Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 16 : "The Utes Must Go!" | Summary



In 1863 the Utes are assigned the western side of the Rocky Mountains. In return, they are given $20,000 worth of goods and provisions each year for 10 years, as long as they "relinquish mineral rights to all parts of their territory." Five years later the government wants more Ute land. Chief Ouray and eight other Ute chiefs travel to Washington, DC, to negotiate in 1868. Ouray drives a hard bargain. He ensures that the Utes get 16 million acres of land and two agencies, one at Los Pinos for the southern bands, and one on White River for the northern bands. He also makes sure the treaty includes language prohibiting white men from ever setting foot on Ute territory.

The miners don't care about treaty restrictions and continue to trespass. The government proposes even further annexation of Ute land in 1873. Felix R. Brunot heads the peace commission for this treaty. He convinces Ouray that the white miners are going to go into the contested land no matter what, so it's best if the Utes sell the mountains and "have something coming in every year." Ouray eventually agrees, and the chiefs accept $25,000 a year for the gold- and silver-filled mountains. Ouray himself receives a $1,000 salary for each year he remains chief.

The Colorado government wants to get rid of the Utes just like it got rid of the Cheyennes and Arapahos. Politicians do everything they can to rile up the Colorado citizenry about their Indian neighbors, but the Utes are generally very peaceful. This all changes when agent Nathan C. Meeker takes over the White River agency. He begins the job with a missionary's zeal to "elevate and enlighten" the Utes. He is determined to form a cooperative farming community, but the Utes aren't interested. To force them to comply with his wishes, Meeker moves the agency 15 miles down the river where there is a lot of good pastureland. The Utes use it for racing and feeding their ponies, but Meeker intends to plow it for farming.

The Utes have no interest in farming or learning trades, which frustrates Meeker to no end. He writes an "imaginary dialogue" with a Ute woman in which he shows how the Indians are incapable of enjoying work, or appreciating the value of material goods. He also says the reservation lands really belong to the government.

Meeker sends his diatribe to the Greely (Colorado) Tribune, which prints it. Colorado politicians are delighted. This is just the kind of propaganda they need to get the Utes removed from the state. A Denver editor-politician named William B. Vickers writes an article of his own for the Denver Tribune in which he calls the Utes "actual, practical Communists" who take advantage of the government's generosity. By late summer 1879 people all over Colorado are crying, "The Utes must go!" Vickers fuels the settlers' ire by manufacturing a series of lies about the Utes, including one about their starting the forest fires that plague the state.

The Utes are furious when they hear about Meeker's betrayal. Chief Jack and a white friend visit Governor Frederick Pitkin in Denver. Jack swears Meeker and the newspapers are lying about his people, and he requests Meeker be removed from the reservation. Pitkin says he will arrange it, but this a lie. A "showdown" between Meeker and the Utes is exactly what he wants.

Meeker goes through with his plan to plow the pastureland on the reservation, which leads to an altercation with the band's medicine man, Johnson. Meeker has had enough, and calls for military reinforcements.

The Utes spot the soldiers on September 25, 1879. Chief Jack rides out to tell them not to come onto the reservation. The Utes don't want to fight, and stepping onto their land will definitely cause one. After a failed attempt to get rival Chief Douglas involved, Jack tries to convince Meeker to call off the troops. Meeker eventually does, but a series of altered plans and coincidences bring the soldiers directly to the young Ute warriors near Milk River. Before Jack can speak to the soldiers, the sound of an anonymous gunshot sends everyone into battle mode. Back at the reservation, a dozen Utes kill all the white men at the agency, including Meeker, and kidnap and rape the three white women.

Chief Ouray hears about the week-long battle at the Los Pinos agency 150 miles away. He sends a message telling the northern agency Utes to stop fighting, but by then the damage has been done. Vickers encourages his readers to "rise up and wipe out the red devils," and Governor Pitkin calls for the Utes to either be moved by the federal government or exterminated. In 1881 the Utes are sent to Utah. Save for a small strip of land in the southwest corner of the state, there are no more Indians in Colorado.


The problems at the White River reservation stem from two sources. The first is the political corruption within the Colorado government. Politicians and military leaders had been trying to rid the area of Indians since John Evans and Colonel Chivington colluded to get the Cheyennes and Arapahos kicked out in 1864. These men, including Pitkin and Vickers, knew how to use the press to their advantage more than any other white men profiled in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. They were an all-out propaganda machine, spreading rumors and lies about the Indians to foster hatred within their citizens. Once citizens begin demanding something, such as the removal of the Utes, it becomes hard for other parts of the government to ignore it.

Corruption didn't stop in the governor's office or in the Indian Bureau—it trickled all the way down to the Indians themselves. Ouray's acceptance of the $1,000 yearly salary was little more than a bribe to ensure he did what the white man asked of him. Since he was effectively on the government payroll, he had to do what the government asked. Bribing chiefs was common practice, which is why the Sioux made sure as many people as possible showed up to peace negotiations. Government officials may have been able to buy off 10 chiefs, but they didn't have the money to pay a tribute to hundreds, or even thousands of warriors.

It is unclear whether the Utes knew Ouray was taking bribes or what they would have thought about it if they had. The way Brown presents their story, it doesn't seem they were terribly angered by the loss of their mountains. They didn't want to lose their land, of course, but perhaps the large sum of money they received for it made the loss a little easier to swallow. In fact, there is no mention of true turmoil between the Utes and the government until Meeker shows up. He is the second—and greatest—source of the Utes' problems.

Meeker suffers from what people today would call a "white savior complex." He believes it is his "duty as a member of a superior race" to turn the Utes into civilized people—meaning he wants to turn them into white people. Although it may at first seem like he has good intentions, Meeker's ideas are incredibly racist and ignorant. He views the Utes as little better than cavemen. He hopes to bring them through multiple stages of cultural evolution until they live their lives like people of European descent. He thinks they should farm instead of hunt. He thinks they should learn a useful trade instead of betting on horse races. It completely escapes him that the Utes don't need those things because that's not the kind of society they live in. Building irrigation canals is pointless if one doesn't farm, and learning masonry has little value if one doesn't live in, or intend to build, brick houses.

Meeker is aiming for a complete overhaul of Ute society. He intends to take the primitive Utes through the pastoral and barbaric stages of life all the way up to "the enlightened, scientific, and religious stage." It took thousands of years for European culture to evolve into what it was in the 19th century, but Meeker believes he can help the Indians achieve it in less than 20 years. There are times when he seems utterly delusional—offering the Utes cows when they don't even drink milk, asking them to call him "Father Meeker," wondering why they want to be paid for the work they do on the reservation—but the Utes just take it in stride. This angers Meeker even more. He wants the Utes to bow down to his authority and obey his every command. Brown says Meeker looks upon the Utes as if they are children, and it is his duty to take care of them. But as time goes on, he acts more and more like their master. His goal shifts from that of civilizing the Utes to trying to make them submit to his will.

The politicians' desire to rid Colorado of the Utes, and Meeker's insistence on making them in his own image, both originate in the belief that white people are the superior race. Beliefs such as these were very common in the 19th century, and in some areas of the world, it remains so even today. The concept of white superiority influenced nearly every aspect of western expansion. The Indians were repeatedly told how much better the white man's way of life was, how much smarter he was, and how much happier they would be if they adopted his culture. But to the Indians, the white people always seemed unhappy. They were never content with what they had and always wanted more, and they placed more value on things than on the earth and the people who live there. The Indians weren't fooled. They may have been forced to live their lives according to the white man's wishes, but they never believed white men to be superior.

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