Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Context


Native Life in the West before Settlers

Ten million American Indians lived in the present-day United States when the first British colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The indigenous peoples of North America descended from people who traveled over the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Hundreds of distinct American Indian tribes are native to the United States. The word tribe refers to a large group of people joined by a common trait. For American Indians this trait is language. The Sioux, for example, all speak a single language. The three distinct dialects of their language translate into three different bands of Sioux: Yankton, Santee, and Teton. Within those bands are even smaller bands. The Teton Sioux, for example, are subdivided into the Oglalas, the Hunkpapas, the Minneconjous, the Sicangus, the Sihasapas, the Oonhenunpas, and the Itazipcos. Band membership can be fluid—the Cheyennes once had ten bands but eventually merged into two, the Southern Cheyennes and the Northern Cheyennes.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee focuses on the dozen or so Native American tribes that were affected the most by the western expansion of the United States in the mid-19th century.

  • The Sioux, Cheyennes, Comanches, Arapahos, and Poncas are Plains Indians. They live between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, from the Canadian border through Texas.
  • The Apaches and Navahos are Southwest Indians. They live primarily in Arizona and New Mexico between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre.
  • The Modocs and Nez Percés are Plateau Indians. They live in the high plateau region between the Rocky Mountains and the coastal mountain system, which encompasses parts of Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, and Canada.
  • The Utes are Great Basin Indians. The Great Basin is considered to be all of Nevada and Utah, as well as parts of Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, and California.

Historians generally divide American Indian history into two distinct periods: life before the introduction of horses and life after the introduction of horses. This is especially true for the Plains Indians. The Plains Indians used to be agrarian, or agricultural, societies. Until the 18th century, they lived in one location and grew corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflowers. They lived in earth-bermed houses, which are houses with dirt pushed up against the exterior walls to serve as insulation, and villages could number up to 1,000 inhabitants. Dogs served as their draft animals, pulling and carrying loads so humans didn't have to.

Life on the Plains changed dramatically after the introduction of the horse. The Spanish first brought horses to North America in the mid-17th century. Southwestern tribes, who lived in close proximity to the Spanish colonizers, were the first to adapt to the new method of transportation, which spread across the continent over the next century. Some native tribes traded goods like buffalo hides or crops for horses, while others snagged strays to build herds of their own. Horses allowed native peoples to follow wild game, such as buffalo and elk, and transport their kill back to the rest of the tribe much more easily than when they were using dogs. Because of this, many Plains tribes, including the Sioux, Cheyennes, Comanches, Arapahos, and Poncas, became nomadic. They set up camp close to buffalo herds and followed them when they moved. Some Plains Indians, like the Pawnees, preferred to farm rather than hunt, and they remained in their villages most of the year.

Horses were also important in the Plateau and Southwest areas. Plateau Indians traded horses with tribes from other areas, including the Plains. The Southwest Indians needed the horses for fast escapes during raids on farms and settlements. The Navahos and a few Apache tribes farmed crops like beans, cotton, corn, and squash until the early 17th century, but the Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches have always been a hunting and gathering society. All of them relied on food and livestock stolen from Pueblo Indians and Spanish and American settlers. These raids weren't out of vengeance, but out of necessity. The Southwest territory is hot and dry. It sees very little rainfall, and farming is difficult without irrigation systems. Those who lived closest to water were eventually able to grow wheat, melons, apricots, peaches, and other stone fruits. Those who didn't live near water periodically stole from those who did.

America Goes West

The expansion of the United States from 13 original colonies to 48 contiguous states stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean began almost as soon as the nation itself was founded. The U.S. government owned nearly all the territory east of the Mississippi River by the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Understanding the need for the nation to expand, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. This massive territory encompassed 827,000 square miles of land, including present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, as well as most of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

In 1804 Jefferson sent Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark on an expedition through this newly acquired territory. They were to explore the Missouri River and search for a northwestern waterway that emptied into the Pacific Ocean. Their two-year-long, 8,000-mile journey brought them into contact with several Indian tribes, and they returned to the east coast with documentation about the tribes' cultures, languages, and material goods. An abridged version of the Lewis and Clark journals published in 1814 gave many Americans their first glimpse of what life was like out West and the people they would encounter there.

