Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 11 : The War to Save the Buffalo | Summary



After the Battle of the Washita in December 1868 (see Chapter 7), General Sheridan tells the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches they must surrender and live on the reservation. Those who don't will be "hunted down and killed" by Sheridan's soldiers. Most of the chiefs comply, but the Kiowas refuse to surrender. The treaty of Medicine Lodge (1687) guaranteed them their own land on which to live and hunt, and this is what they intend to do. Sheridan doesn't see it that way, however. He sends General Custer and his pony soldiers to the Kiowa camp. Chiefs Satanta and Lone Wolf come out to parley, but Custer ignores their truce flag and arrests them and their warrior escorts. They will be held prisoner at Fort Cobb until the rest of the tribe joins them there. The Kiowas run instead, but they turn around once they hear that Satanta and Lone Wolf will be hanged if their people don't come to the fort as ordered. They are soon all settled there and taught how to farm alongside the Comanches, although they are allowed to hunt buffalo when their crop yield proves to be far less than they need to survive.

Talk of leaving the reservation and roaming the plains is rampant between the summer of 1870 and the spring of 1871. The Kiowas, Comanches, and Southern Cheyennes feel the white man is closing in on them from every direction. They worry about the loss of their land and the buffalo, as well as the railroad rumored to be built through their country. Some decide it's time to fight back. In May 1871 a party of Kiowas and Comanches go to Texas to "start driving the Texans into the ground." Led by Mamanti, a Kiowa medicine man, they attack a train of 10 freight wagons and kill seven civilian teamsters. Even though it was Mamanti's idea, Satanta takes full blame for the raid. He, Satank, and Big Tree are arrested for the murder of the teamsters and taken to Texas for trial. Satank is killed on the way there for stabbing a guard.

Lone Wolf is now the de facto leader of the Kiowas. In August 1872 his people elect him their representative during treaty talks in Washington, DC. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Walker tells the assembled Indian leaders they and their people must live within 10 miles of Fort Sill by December 15 and remain there until the following spring. Any Indian who disobeys the commissioner's orders will be hunted down and killed. Ten Bears and Tosawi of the Comanches agree, but Lone Wolf says he can't guarantee anything unless Satanta and Big Tree are "given their freedom and returned to the reservation." Walker gives in, but it takes another year for the two Kiowa chiefs to be granted parole.

Lone Wolf is disillusioned by the lies told by government officials. He loses all interest in making peace with the white man after he is prevented from burying his deceased son's bones on Kiowa land. In the summer of 1874 he and his warriors, along with the Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, agree to wage war against the white men to save the buffalo.

By mid-July 1874 the "last tribes to live by the buffalo"—the Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Comanches—are at Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, where the last of the great buffalo herds congregates. The Indians live peacefully alongside the buffalo, killing only what they need to survive. This rankles Sherman, who hates to see Indians willfully disobeying orders. In September he authorizes a campaign against the Indians gathered in the canyon. U.S. soldiers attack from all four sides on September 26, scattering the Indians. They spend the winter without food, clothing, or shelter. The Kiowas surrender in February, followed by the Kwahadi Cheyennes three months later. The Indians' meager property is burned, and their horses are shot. They are fed raw meat "as if they were animals in a cage." Kiowa Kicking Bird is forced to pick 26 of his people to be punished, including Lone Wolf and Mamanti. The 26 warriors and chiefs are imprisoned, and all the Kiowa leaders are dead within three years.


The Kiowas are Plains Indians. They originally came from Montana. They and the Plains Apaches migrated together to the Black Hills by 1775. The two tribes became so integrated that Kiowas are commonly thought to be Apaches, and they've generally remained together ever since. The Sioux and Cheyennes living in the Black Hills didn't let the Kiowas and Plains Apaches stay for long. They moved again, this time to the southwestern Plains, which spans parts of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The Kiowas are close allies with the Teton Sioux, the Cheyennes, the Arapahos, and the Osages.

As nomadic Plains Indians, the Kiowas rely on the buffalo for survival. Buffalo isn't just a source of food for them—every part of the animal is used to make supplies, clothing, and even shelter. The Plains Indians kill only the animals they need at any given time. They understand killing off the buffalo too quickly—by hunting for sport, for instance—will negatively impact their tribes' ability to survive. The white men know this too, which is one of the reasons why hunting buffalo becomes such a popular sport for settlers. No buffalo means no Indians, which means more land for white people. This is exactly what the white men want, and they manage to kill off most of the buffalo within 10 years. The rotting carcasses and bleached bones covering the Plains are symbolic of the white man's disregard for the gifts of nature, as well as their disinterest in Indian survival.

Many white men, including those running the U.S. government and its Indian agencies, think Indians should just adapt to the "American" way of life. This means farming, not hunting. Many agencies brought in instructors to teach the Indians how to farm, which is more than a little situationally ironic. Many tribes, including the Comanches, were agrarian societies long before the white man came to their lands. After all, it was the Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who originally taught the white man "how to plant corn and make it grow." When white people moved West into Indian territory, they claimed the Indians' good farming land for themselves. This left the Indians without any place to farm, so they had to take up hunting. The death of the buffalo and the Indians' confinement on the reservation meant they had to farm once again.

Historically, agricultural tribes like Comanches didn't mind farming, but the Kiowas did, especially the warriors. They thought farming was "women's work" and below their station as "mounted hunters." They also didn't see the point of farming. In the past, they had been able to get whatever produce and grains they needed through trade. Their role in the Plains society was to hunt while other Indians, like the Wichitas, were meant to farm. The Wichitas were considered "too fat and lazy to hunt buffalo," and the Kiowas found the corn and "stringy Longhorn beef" too difficult to eat. These tribes were physically unsuited to the lifestyle the white men were forcing them to adopt, which only increased their unhappiness on the reservation.

For some Plains Indians, especially the Hunkpapa Teton Sioux led by Sitting Bull, living on a reservation was a harsher punishment than death. For others, the worst punishment was imprisonment. This is how Satank felt. He commits suicide-by-soldier almost as soon as he is loaded into the wagon headed for Fort Richardson. Satank didn't care whether he killed the soldier or not—he just wanted the soldier to kill him. Satanta jumps out of a window while imprisoned in Florida "to find release in death." Being locked up in one place is possibly the worst punishment for a people who are used to living in the wide-open spaces provided by the Great Spirit. For many, death was also preferable to adopting the white man's culture and living by his rules.

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