Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Main Ideas


Manifest Destiny

"Manifest Destiny!" was the rallying cry of settlers moving West in the mid-19th century. In the broadest of terms, it meant white people of European descent were meant to occupy the area encompassed by the present-day United States—from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This phrase has theological connotations, and many people interpreted it to mean expanding the United States westward was God's will. Following this logic, if it is God's will that white settlers move west, then it is permissible to remove other people—such as American Indians—from the land. The Indians probably won't want to give up their land, which means there will be wars fought over it. The wars will keep going on as long as there are Indians left to fight, so it's probably best to kill all the Indians.

In reality, the white men's reasons for wanting to get rid of the Indians were much simpler—they were afraid. They had never seen anyone who looked, acted, or spoke like the Indians, and they didn't like it. A country claiming to be a place where people from all backgrounds can live together in harmony doesn't coincide with the mass murder of an entire people. The policy of Manifest Destiny, and its subsequent popularity, provides a plausible reason for the U.S. government to take a "proactive" position against the Indians, and eradicate the entire race.

American Betrayal

One of the most striking things about Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is seeing how many times the U.S. government and its representatives deceived the American Indians while somehow maintaining their trust. Even Brown was surprised by this. In the early 1970s he told a newspaper, "[The Indians'] trust in authority was amazing. They just never seemed to believe that anyone could lie." These aren't little fibs and white lies, but serious matters like the contents of treaties that peace commissioners wanted the Indians to sign—such as when Black Kettle signs the Fort Wise treaty of 1861, or when Red Cloud signs the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. Other lies were told about where the Indians could live or hunt. Multiple tribes are promised they will be sent anywhere but Indian Territory only to find themselves in the very place they were trying to avoid. One of the most popular deceptions was to assure a chief or war leader he would be pardoned if he surrendered, and once he did he would be immediately arrested. This happens to both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

The U.S. government—and prior to that, colonial governments—lied to the Indians for over 200 years. This begs the question: why did the Indians continue to believe them? The Indians aren't dumb, and most, if not all, eventually figure out that taking white men at their word was a risky proposition at best. But the Indians don't really have another choice. They lack the supplies, weapons, and manpower to beat the white men in prolonged battle. If they want to ensure the survival of their tribe, they have to go along with what the white men want. Their trust in the white man survives out of the hope that maybe this time, next time, or the time after that it will be different. Maybe someday they will actually benefit from this relationship.

Violent Resistance

Throughout history, American Indians have been cast as brutally savage villains eager to spill the blood of white people, but Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee indicates it was usually the other way around. There are no instances in the book of Indians starting fights without a reason. When they do fight it is because they were attacked first.

Black Kettle, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Cochise, and many other elderly chiefs worked hard to make peace with the white men who wanted their land, or wanted to force their people onto a reservation. They said it in treaty negotiations time and time again—all they want is peace. They know war with the white man will lead only to the destruction of their people, and possibly their entire race. They think it is better to submit to the white man's wishes and remain alive than to fight back every step of the way and be killed.

This mindset isn't shared by all Indians, however, particularly younger generations of warriors. Instead of following the path of least resistance and rallying behind the elderly chiefs, the young warriors look to the more aggressive and radical leaders. Half of the Southern Cheyennes turn away from Black Kettle in favor of the Dog Soldiers after the Sand Creek Massacre. Many of Red Cloud's Sioux turn to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse after Red Cloud settles down on the reservation. Cochise's Chiricahuas forsake Cochise's moderate son and flock to Geronimo after their former leader's death. All these newer leaders are willing to take risks and engage in battle with the white man. The younger people think this makes more sense than waiting around for the white man to slowly take apart everything they hold dear. Peace has gotten them nowhere, which means violence is the only option left.

Indians Viewed as Inferior

There are very few white men in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee who view American Indians as equals. Indians are generally viewed by government and military officials as heathens and savages who don't deserve the same courtesy and respect as people of European descent. Many civilians, especially those in the Southwest and Colorado, view them as blood-thirsty demons. Nathan Meeker, the agent at the Ute reservation, sees them as little more than children unable to survive without the white man's guidance.

None of this is a secret to the Indians. Big Eagle of the Santee Sioux once said he could tell from a white person's actions that they thought they were better than the Indians. This unfair and incorrect characterization of the American Indian originates with the white man's sense of superiority over people who are not of white European descent. In short, attitudes about American Indians from the 15th to the 20th centuries were the result of racism, and a belief in the supremacy of the Caucasian race. It is important to note that the only people who bought into the idea that white people were superior to everyone else were the white people. According to Big Eagle, "The Indians did not like this."

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