona and New Mexico. At first, the Apaches welcome white Americans to their region, but then a soldier wrongly arrests members of Cochise's family for stealing cattle. Two years later, in 1863, the Apache war chief Mangas Colorado is lured by soldiers waving a flag of truce; he is then taken prisoner, tortured, and killed at Fort McLean. In 1871, a band of unarmed Aravaipas living peacefully near a military camp are slaughtered in retaliation for a raid they did not commit.

After this final incident, which even President Grant calls "purely murder," government agents attempt to forge a peace with the Indian tribes of the southwest. Cochise eventually meets with them, and agrees to keep peace as long as his people can remain on a portion of their own lands instead of being relocated. Cochise dies of an unknown condition not long after. Other tribes in the region, including the Aravaipas, are less fortunate than the Chiricahuas; they are routinely relocated and arrested without cause.

Chapter 10: The Ordeal of Captain Jack

Kintpuash, chief of the Modoc tribe in northern California, is called Captain Jack by the local white settlers; many of the Modocs are given nicknames by the friendly whites who share their land. As the number of white settlers increase, however, tensions grow; Captain Jack is convinced to sign a treaty relocating the Modocs north to a reservation in Oregon. However, without promised government provisions, and in conflict with the Klamath Indians on whose land they have been placed, the Modocs soon return to their former home. Soldiers are brought in to remove them, and although Captain Jack agrees to leave, the confrontation turns violent when the soldiers attempt to disarm the entire band. The Modocs flee to a nearby region of lava beds. There, trapped by soldiers, a group of Modoc warriors goad Captain Jack into killing the white leader, General Canby, during a truce council. Later, after Captain Jack surrenders his people, these same Modoc warriors testify against him at his trial for murder. He is found guilty and hanged.

Chapter 11: The War to Save the Buffalo

By 1869, General Sheridan's merciless tactics against the Plains Indians (described in Chapter 7) have resulted in the surrender of most tribes, including the Cheyennes and Arapahos. The Kiowas, along with some remaining Comanches, defy Sheridan's order to surrender; after all, they have signed—and abide by—a treaty that allows them to remain where they are. Commander George Custer is given the task of forcing their surrender. He meets with Kiowa leaders for a peaceful council, and then suddenly arrests the two most powerful chiefs, Satanta and Lone Wolf, though they have done nothing in violation of their treaty. General Sheridan proclaims that the two will be executed if the Kiowa people do not surrender themselves at Fort Cobb. Most of the tribe surrenders, and the two leaders are relocated with their people to a reservation.

Soon, in need of food beyond what they can grow on their reservation, a band of warriors slips across the border into Texas to hunt. They find and attack a wagon train, killing seven men, and when they return to the reservation, the chiefs responsible for the attack are charged with murder. Chiefs Satanta and Big Tree are sentenced to life imprisonment, but Lone Wolf convinces authorities that peace is not possible unless the other two chiefs are freed.

Peace does not last long. As whites continue to steal Indian horses and hunt the Plains buffalo nearly to extinction, Lone Wolf leaves the reservations and joins his band of Kiowas with the Kwahadi tribe in an attempt to live free among the last great buffalo herd at Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. They are captured, along with other bands of Kiowas who have left the reservation without permission; unable to decide which Kiowas should be held responsible, government authorities order one of the less rebellious chiefs, Kicking Bird, to choose twenty-six of his own tribe for imprisonment in Florida. He makes the difficult selections—which include both Lone Wolf and Satanta—and two days after the prisoners are taken, Kicking Bird dies without explanation.

Chapter 12: The War for the Black Hills

In 1868, the U.S. government grants permanent ownership of the Black Hills in South Dakota to the Indians. Soon after, gold is discovered in the Black Hills, and the government is powerless to stop the rush of white settlers who violate the Indians' rights by entering their territory without permission. General George Custer leads troops into the territory, though they do little to keep white prospectors out. In September of 1875, government agents meet with Indian leaders to try to arrange for the sale or lease of the Black Hills. The Indians refuse. Within six months, soldiers are dispatched to clear the land of all "hostile" Indians, even though they are in their own territory.

This leads to a clash between Indian forces, including those of Oglala chief Crazy Horse and Hunkpapa chief Sitting Bull, and white soldiers led by General Custer. Custer and his soldiers are utterly destroyed in a battle near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. This resounding defeat of military forces—the most decisive and devastating victory ever achieved by Plains Indians—has its price: after hearing of the massacre, the U.S. government demands that the Indians surrender both the Powder River country and the Black Hills. The Indians, they argue, have broken their treaty; the fact that the government broke the treaty first—by sending troops into Indian territory without permission—is ignored.

