Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 2 : The Long Walk of the Navahos | Summary



The Navaho Indians of the Southwest face two major problems in the late 1850s. The first is an ongoing war with nearby Mexicans, who steal Navaho children and sell them as slaves. The Navahos retaliate by raiding Mexican settlements. This situation gets even worse in 1853 when the United States purchases the Mexicans' territory and renames it New Mexico. Now the Mexicans are American citizens, which means they are protected by the United States government. They can kidnap Navaho children with no consequences, but the Navahos are punished when they retaliate.

The second problem is the U.S. Army post, Fort Defiance. It is built on pasture land that had long been used by the Navahos for feeding their livestock. The army forbids Navaho use of the land, which leads to several deadly skirmishes and an all-out attack on the fort led by war chiefs Manuelito and Barboncito in April 1860. After months of soldiers chasing the Navahos through the mountains, a truce is called in February 1861. Relations between the Navahos and soldiers are good until September of that same year when a horse race between the two parties goes terribly wrong. A riot breaks out after Navahos accuse the soldiers of rigging the race, and Navaho women and children are killed. From then on, the Navahos keep their distance from the white men.

The Civil War reaches the Southwest in 1861 as the Confederate (Graycoat) and Union (Bluecoat) armies battle along the Rio Grande River. A Union regiment led by General James Carleton arrives from California in 1862, but the Graycoats are long gone. Without any Confederates to fight, Carleton turns his attention to the Navahos, whom he refers to as "wolves that run through the mountains." He wants to send the Navahos and Mescalero Apaches to a reservation called Bosque Redondo so he can claim the Indian lands and "whatever metal wealth might be hidden under [them]" for the United States.

The Navahos attempt to negotiate with Carleton in early 1863, but he refuses to believe their vows of peace. He gives them until July 20 to turn themselves in. After that, any Indian found off the reservation will be killed. Carleton oversees a U.S. Army campaign to destroy the Navahos' crops, fields, and pastures. He offers rewards for livestock brought in, which leads to rewards for Indian scalps.

War chief Delgadito and his people are the first to surrender. Other war chiefs head into the mountains for the summer, but they are crippled by the raids of Navaho property throughout the winter of 1863-64. In March nearly 3,000 freezing and starving Navahos turn themselves in, and the Long Walk of the Navahos to Bosque Redondo begins later that month. Hundreds die on the way, and those who survive discover their new home is devoid of trees and unsuitable for farming. Food is scarce, and the Navahos take shelter in sandpits. Disease spreads rapidly, killing even more people.

Manuelito is the last war chief to surrender to life on the reservation. He and his 23 warriors "limp into Fort Wingate" in September 1866 on the verge of starvation. His nemesis, Carleton, is replaced just 18 days later by Superintendent A.B. Norton. Norton is horrified by the living conditions at Bosque Redondo. The water is contaminated, the land is terrible for growing crops, and the Indians are being given half-rations of spoiled food the soldiers refuse to eat. After two years of investigations, the Navahos are allowed to return to their homeland. Although the best of their pastureland is eventually given to white settlers, the Navahos soon realize they are "the least unfortunate of all the Western Indians."


American Indians weren't considered American citizens until 1924. Prior to that, Indian tribes were treated as if they were foreign nations. This meant Indians had to follow American laws when they were on territory owned by the United States—like New Mexico. When they were in their own lands with their own people they could do whatever they wanted. The Navahos found this arrangement to be arbitrary and unfair. They had been warring with the Mexicans for decades free of any outside intervention, and then all of a sudden, the United States government says the New Mexicans can legally commit crimes against the Navahos. Instead of punishing the New Mexicans, the United States will instead punish any Navaho who tries to enact revenge. The United States theoretically treats the Navahos like a sovereign nation, but in reality, the Navahos are unable to contend with the power and influence of the United States like another sovereign nation such as France or England would.

This raises the question of why the Mexicans were suddenly considered to be Americans while the Indians were not. It all has to do with culture and heritage. Early settlers in the United States came from western Europe, primarily England. Mexico was settled by the Spanish. Although England and Spain were two very different countries, they had a lot in common. They both used written languages, believed in some form of Christianity, and wore European-style garments made from cloth. In contrast, American Indians didn't have written languages. Although they believed in a God-like Great Spirit, their rituals and beliefs were centered around nature, not the body of Christ. By the 19th century, many had adopted the clothing styles of the Mexicans, but they were often made out of animal hides. In short, Mexicans were able to assimilate into American culture a lot better than Indians, which made it easier for Americans to accept the Mexicans as their own.

One of Brown's purposes for writing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was to dispel popular myths about the American West. Until the 1970s and 1980s popular culture routinely depicted American Indians as brutish, uncivilized savages. A few Indians in the book fall into this category, but Brown shows just how many white people were far more vicious than the people they were trying to kill. A good example of this is scalping. Movies and television from the early 20th century would have one think that Indians were the sole scalpers in North America, and that they did it so they could take home a war trophy. While it's true many tribes—especially those in the northeast—practiced scalping, this practice was considered to be an honorable one. Those who were scalped were usually greatly respected, such as family members who had been killed in battle. It was an honor to be scalped after death. Scalping had also been going on for centuries in Europe, usually as a way to prove a kill. It was the British in North America who turned scalping into a disrespectful mutilation. In fact, most southwestern tribes like the Navahos considered scalping "a barbaric custom introduced by the Spaniards."

Although Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is told primarily from the perspective of American Indians, Brown makes sure that not every white person is cast as a villain, like General Carleton. Brown consistently points out people who served as white allies to the Indians, like A.B. Norton. He also shows the depth to which people change over the course of his 30-year timeframe. One example is General Sherman. Sherman's interactions with the Navahos at the end of the chapter make him seem like one of the good guys. His eyes are different from Carleton's, "The eyes of a man who had suffered and knew the pain of it in others." He calls them "My children," and gently but firmly instructs them about the laws of the land. This is the last time the reader will see the kind version of Sherman. As the commanding general of the U.S. Army under president Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman makes it clear he thinks it is better to kill Indians than to try living peacefully with them.

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