Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Dee Alexander Brown | Biography

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Early Years and Education

Dorris "Dee" Alexander Brown was born February 29, 1908, in a logging camp near Alberta, Louisiana. The death of Brown's father prompted the family to move to Ouachita County, Arkansas, to be closer to his relatives when Brown was five. Brown's grandmother took care of him during the day, while his mother worked and regaled him with stories about American frontiersman Davy Crockett, whom Brown's great-grandfather once knew.

Brown grew up relatively poor, but he and his friends were always able to scrape up enough money to go to the movies. He loved Westerns in particular. One of Brown's close childhood friends was an American Indian, and he made sure Brown knew the way Indians were depicted in movies wasn't how they acted in real life. Together the boys cheered for the so-called Indian "villains."

Brown began writing in high school, and at age 15 published his first story in a neighborhood tabloid. He worked as printer and reporter after high school, but he soon realized he needed more education if he wanted to be a good journalist. Brown enrolled at Arkansas State Teachers College in 1928 and graduated in 1931 with a degree in education and history.

Brown's love of the American West was cemented during two summer trips with his history professor, Dean McBrien. They explored the Great Plains, the Oregon Trail, and various battle sites and forts that shaped the history of America's expansion into the West. Those two trips taught Brown "far more than any classroom could offer." He learned to view history as stories—not just moments in time—which influenced his writing for decades to come.

Librarian and Author

After graduation, Brown moved to Washington, DC, and worked in the library at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He earned a library science degree from George Washington University in 1935 and wrote his first novel, Wave High the Banner, in 1942. It was inspired by the stories his grandmother used to tell him when he was a child about Davy Crockett. Brown was drafted into the army soon after the book was published.

Brown never saw combat during World War II (1939–45). He didn't even leave the United States. His position as librarian at the Department of Agriculture afforded him an opportunity most in his field can only dream of: unfettered access to the National Archives. The Archives are home to the country's complete photographic record of westward expansion. He poured over everything he could find. He and co-author Martin Schmitt wrote three illustrated volumes about the history of the frontier called Fighting Indians of the West (1948, 1952, 1955).

Fighting Indians of the West marked the launch of Brown's writing career. He earned a Master of Library Science degree from the University of Illinois in the 1950s, and he served as the librarian for the school's College of Agriculture until his retirement in 1972. Brown wrote dozens of books during his tenure at the school and after, including the novels Yellowhorse (1956), Creek Mary's Blood (1980), and The Way to Bright Star (1998). His extensively researched nonfiction titles include Grierson's Raid (1954), The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West (1958), and Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Railroads in the West (1977).

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is by far Brown's most well-known and popular work as well as his greatest undertaking. He initially began collecting speeches, statements, and photos of late-19th-century American Indian leaders to write a book for children and teens. The book eventually morphed into an epic exploration of the government-sanctioned genocide of American Indians during the period of 1860–90. This wasn't like other history texts or narratives—for the first time, these events were told from the American Indian point of view.

Published in 1970, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was an immediate commercial and critical success. Historian Hampton Sides called its release "not so much a book as an event." He credits Brown's work with "awaken[ing] the public conscience" to the atrocities committed by white American forefathers in the name of territorial expansion. Many other critics agreed. They praised Brown's writing and attention to detail while simultaneously processing for public audiences the shame, sadness, and guilt they felt during and after reading. There were of course dissenters—some critics called the book a "revisionist" history, while others thought it pandered to the "peaceniks" of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Brown also faced pushback from academics whose complaints were more about Brown's pedigree—he was a librarian, not a historian with a PhD—and they faulted his "willingness to sacrifice precision for pizzazz."

Since its initial publication, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has sold over five million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages. Fame didn't change Brown much—he once publicly commented he was glad it had happened to him so late in life, or he "would have thought [him]self a great author and [he] would have been insufferable." To him, the greatest compliment of his work came from a Native American, who said, "You didn't write that book. Only an Indian could have written that book!"

A Life for (and about) the History Books

Brown retired to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1972, where he continued to write about his favorite topic, the American West. In total, he published over 30 books—as well as numerous magazine articles, journal articles, and short stories—before his death on December 12, 2002.

Brown's work made a significant impact on the way people think about American history, particularly where minorities are concerned. He provided a platform for muffled voices to finally be heard, and he did it with such enthusiasm the reader couldn't help but become emotionally involved. The past came alive in Brown's capable hands, and his attention to detail ensured every word was true. He didn't just write about history—he changed it.

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