Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 5 : Powder River Invasion | Summary



The thousands of Indians gathered in Powder River country scatter during the summer of 1865 for hunting and special ceremonies. Meanwhile, General Patrick E. Connor organizes three columns of soldiers to hunt Indians living north of the Platte River "like wolves." The columns are to rendezvous on September 1st at Rosebud River. An unrelated fourth column of soldiers is on the move at the same time. This one is led by a civilian, James A. Sawyers, who wants to open a new overland route to the Montana gold fields. He has enlisted the protection of two infantry companies for the journey.

The Sioux and Cheyennes hear about Sawyer on August 14 or 15. The warriors battle the soldiers for a few hours before a parley is called. Sioux chief Red Cloud tells Sawyer his party must go around the Powder River country. Sawyer protests that it will take him out of his way. He wants to get to the military fort being built by General Connor in the Powder River valley. This is the first time the chiefs hear about General Connor and the first time they hear about a prospective fort. They are furious it is being built on their hunting grounds.

Connor's soldiers finish building the fort and go in search of Indians to fight. A week later Cheyenne Little Horse and his Arapaho wife see them and their Pawnee scouts. Little Horse and his wife race to Black Bear's Arapaho camp, but nobody believes their report. Little Horse's wife manages to convince a few family members to flee with them, but her brother stays behind. Connor's soldiers attack the next morning. The Battle of Tongue River, as it later became known, results in the deaths of 50 Arapahos, many of them women and children. The entire village is burned to the ground, and 1,000 of their ponies are stolen.

The other two columns of soldiers are still making their way to the Rosebud River. They come across Sitting Bull's band of Hunkpapa Teton Sioux. The soldiers fire on a Sioux truce party and battle begins. The Sioux chase the frightened soldiers for several days until a sleet storm hits. The Sioux retreat, but the soldiers have no place to hide. They are forced to shoot 900 of their horses, who have been pelted with freezing rain and can't go on.

Traveling by foot makes the soldiers easy targets. Hunkpapas, Minneconjous, Oglalas, and Cheyennes plan a huge ambush. It is led by Cheyenne Dog Soldier Roman Nose, a great believer in "protective medicine." Roman Nose runs his horse back and forth along the soldiers' line until his horse is shot out from under him. This signals the rest of the Indian warriors to attack. The soldiers are hungry and barefoot, but their weapons are much more powerful than those carried by the Indians, which draws the battle out for a few days. The soldiers are rescued by Connor's regiment toward the end of September then are moved back to Fort Laramie. The Indians spend the entire winter boasting about Roman Nose's victory.


The Powder River country is located in present-day Wyoming and Montana, and encompasses four rivers: the Powder, the Bighorn, the Rosebud, and the Tongue. The buffalo were thick, and there was plenty of lush grass for horses. Several different tribes—including Northern Cheyennes and the Arapaho—hunted here, but it was primarily Sioux land. The area seemed so vast and secluded as to be "impregnable," and the Indians summering there in 1865 couldn't fathom white men coming into the territory, let alone forcing anyone off it. This is why the Arapahos are so completely unprepared for the attack by General Connor's column. None of them "believed that soldiers could be within hundreds of miles" of Bull Bear's camp. Little Horse can believe it—he sees the cavalry with his own eyes—and he knows what will happen next. Little Horse is a Cheyenne, and it is almost certain he would have heard about the massacre at Sand Creek the year before. He knows exactly what white men can do to an undefended camp.

The death toll at Tongue River is high, but the soldiers' actions once the fighting is over is even worse. They burn every inch of the camp, and steal a third of the Arapahos' ponies. The ponies are the Arapahos' livelihood—they are used for hunting, for war, for transportation, and as goods to be traded or sold. The camp held everything the Arapahos owned, including their supply of food for the winter. Without it, they will starve. It isn't enough for the white soldiers to kill in the heat of battle—they want the Indians to suffer for months.

Not every soldier is hell-bent on killing Indians. The two columns meant to meet Connor's soldiers at the Rosebud aren't all that interested in Connor's crusade to rid the Powder River country of Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. These men volunteered for the Civil War, not the Indian Wars, and most of them thought they should have been released months earlier when the war ended. Their rations are low, disease is spreading, and their horses are weak from a lack of grass and water. These soldiers just want to get to the Rosebud so they can go home. In many cases throughout Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, military leaders like Connor, Sheridan, and Sherman have a thirst for blood, and their subordinates are expected to quench it.

The soldiers might not have been as psychologically or emotionally invested in battle as the Indians, but they had more powerful weapons. Because of the Civil War, Connor's men would have been carrying the most advanced weapons and ammunition of the time. The Indians also had guns, but they were from the early part of the 19th century. They couldn't compete with the white men's modern weaponry, nor could the Indians' assortment of bows, lances, and clubs. "Bravery, numbers, massive charges—they all meant nothing" when one was outgunned.

The one thing Indians had that the soldiers did not was "protective medicine." This isn't medicine in the traditional sense—no pills or potions could prevent one from getting hurt in battle. "Medicine," in this case, has to do with the mystery of the spirit world. Medicine men, as Brown refers to the practitioners of this religious art, have a spiritual connection to animals, nature, and the supernatural. Practices vary—some medicine men use symbolic tokens to strengthen one's spirit and provide protection, while others recommend rituals like fasting and cleansing. Roman Nose does the latter in the summer of 1865. His medicine makes him spiritually stronger, which boosts his physical and mental capabilities, and makes him feel like an invincible warrior. For that battle, he is.

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