As soldiers pursue the remaining bands of Sioux across the northern plains, Sitting Bull leads his people into Canada, where he feels they will be safer. Crazy Horse eludes soldiers until 1877; with his Oglala people starving, and the government promising to allow them to return to their Powder River country soon, he surrenders. Months later, he is arrested after he makes comments about leaving the reservation to return to the Powder River country. As Crazy Horse is led to a barred cell, a scuffle ensues and a soldier stabs him with a bayonet, killing him. Soon after, the remaining Sioux are marched to a new reservation far from their home. Crazy Horse's parents escape the march to join Sitting Bull in Canada. On the way, they stop at a creek called Wounded Knee, where they bury their son's heart and bones.

Chapter 13: The Flight of the Nez Percés

Prior to the great westward push of white settlers, the Nez Percé tribe inhabits an area that covers parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Throughout the early and mid 1800s, the Nez Percés pride themselves on their friendly relationship with whites. As more and more settlers move into Nez Percé territory, however, white commissioners present the Indians with a treaty that will reduce their land to a fraction of its former size. One chief, Old Joseph, refuses to sign. Though he dies soon after, his son, Young Joseph, is equally committed to preserving his tribe's homeland in the Wallowa Valley. When government agents demand that he and his tribe relocate to a reservation, he appeals to President Grant, who relents and signs an executive order that protects the Wallowa Valley from white settlement.

Local whites, eager to open up the Wallowa Valley for their own use, falsely accuse the Nez Percés of stealing cattle and horses from settlers. Two years after Grant gave protection to the Wallowa Valley, he reverses himself and declares it open for white settlement. The Nez Percés are told to report to the Lapwai reservation in 1877, and military forces are called in when they refuse.

Outnumbered and overwhelmed, Chief Joseph leads his people on the march to Lapwai. Along the way, after several Nez Percé warriors slip away and kill eleven whites as revenge for stolen livestock, Chief Joseph decides that the tribe must flee to the north or they will die at the hands of white soldiers. They make their way toward Canada, hoping to evade American soldiers just as Sitting Bull did. The tribe is overtaken just miles from the Canadian border. After five days and many Nez Percé casualties, Chief Joseph agrees to surrender his people. However, a small group of warriors escape and make their way on foot to the Canadian border where Sitting Bull's Sioux take them in.

Most of the Nez Percé, including Chief Joseph, are never allowed to go to Lapwai as promised, held as prisoners of war far from Wallowa Valley. Chief Joseph spends many years petitioning the government to free his people, with no success. He dies in 1904. Brown notes that "the agency physician reported the cause of death as 'a broken heart.'"

Chapter 14: Cheyenne Exodus

In 1877, several bands of Northern Cheyennes surrender along with the Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse. The Northern Cheyennes expect to be placed on a reservation with the Sioux and object when they are told they will be relocated far south to a reservation containing Southern Cheyennes. The Northern Cheyennes agree to visit and inspect the reservation lands and then decide whether they will go. Once there, they find the conditions deplorable and request to go back; they are told they must stay until the president decides differently. The Northern Cheyennes fare poorly in the hot summer weather, and many become ill with malaria.

Chief Little Wolf of the Northern Cheyennes leads his people off the reservation and starts northward, hoping to return to their ancestral lands without incident. As they make their way, the tribe is attacked and splinters into two groups. Little Wolf's band meets with a sympathetic commander named Lieutenant Clark, who agrees to let the Cheyennes stay at his fort until a northern reservation can be established. The two groups of Northern Cheyennes are finally brought back together at a reservation on Tongue River, but only after suffering great losses.

Chapter 15: Standing Bear Becomes a Person

In 1868, a "bureaucratic blunder in Washington" leads to trouble for the peaceful, agrarian Ponca tribe. The borders for their land, located in Nebraska, were already determined by treaty ten years earlier. However, when government officials craft a treaty for a rival tribe north of the Poncas—the Sioux (discussed in Chapter 6)—they inadvertently include the Ponca territory as part of the Sioux treaty. For seven years, the Poncas are harassed by Sioux who threaten to drive them off the newly established Sioux territory. Eventually, the government gives the Poncas some money as repayment for their trouble.

