Tatanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull, Chief of the Hunkpapas of the Teton Sioux. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown*, 1970
I first read Dee Brown’s somber account of America’s treatment of Native Americans upon finding it on my parents’ bookshelves when I was in high school. Of course, none of my friends were reading anything like this, and when I attempted to discuss the book with my high school history teacher, a staunch conservative, his attitude was dismissive. If my parents actually read the book, they had little to say on the subject. And so I internalized what I was reading.
The book has stayed with me for the past 40 years, through visits to Native American reservations in the lower 48 and visits to First Nations villages in Canada. It was a presence in the back of my mind when, as was a young man hitch-hiking across America, I found myself in a plush white Cadillac heading west across Wyoming. Behind the wheel was a man in his 30’s. Spread across the front seat between us were legal books and document folders. He told me about how he had left his reservation – how difficult that had been -, how he had become a successful lawyer and how satisfying it was that some of his work included advocacy for his people. It has been with me these years in Alaska, living in Inupiat and Aleut/Alutiiq villages, making friends with my neighbors and admiring much in these communities. It was with me when I saw in the news that Lower 48 extremists were attempting to take over Bureau of Land Management acreage as though it’s theirs to take over, willfully ignorant of history; willfully ignorant of who was on these lands first, should they ever be ceded back to private ownership. The book again made its presence known in a restaurant in Anchorage where, on a restroom wall, someone who knows little about any of all this felt compelled to apprise other patrons of his bigotry toward Native Americans.
Forty years after that first read, I just finished rereading Bury My Heart. I read it aloud as Barbra listened, chapter by painful chapter. Throughout the read, I found myself rediscovering passages that have stayed with me these past 40 years – a song about ponies, stirring quotes from Chiefs, treaty violations by the American government that, even now thinking about their callous enormity, leave me without words.
A brutal history
It is a hard read. The facts, about which many Americans remain in denial, are brutal. Don’t be misled by reviews that insist Brown’s treatise isn’t meticulously researched. It is, with 23 pages of sources cited. As for bias, if anything Brown has left little unturned in a nearly fruitless effort to identify white Americans who took a courageous – or even principled – stand on behalf of the tribes that were being systematically wiped out. The best one reviewer claiming bias could come up with is that an army officer guilty of a massacre was cashiered. Independent sources state that in fact, the only “punishment” that officer received for overseeing the slaughter of women and children was that he was permitted to resign. For similar behavior, plenty of other army officers received promotions. In fact, it was General Sheridan who is credited for first proclaiming that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” a sentiment backed by war policy that shored up rather than hindered his career.
There are light spots among the 449 pages. The ancient songs stand by themselves as beautiful poetry; the many photographic portraits of Native American leaders, similarly, often capture grace and beauty. When Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull) goes off script at a public ceremony to tell a white audience exactly what he thinks of the way they have treated him and his Native American brothers and sisters, it’s easy to cheer. And very, very occasionally a judge, army officer, or other white with enough power to matter does find in himself sufficient courage, empathy and sense of justice to come to the aid of a people being systematically extirpated. These respites notwithstanding, the reader knows from the beginning that the story is going to come to a bad end for the protagonists, and it does.
In these somewhat more enlightened times, people of good intent periodically speak of reparations for America’s past wrong deeds. The unfortunate reality is there isn’t much good land available to cede back and it is land that underpins many of the grievances. As to the loss of culture, language, family lines and entire tribes and nations…
Practicable, meaningful reparations
But there are two things that could be done and that would have meaning:
- The manner in which many public schools serving Native Americans are run reflects a level of corruption reminiscent of the bad old “Indian Ring” that conspired to cheat Native Americans out of virtually every treaty provision they were granted. One by one, these schools need to be reformed; their administrators removed and the corrupt review processes by which these schools remain accredited – facilitated by auditors who are either dishonest or inept – need to be completely overhauled. “Completely” means completely. Remove everyone who has overseen the mess, throw out all the old forms and guidelines, put in place people who care about these communities and who have the expertise to get it right, and start again from scratch.
- Add Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to the canon of required reading in high schools and colleges across America. No adult literate American should go through life ignorant of this history, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make them.
*Doris Alexander Brown, 1908 – 2002. While many assume that Dee Brown must be Native American, in fact he was white, born in Louisiana and raised in Arkansas. Boyhood experiences with a kind acquaintance named Chief Yellow Horse and a friendship with a Creek boy prompted him to reject the stereotypes of his day. (Wikipedia.)