By 1810 fur-trading companies had established outposts to trade with American Indians. Buffalo hides and wolf pelts were traded for metal utensils, axes, knives, blankets, cloth, and guns. But the great pouring of white people into the West didn't begin until the California Gold Rush of 1848. By that point, the federal government had acquired the rest of the present-day continental United States, with the exception of a small sliver of Arizona. Thousands of fortune-seeking Americans headed over land and sea to California in hopes of striking it rich. Others moved their families across the country along the Oregon and California Trails to begin their lives anew on the west coast. These trails traversed Indian lands, which caused problems for Indians and settlers alike. How the United States government dealt with these conflicts, as well as the ever-increasing demand for non-Indian lands, is the subject of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

The Ghost Dance

Chapter 18 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee details the spread of the Ghost Dance to Chief Sitting Bull's people, the Hunkpapa Teton Sioux. Although some historians classify the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s as a cult, Brown presents it as a religious fad that swept through the Indian nations. The Ghost Dance movement was started by a Paiute Indian named Wovoka. The Paiutes lived in the Great Basin area of western Nevada. Wovoka's father, Tavibo, was involved with a previous iteration of the movement in 1870, led by a Paiute mystic named Wodziwob. During a solar eclipse in 1889, Wovoka had a vision of himself dying and speaking to God, who told him to teach the Ghost Dance to others and spread moral messages of peace and love. Wovoka did as God told him, and by 1890 the Ghost Dance was part of life on Indian reservations from the Canadian border to northern Texas, and from the Sierra Nevada of California to the Missouri River.

The dance itself was based on the Paiute's Round Dance, which was usually performed to communicate with, or honor, dead ancestors. Wovoka and his followers believed performing the Ghost Dance would help ease the transition to "the next world following death." They also thought the dance would literally change the world. The things that had haunted them for years—the loss of their homeland, the loss of the buffalo and other wild game, and the loss of their people to disease and starvation—would be erased. Ghost Dancers would be lifted into the air as the earth underwent a miraculous change. All the white men would disappear, the grass would be lush and green, and animals and dead ancestors would live again with the Ghost Dancers.

The Ghost Dance was the last hope for many American Indians who lived in constant threat of persecution by white men. Its believers spoke of peace and tolerance not only for other Indians but for white men too. White people, however, were terrified of it. Not only were the Indians acting "wild" with their boisterous singing and dancing, but separate tribes were united by a common belief. What makes this situationally ironic is that the Ghost Dance movement was based largely on Christianity. Wovoka was well acquainted with the tenets of Christianity as he had once worked for Presbyterians. He was also familiar with the teachings of Mormonism, and the Indian Shaker Church. His message of peace and tolerance is applicable to most world religions, and the notion that the world will renew itself with the faithful sounds a lot like the Second Coming of Christ, when Jesus will come to earth, save his followers, and eradicate the wicked. Had white people taken a look at the ideas behind the Ghost Dance movement, they would have noticed it mirrored many of their beliefs.

Government leaders mistakenly blamed the Ghost Dance for the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. The Ghost Dance was outlawed by the United States government, and interest in it soon waned. Wovoka's predictions of a "cataclysmic worldly reorganization" never materialized, and many believers gave up hope it would ever happen.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the Vietnam War

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970, at the height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Although the events of Brown's book take place a century before in a different country, audiences were struck by the similarities between the militaristic action U.S. soldiers took against Indians in the American West and how American armed forces were operating in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War lasted from 1954 to 1975. The communist government of North Vietnam, bolstered by its defeat of the country's French colonial administration in 1954, wanted to extend its control to the southern half of the country. People in South Vietnam wanted to maintain the French-influenced Western way of life to which they were accustomed. In a bid to stop the spread of communism, the United States supported South Vietnam. China and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnam.

American soldiers were first sent into combat in 1965 and remained there until 1973, two years before the war's end. American military action in the war was hotly protested from the very outset. The war was expensive, and the number of American deaths and injuries mounted by the day. The American public became even more critical after the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers stormed the subdivision of My Lai in South Vietnam, which was supposedly a hotbed of enemy Viet Cong activity in northern South Vietnam. The soldiers had been told that all civilians had evacuated the village and only Viet Cong fighters and their sympathizers were left. This meant the soldiers could shoot their weapons at anyone or anything. They were also told to destroy crops, livestock, and buildings.

The soldiers had been given false information. The village was filled with civilians, mostly women, children, and old men. There wasn't a single male of military age. Searches for weapons came up with very little, and no one in the village showed any signs of resistance. There clearly weren't any Viet Cong in the village, but the soldiers killed nearly everyone anyway. Approximately 500 people were shot, mostly at close range with machine guns, although some lives were ended by grenade. American soldiers raped and mutilated many of their victims, whose bodies lay in the blood-soaked streets. The commander's official report to his superiors stated the company killed dozens of Viet Cong soldiers.

The raid in My Lai was considered a success until other American soldiers came forward with stories of what really happened. A federal investigation followed, and in 1969 a full account of what really happened that day—including color photographs of the carnage—was published in newspapers and magazines across the United States. Americans were horrified by the actions of their country's soldiers and furious that the government tried to cover it up. As protest against the war grew stronger and became more mainstream, the American public found itself more divided than ever.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was released less than a year after the events in My Lai became public knowledge. Brown's descriptions of the crimes perpetrated by U.S. soldiers against American Indians sounded remarkably like those committed in Vietnam. Readers were better able to understand the plight of the 19th-century American Indian because they were witnessing the same things play out on their televisions and in their newspapers halfway across the world. Times had changed, but the methods and mentalities of war had not.
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