Soon after, though, the Poncas—who have never fought with white soldiers or even resisted white encroachment on their land—are told that they will be relocated to Indian Territory. Several Ponca chiefs, including White Eagle and Standing Bear, are taken by train through Indian Territory to evaluate the land. They are told by government agent Edward Kemble that they will then be taken to the president, where they can tell him anything good or bad about the land they were shown. When the chiefs express disappointment at the Indian Territory land and refuse to accept it, Kemble abandons them far from home. Without money or horses, the wintertime journey back home takes them over a month on foot.

Kemble returns to the Ponca camp with troops and forces the Poncas to relocate to Indian Territory farther south. Like the Northern Cheyennes (discussed in Chapter 14), many become ill in the hostile southern climate. Nearly one-fourth of the tribe's population is wiped out within a year.

The following year, Chief Standing Bear's eldest son dies. Determined to honor his son's final request, Standing Bear leads a large party north to bury his son at their ancestral Ponca homelands. They reach Omaha, where General Crook—a longtime Indian-fighter who is becoming increasingly sympathetic to their plight—promises to help them return to their homelands. Crook relates the story of the Poncas to the press and helps orchestrate Standing Bear v. Crook, a court proceeding against himself. Lawyers for the Poncas assert that Standing Bear is a person in the eyes of the law and demand that Crook show cause for holding them as prisoners. The judge rules in favor of the Poncas, and they are freed; the government grants them several hundred acres of land from their former territory.

Unfortunately, the majority of Poncas are still held on the southern Indian Territory reservation and are not allowed to leave. Big Snake, Standing Bear's brother, attempts to make his way home with thirty other Poncas and is "accidentally" killed by soldiers as they try to arrest him.

Chapter 16: "The Utes Must Go!"

The Utes are Rocky Mountain Indians who see the white man as their ally; in fact, in the early 1860s, many Utes help white frontiersman Kit Carson subdue their longtime enemies, the Navahos (discussed in Chapter 2). By 1873, however, the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains has brought many miners into Ute territory, and the government is unwilling to remove them. Instead, the government strikes a deal with head Ute chief Ouray the Arrow to buy a large section of the Utes' Rocky Mountain territory. Knowing there is nothing else they can do, Ouray and the other chiefs accept.

In 1878, the government appoints Nathan Meeker as a new agent for the Ute reservation. Meeker plans to destroy the Utes' supply of ponies in order to force them to settle down and grow crops like white men do. When he orders the plowing of an important horse pasture, one of the chiefs, Canalla Johnson, argues with him and grabs him by the shoulder. Meeker exaggerates the incident and requests that soldiers be sent to the reservation; meanwhile, the local white communities are being worked into an anti-Ute frenzy with false news reports of Indian attacks.

The company of two hundred cavalrymen march onto Ute land after promising one of the chiefs that they would wait at the border. Two Ute leaders approach the men for a council, and someone—it could have been a white or a Ute—fires a shot that initiates an intense battle. News of the fighting spreads, and Utes at Meeker's agency kill him and his white workers and take the three white women captive. The women are ultimately released, and the Utes, now painted as murderous savages by the Colorado press and politicians, are forced to relocate to a Utah reservation.

Chapter 17: The Last of the Apache Chiefs

In 1876, two years after the death of Cochise (discussed in Chapter 9), the time of the reservation on Chiricahua Apache land comes to an end. The government closes the reservation and forces the Chiricahuas to relocate to another reservation at San Carlos. Half of the Chiricahuas comply, while the other half flee to Mexico under the leadership of an Apache named Geronimo. After stealing horses and cattle from Mexicans, Geronimo and his band return to New Mexico to sell the animals for supplies. They take shelter near a Mimbres Indian reservation; when that reservation is shut down, Geronimo and the Mimbres are taken to San Carlos. Four years later, believing Army agents are about to arrest "all leaders who had ever been hostile," Geronimo and several other Apaches return to Mexico and join up with other escaped Mimbres warriors.

In 1882, the Army calls on General Crook (discussed in Chapter 15) to restore order to the San Carlos reservation. Crook makes quick improvements to the reservation and brings Geronimo and hundreds of other fugitive Apaches back to San Carlos. Things are peaceful until 1885, when Geronimo and a number of others again flee to Mexico, reportedly because they hear rumors of impending arrests. Crook is reprimanded for failing to bring the Indians back peacefully and ultimately resigns. After being pursued by both the American and Mexican armies, Geronimo and his last few followers surrender to General Miles in 1886 and are shipped off to a dismal reservation in Florida. Hearing the news, the Kiowas and Comanches—once enemies of the Chiricahuas—offer Geronimo and his people a place at Fort Sill on their reservation. Geronimo, "the last of the Apache chiefs," dies there in 1909.

