Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

How much do you really know about the old Wild West? In Dee Brown's epic history, 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,' you'll have a chance to read about what it was like for the Native Americans to find themselves outnumbered and outgunned by the white settlers.

Native American Warrior
Warrior on Horse

Two Sides to a Story

When you think cowboys and Indians, do you think of kid's games, boys and arrows and battles between settlers and natives or John Wayne? Before Dee Brown's epic history, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, there was just one story of America's westward expansion, and it was told from the point of view of the white settlers. Without the voices of the Native Americans, the story most people knew looked a lot like an old Western movie, or a game. It seemed like a victory for progress and a strong United States of America. Like most stories, the settlement of the West has another side. It looked very different for the tribes who lost their ancestral lands to foreign invaders.

History Majors Can Change the World

Doris Alexander Brown, better known as 'Dee,' was a history major who worked in the campus library at the Arkansas State Teacher College, before graduating in 1931. At the time, the commonly told story of America's Manifest Destiny was a cheerful one, but his interest in Native American history led him to dig deeper. He was drafted during WWII and served in the national archives as a librarian. There, he read first-hand accounts from Native Americans of the conduct of U.S. soldiers, settlers, and the U.S. government. He wrote and published books on frontier history and, decades later, he would use those sources to piece together a very different narrative of the West.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Beginning with a brief explanation of his sources, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee sets the stage for readers to consider this alternative version of a story they thought they knew well. Many records were kept of dealings between the government and the Native Americans, and the author uses these to preserve the oral history of their experience. 'This is not a cheerful book, but history has a way of intruding upon the present,' Dee Brown admits in his introduction, 'and perhaps those who read it will have clearer understanding of what the American Indian is, by knowing what he was. They may be surprised to hear words of gentle reasonableness coming from the mouths of Indians stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages,' (5). He uses direct Native American quotes throughout the book, and their words are poetic, emotional, and heartbreaking.

First Contact

The first chapter touches on the various first contacts made with native people in the Americas, and provides an overview of the tribes and locations in the Americas. He draws a parallel between the attitudes of those first Europeans to land in the Americas and the way the white settlers continued to behave toward the native people. The first anecdote is of Columbus, kidnapping ten Taino Indians and taking them back to Spain to 'civilize.' There is a theme here, and it repeats over and over in this story. White people did not accept the different worldview of the Native Americans, and sought to convert them to European ways. They take advantage of native hospitality, and exploit it. In this chapter, we see the scene as if from a satellite photo, Native Americans 'pressed between expanding white populations in the East and along the Pacific coasts,' (9). Meanwhile, the idea of Manifest Destiny became more popular. Manifest Destiny is the idea that the United States was fated to spread from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific, and that the expansion of the country was inevitable. This idea helped the U.S. government explain their unwillingness, or inability, to stop settlers from crossing into the 'Indian frontier.'

Chief Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull

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