Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown

Nine stars

Dee Brown takes the reader on a thorough and quite disheartening journey through the military and political journey to settle the Western frontier of the United States of America. There is much within this piece of non-fiction that pushes the boundaries and Brown does not hold back in his delivery. The central premise of the book is to explore many of the Indian (and I use this term, as it is peppered throughout by Brown, though I acknowledge is a derogatory term in Canada) settlements and the government’s plan to push tribes off the land on which they have subsisted for generations. The tribal violation continued when the displaced Indian population was forced to settle on lands newly branded the possession of the white man, who sought to develop economic strongholds throughout the westward growth of America. From the Sioux to the Utes and even tackling the more infamous Sitting Bull tales, Brown offers a graphic description of what happened during these battles (labelled ‘wars’) and how both sides took no prisoners, each trying to fight in the way they knew best. While America grew under the watch of numerous Congresses and with the direction of many presidents, Brown shows that no matter their political stripe, land acquisition and further expansion trumped all else. It would seem that only Lincoln and Grant lessened the bloodshed and sought to build connections with the Indian leaders, though treaties drawn up with legalese that did not translate clearly and gun-toting soldiers shot first and asked questions later. The entire book is a sad depiction of the historical progression (regression) of American values and attempts to add to their imperial quiver, which has sadly not stopped into the 21st century, when more dreamed up needs for ‘taming the infidels’ emerged and left future generations full of hate and to carry the burden of being tarred and feathered. Not for those whose hearts are large or skin thin, Brown tells stories of the clashes, battles, and eventual swindling of the Indian population by the white man. Those with much curiosity about the subject can rely on Brown to offer raw and realistic depictions of an indelible stain on (North) American history.

This is my first book by Dee Brown, read as a favour to a great friend in her choice to initiate me into her book club. Brown’s gut-wrenching honesty is apparent throughout the various chapters, drawing on official documents from both sides (Americans and Indians), as well as historical tomes. The story, if one can divorce one’s self from the narrative and pretend there could be a degree of fiction, reads easily, though is by no means quickly synthesised. That there are elements of gore and ruthless violence is clear, but I feel that to hide or water it down, while perhaps the choice some readers would have sought, could only harm the book. It is important not to hide behind veils in order to pretend things did not happen and for this reason, I feel it is important for many to pick up this book and at least attempt a portion of it, to better understand what generic history tomes might attempt to neutralise. The depth of the research seeps through on every page, as does the premise that western expansion, while a political ideal to grow the foundation of the country, might have been sought while some in Washington were still inebriated on the victory over the Confederacy. I must say that I enjoyed as each chapter opened with a historical snapshot to allow readers to see what else what going on in the world at the time, drawing parallels and dichotomies in equal measure. To say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book would send the wrong sentiment to some readers, though I can appreciate much of the description and feel I am better for having taken the time to read it.

Now that we have put the formal review to bed, I turn to another piece that arose in me while I tackled this book. I had to ask myself throughout, what purpose Brown had for creating this book, especially with a re-release on the thirtieth anniversary in 2000. Being from Canada, we have been inculcated from a young age that we (the white settlers’ ancestors) are bad and that the aboriginal population have been maligned and harmed, such that apologies are only the tip of the iceberg. I have sat through public school, post-secondary, government jobs, and now the daily news (as well as my current position in the world of Child Protection) learning that the ‘white man is bad’ and that ‘we should rectify things’. Alas, I will dust off my soapbox and climb atop it here, so please skip to the end of you prefer not to hear my opinions. If Brown wanted only to add to the cognizance of the populace and exemplify some of the evils that were done to the Indian population, this book does a stellar job, which is why it won my praise above. If there is an attempt to bash the reader over the head with how bad the American settlers were and to light a flame under them (as has been force-fed Canadians, at least), I cannot express how angry this book makes me. History is a wily beast, though we are taught to always learn from it and build on its foundation, making ourselves better and trying to discover how we can find teachable moments. We have done it with imperialism (to a degree) and with human rights violations (to a lesser degree), but, with the plume in the hands of the victors, history is shaped with a certain flavour. Yes, there are those who are oppressed, perhaps without rhyme or reason, but for as long as the world has existed, the winners of the battles dictate the terms, however unfair as it may be. We can whine and bitch about it, going so far as to cry foul, but it is one of the bittersweet aspects to winning; that you can decide how the future will go. I think that the Canadian example has shown that governments are too worried about pussyfooting around and want to coddle those who make a stink. You lost… it was unfair, but you lost. We could assimilate you entirely and take the Indian out of you (and yes, Canada tried that), but you lost, so you should expect no less. We watched it happen in Africa and Asia for centuries, but no one thought to toss off the shackles when South Africa’s white minority assumed power. We complained and tossed financial penalties, but by and large, we let it happen. And, I must say here, by WE, I mean ancestors and governments around the world. We watched tribes scrubbed out and their language replaced with English, French, Portuguese, and others that still seem to find their way into the daily forms of communication. And yet, do we go in and remove those imperial stains? No, we accept them and hope that the community can, through their own desire, foster strong ancestral ties. Laying down and saying “we won, you keep whatever you want and take more to punish us for toppling your applecart” is not only asinine, but completely defeats the way history has run for centuries. And yet we sit here and twiddle our thumbs, hoping that the defeated will only take enough pie to satiate themselves and leave us, the victors, not to starve. There, rant done! Thank you Dee Brown for giving me a vessel to express them in a quasi-academic format.

Kudos, Mr. Brown, for bringing renewed attention to this subject in a rooted fashion. I hope that this book (and review) begin a discussion and keep the high-brow conversation developing.

This book completes my first project in the Diversity in All Forms Book Club, under November Bonus Reads.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons