“When people want to slaughter cattle they drive them along until they get them to a corral, and then they slaughter them. So it was with us.”—Standing Bear of the Poncas
Not so long ago, I embarked on a little personal reading project I called “Westward Ho!” to delve into certain historical topics I wanted to explore. [I thought it was not so long ago…and then I searched the blog archives and found it was actually two whole years ago! Whoops…where did 2013 go??] The most enlightening part of this project was the joint reading I did with Aarti of a book called Lions of the West. Our conversations inspired further exploration of some of the topics addressed in that book, and one of the books I put on my “to-read” list as a result was Dee Brown’s acclaimed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.
This book wasn’t exactly what I expected. Some nonfiction narrators (maybe most that I’ve read) keep their big-picture point at the forefront of their storytelling. Their chapters highlight specific pieces of evidence that support their main point, but the narrative always pulls it all together. That way, you don’t get bogged down in details (a real buzz kill, especially if the subject is historical), and you can easily see how all the pieces fit together to tell the story.
Brown doesn’t hold the reader’s hand quite that much in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Instead of mixing detail with broad summary, Brown shares a lot of detail about the persisting incidents suffered by American Indians in the latter half of the 19th century—primetime of US westward expansion. It’s one story after another about particular confrontations in particular places, featuring the stories of such individuals as Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull. I think his method must have been more of the shove-it-in-your-head-with-repetition variety.
The result of this method is that you, the reader, feel the never-ending hopelessness of defeat as the various tribes Brown highlights are demoralized, manipulated, and conquered by the US government. Though it isn’t as easy to read as a more succinct narrative style, the point made is clear. White men were like a plague impossible to extinguish; it was an uphill battle and a losing one at that.
In using his many different examples, Brown is able to show just how uphill this battle was and how many different ways the American Indians tried to approach it. Some peacefully acquiesced to US demands; some went through legal channels to voice their rights; some resorted to warfare and destruction. As rules and regulations were imposed on the country’s native inhabitants, the government disregarded its own rules and promises to them for its own gains.
“To justify these breaches of the ‘permanent Indian frontier,’ the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny, a term which lifted land hunger to a lofty plane. The Europeans and their descendents were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race and therefore responsible for the Indians—along with their lands, their forests, and their mineral wealth.”
Not only did Manifest Destiny assert the God-given right of white men to take over the country, it also actually deemed it destiny of the Indians to give up their land. There’s deceit and greed and manipulation. Settlers and soldiers exaggerated or blatantly lied about the “nuisance” and “violence” of Indians so the government would shoo them off the land, “for safety’s sake.”
The story is sad. It’s really sad. It feels so incredibly hopeless. And it’s really such a terrible part of this country’s humanitarian history that sadly is too often brushed over as just a relic, an inevitable part of the past, when people are still today living and dealing with its repercussions.
Though I still don’t think this book is the easiest or most interesting to read, stylistically speaking, its stories speak volumes, and I think it’s one of the most important perspectives of history to hear and understand.
“Their musical names remained forever fixed on the American land, but their bones were forgotten in a thousand burned villages or lost in forests fast disappearing before the axes of twenty million invaders.”