Chapter 18: Dance of the Ghosts

In 1881, Sitting Bull and his people, who have fled to Canada to escape conflict with American soldiers and settlers, return to the United States under the promise of a pardon and reserved land with other Sioux. The government reneges on part of its promise and holds Sitting Bull as a prisoner. This does nothing to diminish his popularity among both Indians and whites, and after he is released from prison, Buffalo Bill Cody asks government agents to allow Sitting Bull to join his Wild West show. Sitting Bull is a huge success, but he returns to his reservation in 1887 when he suspects government agents are trying to take advantage of his absences to take more of his people's land. Indeed, in 1889, the government convinces the other Sioux chiefs to sell off a large portion of the Great Sioux Reservation despite Sitting Bull's opposition.

In the winter of 1890, a religious craze known as the Ghost Dance movement sweeps through Indian reservations across the country. The movement—a mix of Christianity and Native American beliefs—asserts that Christ has returned to Earth as an Indian, and that the white men will be wiped from the land by spring. The Indians must perform Ghost Dance ceremonies to protect themselves during this great cleansing. The Sioux agent, James McLaughlin, condemns the ceremonies and orders the arrest of Sitting Bull, who he believes is behind them. During his arrest, a conflict breaks out and Sitting Bull is killed.

Chapter 19: Wounded Knee

After the death of Sitting Bull, Minneconjou chief Big Foot leads his people away from their reservation, hoping to find another reservation where they will be better protected. Soldiers catch up to the band and force them to camp at Wounded Knee Creek. The next morning, the soldiers take the Indians' guns, axes, and knives; after giving up nearly all the weapons peacefully, a single Minneconjou protests the loss of his gun. As the gun is taken from him, shots ring out and chaos ensues. At the end of the slaughter, Brown notes, "One estimate placed the final total of dead at very nearly three hundred of the original 350 men, women, and children." For many, this massacre marks the closing of the American frontier.



Ethnocentrism is the judging of other cultures based on the standards of one's own culture, usually under the belief that one's own culture is ideal or superior. When dealing with American Indians, the attitudes and behaviors of white Americans as shown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are largely shaped by ethnocentrism.

In the book, white Americans believe that the Indian way of life—in itself a faulty conception, since tribes in different regions had vastly different cultures—is inherently less civilized than their own society. Nathan Meeker, an agent for the Ute territory in Colorado, is typical of the white people who misinterpret Indian culture by measuring it against white American culture. Meeker believes that the Indians oppose farming because they are lazy; in truth, they see no need to farm because the land naturally provides everything they desire. He does not understand why the Utes want to be paid to work their own farmland, even though he pays white workers who also help with the labor. Ironically, many Indian tribes such as the Navahos and Poncas are excellent farmers before they are forced from their land by white soldiers; these same tribes are later told that they should give up their savage lifestyles and take up agriculture.

Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding that results from ethnocentrism in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has to do with the concept of land ownership. For white Americans, it is understood that all land is owned by specific individuals, and that ownership of that land can be transferred from owner to owner. Indians see the land as belonging to all, and therefore do not immediately understand the notion that they can be removed from their ancestral lands just because the government has given them money or provisions. After some tribes are confined to reservations, white agents attempt to eliminate tribe-owned land by encouraging individual land ownership, which they see as a civilized trait.


The story of nearly every American Indian tribe is a story of relocation. Before the influence of whites in an area, local tribes naturally settled on the most fertile pieces of land available, places where they could most easily sustain themselves. As the United States adds large amounts of territory to its domain, white settlers and lawmakers are not content to leave these prime lands in the hands of Indian tribes. Rather than honor long-established boundaries for tribal lands, the government instead "renegotiates" with Indian tribes for their removal to more distant—and almost always less fertile—lands. Some tribes are moved repeatedly, each time to progressively worse land.

Several Indian tribes are also relocated for other reasons. The Utes, for example, are moved after gold is discovered in their part of the Rocky Mountains. Likewise, the Black Hills, sacred to many northern Plains Indian tribes, are seized when gold is discovered there. Some tribes are moved far from their ancestral lands simply because it is more convenient for the government to operate a single large reservation than several smaller ones.

The majority of the bloody conflicts described in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are the result of these forced relocations. Often they occur when a band of Indians refuses to be relocated; just as often, though, they occur after a group of Indians submits to a reservation, finds the conditions inhospitable, and returns to ancestral lands in an attempt to continue life as it was before white settlers.

