"The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told." Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perce
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Dee Brown's Indian history of the American West, is a remarkable combination of style and sense of subject. Fundamental to the book's impact are two aspects of Brown's approach. Unlike many of his white predecessors, he has enough respect for the American Indian as to allow those involved in the losing of the West to speak for themselves to the extent that the white-recorded transcripts from the period allow them to do so. Equally important is the fact that Brown has taken a national perspective on his subject. Although there are many truths to be learned from the losing of the West, East, North and South, perhaps the most fundamental one is that the American Indian, his own preferences not-withstanding, did not exist in a racial vacuum. The treaty promises of a "permanent Indian frontier" were honored no longer than a 90-day-or-three-thousand-mile-whichever-comes-first used car warranty. Yet, the history that has been written about the Indian and about America has relegated him to a silent, specious isolation. Most of the books that have dealt with the Indian have been concerned with the "plight" of one tribe, and the vast majority of allegedly American histories have treated non-whites in general as creatures of the fringe. American literature and film have compounded the dislocation by using non-whites, Indians in particular, as if they were human period furniture, a portable part of the dramatic donnee to be carried through time and space to serve as an instant complication in the plot of countless Western sagas. As a result, few Americans know what happened when and where, for they have Hollywood visions of John Wayne chasing Mescaleros into Canada, Geronimo dying in five states, and Crazy Horse winning the Kentucky Derby.
As great as is the general ignorance of the specifics of the Indian involvement in American history, the misconception of the Indian as a stoic, silent savage has even greater circulation. As much as the black is an invisible man in a nation that prides itself on seeing what is best for others, the Indian is an unheard one, muted by misrepresentation and myth, in a country that claims to have a special ear for the untutored eloquent. As Dee Brown puts it in the introduction, "Only occasionally was the voice of the Indian heard, and then more often than not it was recorded by the pen of the white man. The Indian was the dark menace of the myths, and even if he had known how to write in English, where would he have found a printer or publisher?"
In part, that explains why there is never heard a discouraging word on the range of the American imagination.
In its form and content, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee attempts to break down this historiological dislocation and muting of the Indian people. Each chapter begins with a listing of national and international events that occurred during the time span covered in the chapter. By juxtaposing the events that were taking place outside of the West with those that are covered in the chapters. Brown not only gives one a more precise chronological grasp on the particulars, but also illuminates the historical ironies that stem from America's polyracial composition. Thus, for example, the same government that congratulated itself for passing the 13th and 14th Amendments--in the provisions of which Indians were expressly excluded--was simultaneously planning and perpetrating genocide against the American Indian. Moreover, black soldiers, called "Buffalo Soldiers" by the Indians, were helping to carry out those genocidal intentions. Each opening chronology is followed by a quotation or a series of quotations from Indians who will figure in the history covered by the chapter. These quotes, the words of men commonly portrayed as possessing a verbal dexterity restricted to grunts, war whoops, and "Yes, Kemosabay," make a tardy but accurate and poetically expressed judgment on the men who took their land and abused it while they mumbled pious incantations about progress and destiny. Six of the book's 19 chapters conclude with the printing of the words and music to an Indian song, which often not only provides an appropriate comment on the events covered in the chapter but also reveals the depth and subtlety of the now all but buried Indian civilization.
"They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it." Red Cloud of the Ogala Sioux
In his opening chapter, Brown sketches the history of the interaction of the white man and the Indian from the time of Columbus until the Civil War. Even in the beginning, the cruelty, hypocrisy, and irony that were to characterize the relationship were there. Brown quotes Columbus writing back to the King and Queen of Spain about their newly-discovered "Indios" subjects. "So tractable, so peaceful are these people that I swear to your Majesties that there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle...their manners are decorous and praiseworthy." However, these qualities were also taken as signs of weakness that could be profitably exploited and heathen savagery which would have to be reformed, and "Columbus kidnapped ten of his friendly Taino hosts and carried them off to Spain where they could be introduced to the white man's ways. One of them died soon after arriving there but not before he was baptized a Christian. The Spaniards were so pleased that they had made it possible for the first Indian to enter heaven that they hastened to spread the good news throughout the West Indies." The Spaniards, as did many of the whites who came later, "believed that what the Indians needed was less land and more Christianity."
At this point the Indians were killed for Christ solely because they were heathens. It was not until further scrutiny of their civilization revealed that they held their land communally and were in fact "actual, practising Communists," as one Manifest Destiny editorial warned, that they qualified for extinction on two counts.
Besides introducing Christianity to the New World, the Spaniards further assigned the Indians in their progress towards an enlightened European perspective by demonstrative teaching of the practice of scalping and methods of torture perfected during the Inquisition. The English, French and Dutch, though they employed more subtle methods than the Spaniards, achieved the same result. Friendship was met by betrayal. Indian villages were "pacified" by nightriders. Disease, deceit, and destruction of their livestock, their crops, their culture, their land, and finally themselves were dealt to the Indian by the white invaders with whom they had once been willing to share everything, secure in the belief, fundamental to the Indian cosmology, that everything was there to be shared and cherished. The tribes and cultures of the Indians of eastern America vanished. "Their musical names remained forever fixed on the American land, but their bones were forgotten in a thousand burned villages or lost in the forests fast disappearing before the axes of twenty million invaders."
