Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
This book was the first non-fictional book I have ever read for pleasure. I tend to stick to fiction as, inevitably, non-fiction tends to be heavy going and often dull reading if interesting. ‘Bury my heart’ is the Indian history of the American West; the white man’s destruction of the Indian race, culture, food and land. I have always been interested in the American Indians – I think almost everyone has been exposed to the typical stereotype; strong, handsome faces, elaborate headdresses, dream catchers and, if you ever watched any westerns, their portrayal as ignorant and evil barbarians. I know only snippets about their culture but I have always respected their devoted love for the earth which I mirror and I also admire their crafts, weapons and dress for being so unique and so in keeping with the natural landscape. Brown actually describes the Indians as ‘the first real conservationists’ and so, as someone with an ambition to be a conservationist, it is no surprise that I feel drawn to learn more about these people. I always knew, before reading this book, that white man had oppressed and killed the Indians but I did not appreciate the sheer barbaric nature of some of things white men did – ironic considering it was the Indians who were meant to be the barbarians – or the scale of events. This book opened my eyes.
Brown recounts accurately, from many sources, the fate of many tribes across America. Beginning with the arrival of Columbus and the Spanish and ending with the massacre at Wounded Knee, this book will break anyone and everyone’s heart. Brown explores the fate of many iconic and less known tribes and their leaders – Little Crow, Red Cloud, Captain Jack, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull – and I couldn’t help but be amazed at what white man did to these incredible people. Broken promises, misunderstandings and murders led to the white men stealing the Indian’s land, destroying all valuable game and resources and wiping an incredible culture off the face of the earth. In every chapter I found death because of a misunderstanding, death because of sheer evil and cruelty – because they had nothing better to do – and death because of broken promises. Some of the hardest chapters involved reading about the murder of children by merciless white man and coming across a white Indian sympathiser was so rare because of the abuse they themselves faced for showing a little mercy, a little pity, towards these people. Ignorance of their ways lead to many a figure choosing to lead the Indians to ‘righteousness’ through the Christian faith i.e. through annihilation and through the threat of having their land taken from them. Even in those few refreshing chapters where the Indians fought back and took some small victories, in later chapters, they would be exterminated like vermin, brow beaten and then sent to reservations where life wasn’t safe, food was often lacking and they died through starvation and disease instead of in war.
I was stunned by how cruel the white men were – so few questioned Indian rights and considering that in one chapter there is actually a trial to decide whether or not Indians are people, that’s no real surprise. Promises from Washington – now one of the most powerful governments in the world – were lies, white settlers destroyed and took land just for gold and the Indian people were treated, frankly, like shit because nobody understood or valued them. These few things I have mentioned in the paragraphs above just don’t cover the scale of how heart-breaking these events were. If you want to understand, read the book.
This book made me feel many things – misery and sadness prevalent but one of the things I could never bring myself to do was to actually cry. The information was…sobering for lack of a better word but I wasn’t surprised. If anything, this book only fuelled by already existing dislike for the ignorant Christians and the human race. The pain I felt for these people has been locked away, deep in my heart, so I shall never forget such an incredible people who should have been an example to us all and now are scattered remnants of a culture, lost in the wind.
- From the archive, 1 March 1973: Second battle of Wounded Knee (guardian.co.uk)
- The ponies of Wounded Knee (reflectionsonriding.wordpress.com)