Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 8 : The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa | Summary



Ulysses S. Grant is elected the 18th President of the United States in 1869. Along with a new Great Father comes a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. For the first time ever, the Little Father is an Indian. Called Ely Samuel Parker by white men, his real name is Donehogawa, Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois. He changed his name while growing up in New York because "the owner of an Indian name was not taken seriously in the world of white men." He and Grant became good friends in 1860 when they lived in Galena, Illinois. Grant helped Parker get a position as an engineer for the Union Army during the Civil War, and after he was elected president, Grant appointed Parker as his new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Because of Parker's heritage, Grant believed he "could deal more intelligently with Indians than any white man." Parker made sweeping changes to the Indian Office upon his arrival, booting out the longtime bureaucrats and ushering in new agents, many from religious communities.

Parker's first winter in office is plagued by turmoil on the plains, although he doesn't hear about it until spring. In January 1870 soldiers in Montana slaughter a camp of Piegan Blackfeet "like rabbits trapped in a hole." He knows he needs to reassure the Indians "of the government's good intentions" if he wants to avoid a war. He does this by inviting Sioux chief Red Cloud to Washington, DC, for a frank discussion about the treaty of 1868 signed at Fort Laramie. Red Cloud had been led to believe his people would be able to continue trading near their homelands at Fort Laramie, but the treaty actually states they must trade 300 miles away at Fort Randall. He also invites Spotted Tail, whose people have already moved to the Dakota reservation as ordered.

The two chiefs and their entourages are given the royal treatment. They go on several tours and are even honored at a White House reception. Then the negotiations begin. Red Cloud tells Parker and Secretary of the Interior Jacob Cox he does not want his reservation on the Missouri River. He then asks for ammunition so his people can hunt. A few days later, Red Cloud reiterates his dislike of the Missouri River reservation, this time to President Grant, who is well aware that the treaty ratified by Congress isn't the version Red Cloud thought he was signing. Red Cloud confirms this when the treaty is read to him the next day. "I never heard of it and do not mean to follow it," he says.

The Sioux are humiliated for being tricked into a deceptive treaty. They want to go home, but Parker persuades them to attend more meetings. Cox explains that the Powder River country may be outside the permanent reservation, but it is part of the approved hunting grounds. Some Sioux can live there if they like, and they can trade at Fort Laramie. Red Cloud leaves Washington, DC, somewhat appeased. A temporary agency near Fort Laramie is eventually established, but the Indians are only allowed to use it for less than two years.

Parker's term at the Indian Office ends in the summer of 1871 after political enemies accuse him of being a "heathen" who tolerated "the Indians' primitive religions." He is declared innocent of all charges and even commended for his work in saving the country money by averting war with the Indians, but he resigns anyway. He reclaims his real name, Donehogawa, moves to New York, and becomes very wealthy.


Naming Parker as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs was a bold move for Grant. It wasn't a secret that many people in Washington, DC—and their subordinates in the field—were in favor of exterminating the Indians altogether. To bring in a commissioner who not only was sympathetic to the Indians, but an Indian himself, sent a message that Grant's vision for the United States is not an Indian-less one.

Parker is an anomaly both in Washington and in the West. As non-citizens, American Indians weren't generally allowed a role in the white man's politics, and even those who had extensive education, like Parker, were still viewed as being inferior based on the color of their skin. This is 1867. The Civil War ended two years prior, and African Americans were still not considered citizens in the eyes of the law, either. Popular white culture demonized Indians, portraying them as brutally savage and primitive beasts obsessed with harming white people, especially women. People were supposed to be scared of Indians, not work alongside them.

Parker also didn't fit in with the people he was tasked with overseeing. Growing up around the cities and towns of the east coast and working for white soldiers as a preteen, Parker was familiar with white culture, and how white people viewed Indians. He knew speaking and reading English like an American of European descent was crucial to success in the white world, as was European-style education. These concepts, and the fact that he could actually do those things, seem completely foreign to Red Cloud and other Plains Indians. They wonder if "the Great Spirit [had] at last taught a red man to read and write" so he could take care of them. It doesn't occur to them that he is educated differently than they are—they simply think God made it happen. Because their territories are not yet completely overrun by white people, they have not seen societies where whites and Indians live peacefully side by side. The idea that an Indian could speak and act like a white man is almost inconceivable.

This is part of the reason Parker is so concerned about his ability to earn Red Cloud's and Spotted Tail's trust. The other factor is that Parker isn't a Plains Indian—he's an Iroquois from New York. His native language is different from that of the Sioux, as are his tribe's customs, clothing, and housing. To say Parker and his Sioux visitors would have much in common is like saying a person from California and a person from Maine have a lot in common because they are white. Yet this is a common assumption made by government officials during western expansion. To them, an Indian is an Indian. It doesn't matter if a northern tribe is moved to the south—they should be fine because they are with other Indians. However, this is simply not the case. Just because Indians share a common race does not mean they necessarily share a common culture. Nor does it mean they will automatically trust one another. There are long histories of animosity between Indian tribes—the Crows and Sioux were longtime enemies, as were the mountain Blackfeet and the Plains Indians. The introduction of white settlers to Indian lands changed all of this. The Indians, especially those in the Plains, begin to think of themselves as one "people." This is why Red Cloud makes overtures of peace to the Crows during the battle for Powder River country (Chapter 7), and why the Plains Indians are so concerned about what happened to the Piegan Blackfeet. "When soldiers killed Indians anywhere it made all the tribes uneasy," Brown writes. It also gave them a common enemy.

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