Communication Barriers

Problems arising from the communication barriers between Indians and whites are perhaps the most pervasive of all the problems described in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. In many cases, Indian chiefs like Red Cloud discover later that treaties they have signed do not include provisions they had agreed to. Because nearly all the chiefs require interpreters when dealing with white agents, it is entirely possible that some of these provisions were "lost in translation"—though such a consistent pattern suggests deliberate deception. Whatever the reason, such differing perceptions about treaty terms account for the source of much of the conflict between Indians and whites.

Poor communication also often leads to violence. When Cheyenne chief Lean Bear peacefully approaches a group of soldiers, at least one of the soldiers seems to misinterpret this as an impending attack and shoots him dead. This spurs a violent battle resulting in many deaths for both Cheyennes and whites. At Wounded Knee in 1890, the entire band of Big Foot's Sioux is peacefully disarmed with the exception of a Minneconjou warrior named Black Coyote. According to one witness, Black Coyote is deaf; he is willing to give up his weapon, but white soldiers misunderstand his intentions. In the end, hundreds of Indians are killed because of this misunderstanding.

The communication barrier between whites and Indians is also apparent in an incident involving Sitting Bull, who at the time has become a famous figure, well-regarded by the American public. Sitting Bull agrees to speak at a ceremony marking the completion of a transcontinental railroad across the northern part of the country. His speech, given in his native Sioux, consists of various insults and complaints about white people, who he describes as "thieves and liars." The Army translator who must convey the speech to the English-speaking public is put on the spot; rather than translate Sitting Bull's statement of hatred for white people, he improvises a warm, "Indian"-sounding speech that receives a standing ovation. Even though he is the most well-known and beloved Indian in the country, Sitting Bull's true words are not heard.


Assimilation occurs when a minority population adopts the behaviors and beliefs of the majority population in which they live. While most Indian tribes in the book initially welcome white settlers to their land, few Indians are willing to assimilate fully into the culture of white America.

When Chief Joseph of the Nez Percés refuses to allow white men to build schools on his lands, he explains that schools will also bring churches and that churches "will teach us to quarrel about God." Still, many Indians accept and even embrace the less quarrelsome aspects of Christianity. When many Poncas die during their relocation to Indian Territory in 1877, they receive Christian burials at the request of tribe members. Ultimately, Indian tribes across the country even adopt a new religious movement—the Ghost Dance movement—that borrows heavily from Christian tradition.

Though whites often attempt to "civilize" Indians in the book, very little effort is made to incorporate them into American society. In fact, as pressure builds to remove Indian tribes from coveted lands, the Indians themselves are demonized to such an extent that assimilation into the mainstream becomes all but impossible. For example, the relatively peaceful Utes are depicted in the Colorado press as bloodthirsty savages. They are blamed not only for acts they do not commit, but also for acts that have not been committed by anyone, such as the alleged burning of a former Indian agent's house.

The depiction of a successfully assimilated Indian is that of Donehogawa, also known as Ely Parker. Parker works as an engineer, serves in the Army during the Civil War, and eventually becomes President Grant's Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Still, even with his great successes, he is ultimately driven out of politics by opponents who paint him as nothing more than an untrustworthy savage.


American Indians and the Westward Expansion of the United States

From its outset, the United States was a westward-expanding nation. The colonies along the East Coast had been populated with white settlers long before the United States became a country in its own right, often at the expense of East Coast Indian tribes. Any successful growth of the new nation meant moving west. President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox sought a peaceful solution to the inevitable conflicts that arose when whites encroached upon lands occupied by Indians. In "No Idle Past: Uses of History in the 1830 Indian Removal Debates," Jason Meyers notes, "President George Washington recognized Indian sovereignty and promised Native Americans economic assistance, education, and protection." Washington also established the framework of peacefully obtaining land from Indian tribes by negotiating treaties between tribe leaders and the government.

This model was followed with success until 1830, when the government focus changed from negotiation with Indians to flat-out removal. Entire Indian tribes were relocated to more distant lands not yet occupied by white settlers—in this case, lands west of the Mississippi River. However, as the population of the United States continued to grow, soon those lands immediately west of the Mississippi were appropriated by whites, and Indian tribes were relocated yet again. This pattern was repeated throughout the nineteenth century as white settlers continued to spread across newly acquired territories, eventually reaching the West Coast.

