Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 12 : The War for the Black Hills | Summary



The Black Hills in modern-day South Dakota are the sacred lands of the Sioux Indians. Known as Paha Sapa, the Black Hills are where warriors go "to speak with the Great Spirit and await visions." The Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 secures the Black Hills for the Indians, but by 1872 white men are swarming the holy mountains in search of gold. An armed reconnaissance mission led by General Custer follows two years later. The Sioux and their Cheyenne and Arapaho friends are furious about the illegal invasion of their land. Although President Grant promises to abide by the terms of the treaty, white men swarm the hills "like summer locusts."

A commission to "treat with the Sioux Indians for the relinquishment of the Black Hills" arrives at Fort Robinson (Nebraska) in September 1875. The commissioners are greeted by over 20,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians, none of whom have any interest in selling their sacred land. The commissioners suggest a temporary loan of the land so the government can mine it and then give it back to the Indians. They also want the Indians' beloved Powder River country.

Giving up their Powder River hunting grounds is out of the question, but the chiefs have different opinions about the Black Hills. Some refuse to sell at any price. Others think the white people are going to come no matter what, so they might as well be paid handsomely. The $6 million offered isn't nearly enough, and the commissioners are sent back to Washington, DC. The decision is now in the hands of Congress, which must figure out a "fair and just sum" for the Black Hills and present it to the Indians "as a finality."

In late 1875 a special inspector for the Indian Bureau reports that Plains Indians living off the reservation are "lofty and independent in their attitudes," and therefore a threat to the reservation system. He makes a recommendation to "whip them into subjection." Many of these "free" Indians are followers of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who have never "lived on a reservation or taken the white man's handouts." A military campaign against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other non-agency Indians is authorized in February 1876. The first raid takes place a month later in Powder River country. A village of Northern Cheyennes and Oglala Teton Sioux is burned to the ground. Their 1,500 ponies are driven away, but the Indians steal them back that same night.

The Cheyenne and Sioux refugees pair up with Crazy Horse's people. They and Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa soundly defeat three columns of soldiers on June 17, 1876, at the Battle of the Rosebud. The victorious tribes then move to Little Bighorn, where thousands of other Indians are enjoying the thick antelope herds and plentiful grass for their horses. General Custer and his soldiers appear on the morning of June 24. They open fire on the Sioux camp, and 4,000 Indian warriors hurry the women and children out of the way before swarming the soldiers "like a hurricane." General Custer is killed alongside dozens of his men. The Indians hardly have any time to celebrate their victory—they are low on ammunition, and more soldiers are on their way. They break camp and scatter toward the Bighorn Mountains.

Officials in Washington, DC, are "crazy with anger" over Custer's defeat. Since they can't find Sitting Bull and the other war chiefs, they turn their ire to reservation Indians who took no part in the fighting. General Sherman assumes military control of all reservations on July 22, 1876. All reservation Indians are now prisoners of war. On August 15 Congress revokes the Indians' rights to Powder River country and the Black Hills.

Government commissioners arrive at Fort Robinson in September. They tell the reservation Indians they will now receive their rations on the Missouri River. The Indians are confused by this—there is no timber along the Missouri River and no animals to hunt. It's a terrible place to live. They refuse to sign anything giving away the Black Hills. The commissioners tell them if they don't, they will be moved to southern Indian Territory without their guns and horses, and they will no longer be given any rations. The chiefs are forced to give in. A month later, the reservation Indians are placed under arrest and taken to the fort. Their weapons and ponies are confiscated, the latter of which are given to mercenary Pawnee scouts.

The end of summer 1876 sees the off-reservation Indians trying to fend off an increasingly bloodthirsty American army. Low on ammunition, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse independently have their people "running up and down the country" trying to avoid capture. Parleys with the white men end in stalemates and sometimes even death. In the spring of 1877, Sitting Bull finally decides to take his people to Canada where the American soldiers cannot harm them.

In April of 1876 Crazy Horse and his 900 Oglalas surrender to promises of a reservation in Powder River country. Crazy Horse never acclimates to reservation life and looks down on the chiefs like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail who do what the white men ask. He is killed on September 5, 1877, after General Crook hears rumors of his plans to escape. Just weeks later, the Oglalas are moved to the Missouri River instead of Powder River country as they were promised. Many Indians slip away to Canada to join Sitting Bull, including Crazy Horse's parents. Along the way, they bury their son's bones and heart near a creek called Wounded Knee.