Onward Christian soldiers.
"Where today are the Pequot...the Mohican, the Pokonet, and many other once powerful tribes...They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the White Man, as snow before the summer sun. Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a great struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, 'Never! Never!'" Tecumseh of the Shawnees
By the start of the Civil War, most of the surviving 300,000 American Indians were sandwiched between 30 million Europeans and their descendants. As much as it is the history of the defeat of the remaining free tribes. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is a study of the qualities with which these Indians struggled for the survival of their land, their dream, and ultimately themselves when the odds were 100 to 1 that they wouldn't make it. In part, the courage, skill, intelligence, and dignity which the Indians exhibited in their struggle arose from their understanding of the interdependence of the things for which they were fighting. Their land bore them, and they were fighting. Their land bore them, and they bore their dream, which, in turn, sustained them and held them close to their land. They fought for the survival of the continuity of survival. "Most of them, young and old, would be driven into the ground long before the symbolic end of Indian freedom came at Wounded Knee in December, 1890. Now, a century later, in an age with heroes, they are perhaps the most heroic of all Americans."
Brown proves this point by examining not only the careers of figures of national mythology like Geronimo. Sitting Bull and Cochise, but also those of men like Standing Bear and Donehogawa (Ely Parker). Standing Bear was the plaintiff in an 1879 civil rights litigation which resulted in the United States Government, through the decision of Judge Elmer S. Dundy, recognizing the de jure humanity of the American Indian. Donehogawa, born a chief of the once-powerful Seneca Iroquois, became a self-taught lawyer only to discover that Indians need not apply to the bar of New York, went on to become a civil engineer, a friend of Ulysses S. Grant when the future President was a clerk in a harness store, served with Grant from Vicksburg to Richmond as his military secretary, and because of his excellent penmanship wrote out the terms of surrender at Appomattox at Grant's request. After the War, Brigadier General Parker became Grant's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a position he held until the combined political pressure from the land speculators, angered by the "peace policy" Donehogawa had instituted, and the Christian missionaries, angered by the tolerance which the Commissioner (himself "but a remove from barbarism," in the words of one missionary) showed toward the "primitive" religions of the Indians, forced him to resign.
However, not all dead Indians were good ones, nor were all whites savage and self-righteous in their dealings with them. Brown is careful in making the distinctions. Some whites, like General John B. Sanborn, spoke out in words that one now finds sadly familiar: "For a mighty nation like us to be carrying on a war with a few straggling nomads, under such circumstances, is a spectacle most humiliating, an injustice unparalleled a national crime most revolting, that must, sooner or later, bring down upon us or our posterity the judgment of Heaven." Although from time to time, men like Sanborn protested and there were some white men who respected the Indian. Brown's point is that these men failed to convert their words and feelings into the types of action needed to prevent the destruction of the Indian, failed too often to act at all, and were themselves more outnumbered than the Indians. The great, silent majority, no less enraptured by the melodies of Manifest Destiny than was Germany by the rhapsodies of the Reich, failed to realize what the destruction of the Indian meant to them, to America as a nation, and in time, to the land itself. As a result of this political and moral breakdown, year by year, tribe by tribe, lie by lie, the destiny of "this great experiment in democratic government under the Anglo-Saxon race," as expansionist pamphleteers called it, was made manifest by men who killed for Gold and God and proclaimed, "The destiny of the aborigines is written in characters not to be mistaken. The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the downfall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red man of America."
They're playing our song. Tonto.
"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead." Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was for weeks the best-selling non-fiction book in America. It is difficult to say whether this is because the country, or at least that segment of the country that still has $10.95 to spend on a book, is at last willing to come to terms with its past, and more importantly, come to terms with the demands of the errors of the past on the energies of the present and future. It may be that the book-buying public, after all of the sex manuals, was prime for a non-fiction book that reads like a good novel. However, what is clear is that, in Brown's words, "history has a way of intruding upon the present." After reading the descriptions of the Chivington and Sand Creek Massacres and the slaughter at Wounded Knee, it becomes far more difficult to feign surprise at MyLai, and mumble convincingly that that's just not the sort of thing that American boys will do. One's excitement over the Pentagon Papers is somewhat diminished by Brown's account of how and why the government's Indian policy was formulated and executed. Out of it all, one begins to understand that Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is much more than a description of events that occurred more than 80 years ago.
To be sure, Brown is concerned with as it was, yet that concern is tempered, if not totally determined, by as it is. "Americans," he advises, "who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward."
Still, it remains to be seen if the moral appeal implicit in this book will evoke a response from "the land of the thief and the home of the slave," as DuBois called it; partly because, as an Indian woman who had been on Alcatraz told me recently, "People are brought up with the idea that all these things the white people have done to the Indians was done a long time ago. A lot of people don't realize that it's still going on."