Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 3 : Little Crow's War | Summary



The Santee Sioux live in Minnesota on the edge of Indian territory. Two treaties signed during the 1850s have left the Santees confined to a sliver of territory along the Minnesota River. By the summer of 1862, the wild game is all gone and their crops are failing. They have to resort to purchasing food from traders, but they don't have the money to do so. Their annuities are late, possibly because the government is spending all its money on the war between the Bluecoats and Graycoats. Little Crow asks officials at the Upper Agency—where his people go for assistance—if they can purchase food on credit. The Santees are starving, and the traders' warehouse is full of food. Thomas Galbraith allows Little Crow's band some pork and flour, but Galbraith refuses to extend the offer to the Indians who report to the Lower Agency. Trader Andrew Myrick agrees with Galbraith and says, "If they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung."

Little Crow's problems extend beyond the starvation of his people. Once a well-respected leader, he has lost the confidence of the younger men in his band. They want to go to war with the white men, but he knows such an effort would be disastrous since the white men "were everywhere like locusts and destroyed their enemies with great thundering cannon." His hand is forced on August 17, 1862, when four young Santees murder three white men and two white women. There is no doubt the white soldiers are going to come after them. Little Crow initially rejects the other tribal leaders' arguments in favor of going to war but then changes his mind after he is called a coward. He knows his people are going to die, but he says he will die alongside them.

The Santees successfully attack the Upper Agency the next morning. Two days later they go after Fort Ridgely, where American soldiers are stationed. The fort's cannon proves too powerful, and the Santees retreat. Their next attack is on New Ulm, the nearest town. The Santees set 190 buildings on fire and kill over 100 settlers. Two hundred are taken prisoner.

Little Crow tries to get other Sioux chiefs on board with war against the white man, but they aren't interested. Colonel Henry H. Sibley wants the Santees to give up the hostages, but Little Crow is holding out until he can be assured of food and money for his people. Another Santee, Wabasha, secretly communicates with Sibley and promises to hand over the hostages to "win them the friendship of Long Trader Sibley forever."

The Santee warriors attack Sibley's soldiers on September 22, 1862. Things don't go as planned, and the Santees lose. That night those who fought and survived decide to flee to the Dakota territory to live with the prairie Sioux. Wabasha and his followers stay. They raise a truce flag on September 26. The hostages are returned, and the remaining Santees become prisoners of war until those who perpetrated war against the white men can be found. Santees from the surrounding area are rounded up. Of the 2,000 Santees in the camp, 600 males are chained and imprisoned.

The "guilty" Santees are put on trial, and 303 are sentenced to death. Sibley doesn't want this many deaths on his conscience, so the decision is sent up the chain of command until it reaches President Abraham Lincoln. His lawyers decide 38 are guilty enough for hanging. The rest are sent to prison. Those who remain wish they had escaped with Little Crow.

Little Crow and his followers try to adapt to the way of the Plains Indians. In June 1863 Little Crow leads a group back to Santee land in Minnesota to steal some horses as an exchange for the land he was forced to give up. He is shot and killed during the expedition. Santee war chiefs Shakopee and Medicine Bottle are killed the following December while hiding in Canada. U.S. and Canadian operatives drug them and drag their bodies across the border so they can be arrested by U.S. troops. They are hanged. The rest of the Santee Sioux are sent to a reservation in the Dakota territory.


Indian agents like Thomas Galbraith were government employees under the supervision of the Office of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC. They ran regional Indian agencies, which served as U.S. government offices on Indian reservations. Among other things, agencies were the central location for the distribution of rations for reservation Indians, and served as places to meet with white government officials. Many agencies were part of military forts, while others, like the Upper and Lower Agencies in Minnesota, were singular enterprises. The Indian agent's main job was to act as the voice of the federal government on Indian reservations. Their role was a combination of mediator, educator, and policeman as they championed the merits of assimilating to white society.

Not all Indian agents took these roles to heart. Many agents used their position for personal gain or to enforce their own ideas of justice. Some worked alongside settlers to strip the Indians of their land, while others siphoned part of the Indians' government annuities for themselves and their trader friends. Many tribes, including the Santee Sioux, learned to keep their own financial records to prove they weren't receiving all their money, but they were always ignored. Because they weren't receiving all their money, the Indians couldn't purchase enough rations for their people, which often led to widespread starvation. The situation improved in the late 1860s when agents were recruited from religious communities, although even those appointments were far from perfect.

Little Crow's Santee Sioux are agency Indians, meaning they live on reservation lands set aside for their use by the U.S. government. Although having a plot of land for oneself or one's people sounds like a good idea in theory, it is incompatible with the basics of the American Indian way of life. Most tribes roamed over large territories to follow wild game. Their homes changed depending on the season and the whims of the herd. Some American Indians—most notably Hunkpapa Teton Sioux Sitting Bull—refused to change their lifestyle because of invisible boundaries and nonsensical rules set by white men. But there were others, including Little Crow, who did everything the white man asked—and more—in the name of peace. Little Crow built a house for his family, started a farm, "exchanged his breechclouts and blankets for trousers and brass-buttoned jackets," and joined the Episcopal Church. Yet all of this still wasn't enough to earn him the respect of the white men. Underneath his European clothing, Little Crow was still an Indian.

Little Crow doesn't necessarily like or respect white men, but he does respect their treaties. The "peace" treaties between the Indians and the U.S. government are more about Indians giving up their land and putting down their weapons than a mutual effort to get along. Brown uses the term "surrender" each time the Indians agree to sign an official document, and that's exactly what it is—a surrender of freedom for peace. But in many cases, the United States doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. Little Crow signed a treaty in 1837 that took away all the Santee land east of the Mississippi River, yet they didn't receive the entire sum they were promised. It would be logical to assume that since one party broke the terms of the treaty, the other party could do the same without penalty. But the relationship between the Indians and the white man isn't an equal one, and Little Crow knows it. Starting a war over the missing money is "unthinkable"—there is no way the Santee could win against the firepower of the U.S. Army.

Little Crow's position on war changes only after the young men in his tribe murder five settlers. Now he knows bloodshed can't be avoided—the white people will want revenge. It won't be enough for the killers to be hanged, or even a matching number of Santees. Indian lives are worth less to the white man than white lives. It's not about justice—it's about teaching the Indians a lesson with respect to white superiority. As chief, Little Crow is morally unable to watch his people be slaughtered for a crime just a few committed, and even though he knows they will lose, he has to fight back. If and when they die, they will all do so together.

Those who don't die face perhaps a worse fate—trial by white jury. The right to a fair trial by a jury of one's peers has been a cornerstone of the American judicial system since the country's founding. But American Indians weren't considered American citizens until 1924. They were tried in front of a military court of five officers. Most trials took less than five minutes, and the witnesses weren't exactly reliable. One man was convicted of murder on the word of three white women who, while being held hostage, heard him brag about killing seven white people. Had Abraham Lincoln not intervened, eight times the number of Santees executed would have lost their lives, most of them for no reason at all.

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