For many Americans, this displacement of Indians was justified by the notion of "manifest destiny." This term, coined by New York journalist John O'Sullivan, suggested that the divine right and duty of Americans was to spread democracy and civilization across the land. Indians were seen as neither democratic nor civilized and were therefore an obstacle to the growth of the country.

By 1890, nearly all Indian tribes in the United States were confined to reservation lands that were repeatedly reduced in size as the government's resource needs grew. In 1924, the American Indian Citizenship Act granted American citizenship to all Indians without the need for their consent. This was characteristic of an officially sanctioned attempt to assimilate Indians into American society. Although assimilation has occurred to varying degrees with different tribes, the second half of the twentieth century saw a resurgence of interest in American Indian heritage and preservation that continues to this day.

The American Indian Movement

At the same time Brown was writing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Native Americans across the country were actively organizing to promote the renewal of tribal heritage and awareness of the government's mistreatment of Native American people. The most influential organization was the American Indian Movement (AIM), launched in Minnesota in 1968. Originally intended to focus on local issues, the success of the organization defied tribal lines and became a nationwide phenomenon within a year, causing the group to focus instead on broader topics like reeducation and Native American civil rights.

Among the group's most notable actions was the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. AIM members argued their right to be there due to a 1868 treaty that allowed Indians to occupy any federal land that was not currently in use. After eighteen months of occupation, federal troops forced the group off the island. In 1973, AIM occupied the Pine Ridge Reservation near Wounded Knee. The group objected to the federally imposed tribal government currently in charge on the reservation. During the seventy-one-day protest, federal agents killed two AIM members. Ultimately, despite the best efforts of AIM, the existing tribal government remained in place. Two years later, two federal agents in an unmarked car ventured onto Indian property near local AIM headquarters and were shot dead. This incident resulted in the conviction of one AIM member, Leonard Peltier; as of 2006, Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for the deaths of the federal agents. Many human rights groups have criticized the investigation and trial that resulted in Peltier's conviction and are attempting to secure a retrial or parole. Amnesty International has initiated a petition for clemency seeking to release Peltier through a presidential pardon.

The American Indian Movement continues to play an active role in protecting the rights of Indians and serves as a watchdog monitoring negative media portrayals of American Indians.


Critical response to the initial publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was overwhelmingly positive. This may be at least partly explained by the book's revelatory qualities: it presented information that was both little known and contradictory to the general public's ideas about the West. In a review from The Washington Post quoted on the back cover of the thirtieth anniversary edition, William McPherson calls the book both "shattering" and "appalling." In "Savages," Helen McNeil, writing for New Statesman, describes it as "deliberately revisionist," suggesting that Brown's goal is to force readers to challenge their own notions about Old West history. McNeil also notes that the book is "amazingly myth-free" and avoids stereotypes in its depiction of well-known Indians such as Crazy Horse and Geronimo.

Brown has also been acknowledged for the extensive documentation used to support his portrayal of events, as well as his use of a novelistic narrative style to engage the reader. McNeil describes the book as a "scholarly and passionate chronicle," and Douglas Martin, in an obituary for the author in the New York Times titled "Dee Brown, 94, Author who Revised Image of West," notes that the book is characterized by "meticulous research and masterly storytelling."

The most common criticisms of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee have little to do with the book's literary or historical merits, but instead focus on its subject matter. As McNeil notes in New Statesman, "Brown's panorama is almost too broad and uniformly tragic." An obituary for the author in The Economist notes the book's success despite the fact that it "is not what publishers call a page-turner." McNeil also notes that Brown's perspective on the subject might seem presumptuous to some, considering the fact that he is white, but she points out that "a history of slavery written by a white 'from the Negro viewpoint' would hardly be so well received."

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has continued to enjoy strong sales, as evidenced by the release of a thirtieth anniversary edition of the book that remains in print as of 2006. It is considered by many to be the most comprehensive survey of nineteenth-century relations between Native Americans and whites ever written and a compelling introductory book for readers who want to learn about different Native American tribes and their cultures.


Donald Fixico

In the following excerpt, Fixico examines the impact of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee on Native American studies and the depiction of Native Americans in literature.

In 1971 Dee Brown wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—a book that stunned America, persuading a generation to listen to the voice of Native Americans. Society learned about the Indian as a victim in the American West.

