Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 10 : The Ordeal of Captain Jack | Summary



Most California Indians put up little resistance to the white miners who streamed onto their land at the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1848. An exception to this rule is the Modocs. They are led by Kintpuash, who initially believed peace between white men and Indians was possible. The white men call him "Captain Jack," and the Modocs and the settlers live in relative peace for several years. This changes during the Civil War, when the Modocs begin taking ranchers' livestock when they are unable to find wild game. White friends of the Modocs view this as an acceptable "tax" for living on Modoc land, but most settlers hate it. They complain, and the Modocs are moved to the Klamath reservation.

Congress has not authorized spending on the Modocs, and the territorial Klamaths won't share their rations or clothing. Captain Jack and his 300 starving followers leave the reservation. They are told to return in the fall of 1872, and the cavalry is called when they refuse to go. A Modoc who won't surrender his pistol starts a gunfight, and the Modocs flee to their hideout in the California Lava Beds. Two days later, Captain Jack learns a Modoc leader named Hooker Jim and a few followers have killed 12 settlers as revenge for the deaths of a Modoc baby and old woman killed by other settlers.

The cavalry arrives at the Lava Beds on January 13, 1873. They are joined three days later by 225 regular soldiers, and 104 Oregon and California volunteers. Captain Jack wants to surrender, but the majority of his people don't. Their first day of battle is a success—none of the Modocs are badly injured, and the white soldiers retreat. They don't return. Instead, Captain Jack's cousin Winema, who is married to a white man, brings white men to the Lava Beds to speak to Captain Jack on February 28. They tell him peace commissioners are waiting to speak to him at Fairchild's ranch. They want to avoid war just as much as Captain Jack does. Even Hooker Jim and his friends won't fare too badly—if they surrender as prisoners of war, they will avoid trial, and instead be sent to Indian lands in the south.

Before Captain Jack can meet with the commissioners, Hooker Jim and his friends turn themselves in. While at Fairchild's ranch, they meet an Oregon citizen who tells them they are going to be hanged for their crimes. They flee to the Lava Beds and tell the rest of the Modocs that the peace commission is a trap meant to kill them.

Hooker Jim's retraction of surrender nulls the offer of amnesty for him and the other accused killers, but Captain Jack and the rest of the Modocs still have the option to surrender peacefully. Captain Jack is conflicted—he doesn't feel right giving up his own people, but he also doesn't want any more deaths. He has several meetings with the peace commissioners and General Edward R.S. Canby, but no progress is made. Even the counsel of his friends Alfred Meacham and John Fairchild doesn't help. They say the Modocs will have peace only if they live by the white man's laws, not their own. Meanwhile, the cavalry inches steadily closer to the Lava Beds.

Hooker Jim and his followers grow angrier by the day. They threaten to kill anyone who surrenders, and they become convinced that Captain Jack is going to betray them. To prove his loyalty and worth as chief, they challenge him to kill Canby. Captain Jack thinks this is a "coward's act," but he becomes angry when they throw women's clothing on him. He tries to buy time by agreeing to do it.

Captain Jack doesn't want to kill Canby. "Life is sweet ... Death will come to us soon enough," he tells his followers on April 10. But the majority of the Modoc men vote in favor of his killing Canby. Captain Jack says he will do it only if Canby refuses his peace terms, which include a reservation near Tule Lake and the Lava Beds, and the removal of the soldiers during peace talks. But Canby isn't given the chance to speak at the next day's meeting. The soldiers crowding the group make Captain Jack nervous. He yells "All ready!" in Modoc and then shoots Canby. Boston Charley shoots Reverend Eleazar Thomas. The rest of the peace commissioners escape.

The cavalry reaches the Lava Beds three days later. The Modocs escape through the nooks and crannies of the rock, and scatter. Hooker Jim and his followers abandon Captain Jack and surrender to the soldiers. They agree to hunt down Captain Jack in exchange for amnesty. When they find him at the end of May 1873, he reprimands them for betraying him after he refused to betray them and then promises to "shoot them down like dirty dogs" if they ever come near him again.

Captain Jack is caught a few days later and put on trial at Fort Klamath in July 1873. Hooker Jim and his followers serve as witnesses against him and the three other Modocs on trial. They are hanged on October 3 on gallows constructed while the trial was in session.


