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Necessary Corrective...Just Overdone

  • Mar 26, 2009
The strength of "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" is also its weakness: Its commitment to telling an ugly truth about American history so searing as to become numbing after a while.

It's impossible to consider fairly this, Dee Brown's 1971 examination of the Indian Wars of the American West, without remembering how much it cut against what was then still the mainstream thinking and literature regarding just what happened. The Indians were often bloodthirsty, it was alleged, and our American forefathers imbued themselves in the pioneer spirit by bringing the red man to heel. Brown took an entirely different course.

"Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward," Brown writes in his preface.

And that's how he writes it, from the perspective of displaced Navajos, Utes, Sioux, Apaches, and more than a dozen other American Indian tribes who were the victims of Manifest Destiny. As Brown tells it, their story is one of being washed away by the greed and savagery of white Americans.

The book is often strongest when that savagery is at its ugliest. At Sand Creek in 1864, a regiment of Colorado volunteers under the command of an American Eichmann, one Col. John Chivington, rode into a peaceful village of treaty-abiding Cheyennes and gunned down more than a hundred men, women, and children. Asked about the children, Chivington replied: "Nits make lice!"

It's a raw tale that sits like lead in the stomach of any decent-minded American. But for Brown, that's all you need to hear. The fact that Chivington was cashiered for his murdering, and Colorado's governor cast from office for his part in the massacre by President Andrew Johnson, is not mentioned here. Instead, Brown says the Chivington slaughter was received with satisfaction by whites in toto, as a way of getting Indians out of Colorado.

Brown's storytelling is often one-way like that. His exactitude regarding white atrocities is impressive, but when he notes the Apaches' attacks on Mexicans, he claims imprecise records make blame hard to apportion. When young "dog soldiers" leave the reservation to steal cattle and attack settlers, then run back home to be covered for by their elders, their actions are excused as an understandable response to being cooped up in a plot of land just a few hundred square miles in size. The fact this might have made whites less respectful of treaty conditions is not explored.

Brown isn't entirely dogmatic like this; he understands the history well enough to allow for the occasional humane impulse by a white man, or an Indian who goes too far, like Captain Jack of the Modocs, a normally peaceful chief goaded by his juniors into killing whites around a peace table. He doesn't use the politically correct term "Native American", though that is probably because the book was written long before it came into vogue.

The narrative echoes the terse stylings commonly associated with the voice of the Indian, but it becomes colorless and drab reading after a time. None of the Indians really come alive as characters, or as people. They speak to the white man's greed, and exit stage left. Occasionally we learn that this one had a pendant mustache, and that one wore a plugged hat. But they lack vibrancy. Even Sitting Bull, one ornery cuss in life, is here reduced to a stoic sufferer.

Brown's book is real history, powerfully told, and you will not forget, nor should forget, the gist of what you read. But it reads too much like history in service of a cause.

"There are bad white men and bad Indians," the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle is quoted observing in one early chapter. "The bad men on both sides brought about this trouble." It's a point that speaks both to Black Kettle's noble perspicacity and the truth of the matter, but one Brown prefers to ignore, to the detriment of this solid if skewed book.

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More Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:... reviews
review by . July 16, 2008
Weight of evidence builds to the sad but inescapable conclusion of Wounded Knee. Brown lays to rest any romantic notions of misunderstood white paternalism toward Native Americans, and leaves the reader feeling the immutable burden of a race war against the Native Americans that was akin to that against black slaves.    The saddest part is that nothing can be done to change or redeem the history. No amount of sorrow, or guilt-feeling, or even reparations can restore justice.   &nb …
review by . August 14, 2010
I originally read this book back in my freshman year of college for an American history class.  I wasn't expecting or prepared for what I read.  I was, perhaps naively, expecting something dry, a typical historical text.  What I read was something passionate, powerful and even life-changing.     I'd always considered myself sympathetic to the plight of the original American Indians, but the story Dee Brown tells, backed up by facts, historical records and personal …
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
What an awesome alternate history compilation. Anyone who wants to see the other side of the Old West, the other side of cowboys and indians, this is a must read. It's a bit slanted against the white-man, but none more than traditional American history has been slanted for the white-man. They say the victors write the history books; well this book is a victory for the other side.
review by . March 16, 2000
I have never before read a book like this. It is utterly fascinating, a real page turner, and yet it makes you ashamed of something that happened many years before your birth. Ashamed because you know that similar things are happening elsewhere in the world, and ashamed becuase we never seem to learn from our mistakes.On a lighter note this is a meticulous essay on a life long lost, and country unspoiled and beautiful, and a world we will never be lucky enough to know.If you only read one book in …
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Bill Slocum ()
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Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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First published in 1970, this extraordinary book changed the way Americans think about the original inhabitants of their country. Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navajos in 1860 and ending 30 years later with the massacre of Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, it tells how the American Indians lost their land and lives to a dynamically expanding white society. During these three decades, America's population doubled from 31 million to 62 million. Again and again, promises made to the Indians fell victim to the ruthlessness and greed of settlers pushing westward to make new lives. The Indians were herded off their ancestral lands into ever-shrinking reservations, and were starved and killed if they resisted. It is a truism that "history is written by the victors"; for the first time, this book described the opening of the West from the Indians' viewpoint. Accustomed to stereotypes of Indians as red savages, white Americans were shocked to read the reasoned eloquence of Indian leaders and learn of the bravery with which they and their peoples endured suffering. With meticulous research and in measured language overlaying brutal narrative,Dee Brownfocused attention on a national disgrace. Still controversial but with many of its premises now accepted,Bury My Heart at Wounded Kneehas sold 5 million copies around the world. Thirty years after it first broke onto the national conscience, it has lost none of its importance or ...
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ISBN-10: 0805017305
ISBN-13: 978-0805017304
Author: Dee Brown
Genre: American History
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
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