The full impact involved the emergence of an academic Indian voice in the following years. Native Americans had always expressed their concerns and opinions about issues ranging from legal status, to living conditions, to past mistreatment at the hands of the United States government. But the Indian voice was not widely heard, at least by the dominant society, until the 1960s during the Civil Rights protests and the concurrent rise of American Indian activism. During the late 1960s and at the start of the next decade, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee opened the door for the Native American voice and launched a generation of American Indian studies in academia.

While many enthralled readers turned the pages of Bury My Heart, their consciences acknowledged this mistreatment of the American Indian. Guilt seized them. Scholars, however, remained doubtful about Brown's work. The late historian Wilcomb Washburn noted:


An audio recording of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was released on audio cassette in 1992 by Books on Tape. It is currently unavailable.

While Brown's work, from the scholarly point of view, leaves something to be desired, its impact has Sbeen phenomenal in raising the consciousness of white Americans about the past history of Indians and whites in America.

Bury My Heart awakened scholars and writers, and especially Native Americans. Native scholars began writing about the feelings of Indian people and about their opinions. Indians felt the frustration of urban alienation and the influence of Red Power activists, and they began to put pen to paper.

In addition to Dee Brown's work, two other important books about Indians appeared during these years—Vine Deloria, Jr.'s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1968) and N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1966). The latter won the Pulitzer Prize, the only work written by a Native American to be recognized.

A part of this scholarly current to study American Indians derived especially from the political movements of Black Power, Brown Power, and Red Power. Civil Rights for minorities and equal rights for women expressed during political protests and activism caused society and institutions of higher learning to reconsider the status and past written histories of ethnic groups and women. Thus, the 1960s represented pivotal changes in American society, as people contemplated their own lives and the values of the mainstream society and the dominant culture that had stressed the importance of education, economics, religion, and individualism.

Until the 1960s, mainstream society had refused to listen to, or to learn from, Native Americans. Naturally, this provoked the title of Vine Deloria, Jr.'s book, We Talk: You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf. From an Indian point of view, Deloria predicted in 1972:

American society is unconsciously going Indian. Moods, attitudes, and values are changing. People are becoming more aware of their isolation even while they continue to worship the rugged individualist who needs no one. The self-sufficient man is casting about for a community to call his own. The glittering generalities and mythologies of American society no longer satisfy the need and desire to belong.

On the heels of We Talk: You Listen came Deloria's God Is Red (1974), in which he pointed out that Native Americans identify with place rather than time as do white men, and that Indians galvanize toward group identity rather than individuality. Undoubtedly, Americans were looking for security in various ways and forms, even looking to Native Americans because of their traditional values of communalism and environmental relationship with the earth. As a result of the self-examining society of the 1960s, people began to ask questions about their inner selves, wondering who they were, and they researched their roots. They needed something with which to identify, and to bring balance to their lives. Many looked toward history for answers, as the rugged individualist American began to break down.

Timing proved to be germane to the powerful influence of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It was the link to the past, and a model by which people could re-examine that past. Although the revelation of America's mistreatment of Native Americans was shocking, it was not unique; 90 years earlier, Helen Hunt Jackson's, A Century of Dishonor had been published—an expose that had alerted the public to the plight of the American Indian. However, it was as a result of Dee Brown's book in 1971 that journalists, writers, and scholars began to offer new ideas and theories, and they introduced new ways to look at their subjects in a broader context with open minds.

Until the 1960s, the dominant society had maintained strict control over learning, forcing Western linear teaching into the minds of Indian students at boarding schools and missionary schools, while public schools berated the ways of Native Americans and presented them as inferior to white ways. The Native American perspective was ignored until the unleashing in the 1960s.

The emotions that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee brought forth in readers made for a precedent-setting work. Dee Brown described the feelings and emotions of Native Americans in such a way as no historians had successfully done—he humanized them.

And as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was appearing in January 1971, other interests were developing simultaneously in Indian activism and Native American militancy. Indian activists protested that colleges and universities offered very little about American Indians—or incorrect information—in their college courses. Non-Indians, too, began to embrace the opportunity to study Native Americans to see the courses they had to offer. This interest in Indian curriculum was not new, but was rather a renaissance of Native American issues, which led to a genre of literature with increasing demands. Writings and scholarship was changing, and new sources and inspiration were pursued.

Because of the emergence of Native American studies programs, the momentum carried throughout the 1970s. Even history as an academic discipline began to re-examine its basic approach. In an article entitled "American Historians and the Idea of National Character: Some Problems and Prospects," David Stannard wrote about the American search for "National Character" as a means for writing history, and that historians were looking toward the behavioral sciences in their analyses. Yet, although new ideas about writing history entered the discipline, the old habit of disregarding Native Americans and other minorities still prevailed.