The Sioux Treaty of 1868 was signed at Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming. It covers a lot of things, from the amount of land allocated per person, to the building of a storage warehouse for rations and other goods, to the number of Indian pupils per white teacher. But the most important parts of the treaty are Articles 2 and 16. Article 2 lists the geographic coordinates of the land set aside for the Sioux via this treaty, which encompasses the Black Hills. The treaty stipulates this land is for Indian use only. No one except government officers, agents, and employees can "pass over, settle upon, or reside in" it. The white prospectors searching for gold are directly violating this section of the treaty, as are Custer's troops. Everyone knows this, but the Sioux's agent doesn't do much to discourage trespassers. He, Custer, and President Grant all know the treaty is being violated, but they don't do anything to make it right. Instead, they decide to just take the land away from the Indians entirely. They don't understand the cultural and spiritual significance of Paha Sapa, which is far more valuable to the Sioux than money.

The U.S. government representatives do not comprehend the important role Powder River country plays in the lives of Indians. "It does not seem to be of very great value or use to you," Iowa Senator William B. Allison tells the Sioux in 1875. Powder River country is the only place left where the Plains Indians—or any Indians, for that matter—are able to find wild game. To be cut off from it would mean not only starvation but also the loss of materials for clothing, shelter, and trade. The senator's ignorance of this fact shows just how little white people know about Indian life, even when it is their business to do so. They don't care about the Indians' lives because they'd rather see them dead.

At this point, the most important part of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 is the stipulation that three-fourths of all adult male Indians must approve any change to, or dissolution of, the terms of the treaty. The Sioux have been through this so many times they're becoming almost as politically savvy as their white counterparts. They know the commissioners would be able to buy off a fair number of chiefs, but they would never be able to pay for the allegiance of every single warrior. The Sioux hold out as long as they can with this line of defense, citing the absence of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and their people as the reason why the terms of the 1868 treaty cannot be altered. This just prompts the commissioners to change the rules so "only friendly Indians were covered by the treaty," meaning those who lived on reservations. When the chiefs don't accept this, they're threatened with the seizure of their horses and guns, which is akin to taking away their manhood. They are also warned about relocation to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

Despite all of this, the white men insist they aren't breaking the treaty by taking back the Black Hills and Powder River country. The Indians violated the treaty first by "going to war with the United States." In this instance, they are referring to the Battle of Little Bighorn. The problem with this logic is the Sioux and their allies went after the white soldiers at Little Bighorn because the white soldiers came into the Sioux camp and started shooting. The subtext here is that it is fine for white soldiers to defend themselves, but it isn't okay for Indians to do the same. They should accept violence on their people as the cost for defying the white man's orders.

Chapter 12 sees the division of the Sioux into two factions with opposing ideologies. One group is made up of the reservation Indians led by Red Cloud and Spotted Tail. Although their faith in the white man's government is understandably uneasy, they trust President Grant. Brown notes that Red Cloud gets so bogged down in the bureaucratic nightmare to get rations and supplies for his people that he misses the bigger picture of what is happening around him. This is not the case for Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who lead the other group of Sioux. Living outside the reservation helps them see all the ways the white man has violated his promises. Their refusal to live on reservation lands and accept government "handouts" makes them heroes to young warriors angry about the way they are treated on the reservation. Red Cloud's number of followers dwindles as the deceptions perpetrated by the government become clearer. Meanwhile, Sitting Bull's and Crazy Horse's numbers of followers increase.

Indians from a number of tribes feel safe with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. When individual camps are destroyed by soldiers, the survivors immediately turn to them. Sitting Bull was initially more of a spiritual leader than a war leader, and became the latter by necessity. He was viewed as "the one old man chief of all the camps combined." Crazy Horse, on the other hand, was an innately gifted warrior. He had spiritual visions of going into a dream world behind the physical world. The physical world was a shadow world where men lived, while the dream world of spirits was, to him, the real world. Everything in the real world "seemed to float or dance," and his horse would dance like it was "wild or crazy," which is how he got his name. In the real world, Crazy Horse was all-powerful and able to evade the white man's bullets, which is similar to the "protective medicine" Roman Nose and other Sioux warriors used (see Chapter 5). Spiritual protection was much more important to the Indians than physical protection.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was the greatest defeat of the U.S. Army in any of the Indian Wars. It was also the peak of the Plains Indians' power. White citizens and government officials were outraged by the defeat, and hungered for retribution. Scores of soldiers flooded the plains, and the off-reservation Indians were constantly on the run to avoid capture. They were tired and they were hungry, and eventually they had to give up. This is why Crazy Horse and his followers surrendered in April 1877, and it's why Sitting Bull and his few remaining followers left Canada in July 1881 (see Chapter 18).

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