Before white settlers streamed west, the Modocs lived in northeastern California along the Oregon border. They hide in the nearby California Lava Beds—now known as Lava Beds National Monument—after the shootout with cavalry. The Lava Beds are a series of caves attached to the Medicine Lake shield volcano. Anywhere between 10,500 and 65,000 years ago, volcanic eruptions sent lava flowing away from the volcano's mouth. The outer sides and top of the flows hardened in the cool air, but the lava on the inside kept flowing. When the eruption stopped, the inner part of the flows drained, leaving a tube behind. These are the caves the Modocs hid in. The places where the lava drained out aren't the only openings to the caves. As the lava hardened into rock, it cracked and collapsed in places, and this is how the Modocs were able to escape during the attack following Canby's death. Captain Jack chooses to hide his people in the Lava Beds because they are familiar with the territory, and the white soldiers probably won't be. They probably won't want the land for themselves, either. It's not good for farming or mining, but it's a very good place to hide from one's enemies.

Captain Jack is faced with some of the most difficult decisions a chief can make. As chief, he is responsible for the actions of his people, even if he doesn't agree with them. It doesn't matter that he doesn't particularly like Hooker Jim and his gang, or that he thinks they made a grave error in judgement—he is responsible for their safety, so he's going to support them no matter what. But he's also supposed to be protecting the rest of his tribe. The danger they face for fleeing from the soldiers becomes even graver after Hooker Jim and his buddies commit their crimes. U.S. government officials don't waste any time trying to identify the Indian culprits behind crimes and murders. They automatically assume the entire tribe is guilty and punish them as a unit. If Captain Jack protects Hooker Jim and company, then he's putting the lives of the rest of his tribe at risk. He could cast out the troublemakers, but this feels like a failure in his role as chief.

Most of the American Indian tribes featured in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee operate somewhere between a democracy and a monarchy. Chiefdoms can be inherited or they can be earned, and while some chiefs wield supreme authority over their people, other chiefs push aside their own feelings and opinions to follow the will of their people. Captain Jack is the type of chief who takes his people's wishes very seriously. He knows killing Canby is the wrong thing to do. Not only will it lead to his death, but also to the deaths of most of the members of his tribe. His main job as chief is to keep everyone alive. But if he doesn't kill Canby, his people won't respect him anymore. A chief who isn't respected isn't a chief at all, and he would rather die with his people's high esteem than to live with them thinking he is a coward. Santee Sioux chief Little Crow is called a coward when he tells his people he doesn't want to go to war with the white men.

Cowardice comes up a lot in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The four Santee Sioux warriors kill the settlers because one calls another a coward. Captain Jack is finally talked into killing Canby after Hooker Jim and his friends call him a coward. Being a coward means one lacks the courage to do a difficult task. In the cases of the Santee youth, Little Crow, and Captain Jack, it is akin to questioning one's masculinity. Most American Indian societies adhered to strict gender roles that paralleled those of white European culture. Men hunt and protect the villages and camps while the women take care of children, make clothing, tend to the crops, and even build shelters. Masculinity is a source of pride for Native American men, and to have it called into question is an enormous insult. This is why Captain Jack gets so upset when women's garments are thrown over his shoulders. He doesn't want anyone to think for a moment he is not man enough to be chief of the tribe.

The Modocs' story brings up the differences between the treatment of white people and Indians who break the law. The differences are staggering. Hooker Jim and his friends will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the murders of the white settlers, but no effort will be made to find the white men who killed the Modoc baby and old woman. The Indians are subject to U.S. laws when they harm U.S. citizens, but U.S. citizens are not subject to their own laws or Modoc laws when they harm someone from the Modoc tribe. Meacham and Fairchild tell Captain Jack the Modoc law is dead, but it also seems like the U.S. law is dead too, because it is being applied only when in the interest of white citizens. The same thing can be said for the U.S. judicial system. It was founded on the principle that every person deserves a fair trial by a jury of his or her peers. Yet the trial held for Captain Jack, Boston Charley, and the two other Modocs accused of murder was terribly unfair. The Indians were not provided with a lawyer, and there was no jury of their peers. They didn't know enough English to cross-examine the witnesses, and an interpreter was never provided. The men were found guilty before they even walked into the courtroom, and everyone knew it, thanks to the gallows being built at the same time.

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