In the early 1970s, the discipline as practiced by mainstream historians refused to make Native Americans a true part of American history. In 1970, Jeanette Henry reprimanded the history profession and American society for denying Native Americans a proper place in the written history of this country:

Every dominant political class in any society attempts to control the ideology of the people most particularly though the learning process in the schools: It is not to be wondered at that "this" American society does the same. The school boards and curriculum commissions which control the adoption and purchase of textbooks usually adopt books to support the dominant political class. So too do the professors in universities, [and] departments of various disciplines.

In the 1970s, people learned that American Indians have always lived in their own way, in spite of federal policies designed to force them to assimilate into the dominant society. The current 547 federally recognized Native American tribes and other Indian communities exist according to their particular identity and heritage; and this need for freedom of expression involves culture, political concerns, religion, and intellectualism. Although American Indians have sought self-determination since the 1960s, a dominant control of the media, including textbook companies, the film industry, and a majority of publications, suppressed the advancement of Indian people and their communities throughout Indian country.

A "natural sovereignty" for Indian people has meant that all native communities possessed a heritage of freedom. A native identity is based on desired segregation from other peoples and their natural right to pursue their own way of life. This is done on reservations throughout Indian country and in urban Indian areas in most major cities where Native Americans survived the relocation program of the 1950s and 1960s. Currently, more than two-thirds of the total Indian population of just over two million live in urban areas; thus Indian country consists of reservations and urban Indian communities.

A history of struggle is common to all nations, and American Indian tribal nations have certainly had this experience. Their struggle has been one against European imperialism and the United States. The invasion of these foreign nations has defeated and suppressed the Native American, and, in some cases, annihilated Indian people.

Euroamerican colonization has a history of going beyond building homesteads and clearing the land for crops; this colonization experience has been one of deliberate destruction of Native Americans and their culture. Attempts at co-existence did not work out, and the Indian nations fell before the Euroamerican colonization after patriotic resistance in every region of the country.

Aside from attempts of genocide, the survival of Native Americans, even against overwhelming odds, compelled the United States to assimilate Indian people into the ideological "melting pot" of white values. Simultaneously, in order to accomplish this assimilation or desegregation, the United States government and its military sought to suppress the native intellectualism of Indian people. With biased scientific evidence in the late 1800s, and in an attempt to justify the American experience with Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis," America sought to subordinate Native Americans. An insecure American culture believed it necessary to deem Native American knowledge and native intellectualism to be inferior. Undoubtedly, this was intellectual racism on the part of America, which has not been fully addressed.

American Indian intellectualism has always existed, but it has not always been acknowledged. Unfortunately, the most brilliant Indian individuals were called to lead their people in war against the United States—those such as Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, and Chief Joseph in the 19th century. In post-modern America, Indian intellectualism should be allowed to be expressed; however, conservative academic attitudes have suppressed or ignored the opportunity for Native American thoughts and ideas. Should not American Indian intellectuals have the same right as others to offer their ideas, philosophies, and theories? Should not American Indian people have the same opportunities to obtain a college education and have the same opportunities to succeed as other Americans? Many years ago, before the first Native American Studies Program, the Lakota sage Luther Standing Bear challenged white society: "Why not a school of Indian thought, built on the Indian pattern and conducted by Indian instructors?"

The late 1960s and early 1970s represented a drastic change in the study of Native Americans, beginning with listening to the Indian voice of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—a voice that was varied, coming as it did from a myriad of Indian people who were outraged at the federal government, angry at the dominant society, and frustrated with their own people, or themselves. Dee Brown's work enabled this voice to be heard and gave it a sense of direction.

Source: Donald Fixico, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the Indian Voice in Native Studies," in Journal of the West, Vol. 39, No. 1, January 2000, pp. 7-9, 10, 11, 12, 14.


Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Owl Books, 2001, originally published in 1971.

"Dee Brown," in The Economist, December 21, 2002, Vol. 365, No. 8304.

Martin, Douglas, "Dee Brown, 94, Author who Revised Image of West," in New York Times, December 14, 2002, p. B18.

McNeil, Helen, "Savages," in New Statesman, October 1, 1971, Vol. 82, No. 2115, pp. 444-45.

Meyers, Jason, "No Idle Past: Uses of History in the 1830 Indian Removal Debates," in The Historian, Fall 2000, Vol. 63, No. 1, p. 53.

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