Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Summary



Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee provides a whirlwind review of American Indians' interaction with white men since Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador in October 1492. Over the next 368 years, the indigenous peoples of the American colonies—and later the United States of America—are bullied off their land in favor of white settlers. In 1830 Congress establishes lands west of the Mississippi River for Indian use, and four years later the law expands to include all land west of the Mississippi save for Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. By law, white people are not allowed to cross over Indian lands, but many people conveniently forget to heed this restriction. Discovery of gold in California in 1848 sends thousands of prospectors to the west coast. The United States develops a policy of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Europeans and their descendants are preordained to spread across the entire country. This policy purposefully overlooks the desires of the Indians in the American West. These are their stories.

The Sioux

There are three divisions within the Great Sioux Nation: the Santee, the Teton, and the Yankton. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee covers the Santee and the Teton. The Santee live on a sliver of land in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota River. Their mostly peaceful relationship with the white settlers and government representatives turns bad in 1862. Crop failures and lackluster hunting conditions leave the Santee starving. They can't buy rations because their government money hasn't come in yet, and their agent won't allow them to purchase any on credit. Tempers explode when four young Santee men kill five white settlers. Chief Little Crow is forced to go on the offensive and start a war with the white men. Although they attack military outposts, government agencies, and settlements, the Santee are no match for the cavalry's weapons. Half the Santee flee west to join the Teton Sioux, and the rest are taken prisoner. Thirty-eight Santee are ultimately hanged for their crimes.

The Teton Sioux live in present-day southwestern South Dakota, southeastern Montana, and northeastern Wyoming. They object to both the major road being built to take gold miners into Montana, and to the construction of the railroad through their land, which scares away the wild game they depend on for survival. The Sioux are particularly concerned about the two new military forts along Bozeman Road. Oglala Teton Sioux Chief Red Cloud leads a successful guerrilla war against settlers and soldiers alike during the summer of 1866, which results in the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. The treaty allows the Sioux to keep the Black Hills, which are of spiritual importance to the Sioux, as well as Powder River country, their favorite hunting grounds. It also established the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

A few years later, gold is found in the Black Hills, and the government isn't able—or willing—to prevent white prospectors from trespassing on Sioux lands. The government offers to rent and/or buy the land, but the Sioux aren't interested, particularly those who don't live on the reservation. The War Department authorizes a military campaign against the off-reservation Sioux and their allies. Hunkpapa Sitting Bull and Oglala Crazy Horse lead their warriors to a crushing victory over General George Armstrong Custer's soldiers at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25–26, 1876. It is the single greatest defeat of U.S. troops during the Indian Wars. Angry and humiliated, the American government takes its anger out on the Sioux living on the reservation. The Black Hills and Powder River country are taken away, and the Sioux are sent to live on a reservation on the Missouri River.

The off-reservation Indians scatter throughout the upper Plains trying to avoid the pursuing soldiers. Sitting Bull eventually takes his people to Canada in the spring of 1877, but Crazy Horse and his followers turn themselves in. Crazy Horse is killed just a few months later when military officials hear rumors of his plans to escape.

The Canadian government refuses to provide food, clothing, or shelter for Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapas because they are natives of the United States, not Canada. Concerned about the survival of his people, Sitting Bull returns to the United States in 1881. He is immediately arrested for fear he will lead another uprising. Government officials leave him out of negotiations and discussions with other tribal leaders, and in 1888 the Sioux are forced to give up another nine million acres of land.

The Ghost Dance, a religious movement based on Christian principles and beliefs, finds its way to the Sioux reservation in 1890. Sitting Bull is suspicious of the whole thing, but his people are so taken with it he allows them to take part. All the singing and dancing scares the white government officials at the camp, and they determine that Sitting Bull is the cause of all the hubbub. His arrest on December 15, 1890, is protested by a group of Ghost Dancers, one of whom pulls out a gun. Several shots are exchanged, and Sitting Bull is killed in the melee.

The Ghost Dance continues in earnest after Sitting Bull's death. Minneconjou Teton Sioux leader Big Foot worries about what the soldiers will do next, so he attempts to move his people to Red Cloud's camp for protection. On December 28, 1890, they are stopped on the way by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, who force them to camp for the night in the snow. The next morning the soldiers ask for the Minneconjous' guns. A misunderstanding between a deaf man and the soldiers results in the mass killing of 300 of the 350 Indians at the camp. The survivors are taken to an Episcopal mission, where they are left to bleed on a hay-strewn floor under a banner that reads "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men."

The Cheyennes

The Cheyennes are divided into two tribes, the Northern Cheyennes and the Southern Cheyennes. The Northern Cheyennes live in the Powder River country of Wyoming, and have become close with their Oglala Teton Sioux neighbors. The Southern Cheyennes live along the Arkansas River in Colorado and Kansas near their allies, the Arapahos.

Black Kettle is the leader of the Southern Cheyennes. He has been around long enough to know that the best way to ensure the safety of his people and the longevity of his tribe is to work with the white men through formal channels, such as peace treaties. However, this becomes a problem when the treaties aren't clear. A treaty signed in 1861 requires all Cheyennes and Arapahos to live on the reservations, but the Indians are led to believe they can live wherever they want and just go to the government agency when they need provisions. Bands of Southern Cheyennes are attacked by Colonel Chivington's Colorado Regiment for violating the treaty, although the Indians are never explicitly told that. Black Kettle moves his people to the reservation in Kansas, where they are told to settle near Sand Creek. On November 29, 1864, white soldiers ambush the Cheyenne camp while its warriors are away. Over 100 women, children, and old men are killed.

Half of those who survive the massacre at Sand Creek move south of the Arkansas River with Black Kettle into Indian Territory. Led by the Cheyenne Dog Soldier warrior society, the rest head north to be with the Northern Cheyennes and the Teton Sioux in Powder River country. Emboldened by Oglala Teton Sioux Chief Red Cloud's success in keeping the white man out of his people's territory, the Dog Soldiers decide they can do the same in their old stomping grounds of Smoky Hill in Kansas. The American government doesn't see it this way, however. A peace commission is sent to talk the Dog Soldiers into stopping their raids of stagecoach stations. General Hancock is furious when Roman Nose, a Dog Soldier warrior, doesn't show up. He threatens to bring his troops into the Cheyenne camp, which worries those who had experienced Sand Creek. The soldiers end up burning the village when everyone is gone. This sparks a revenge spree across Kansas. Generals Sherman and Custer think this calls for the killing of even more Indians, but the government wants to try another peace treaty. Roman Nose refuses to sign and leads his followers north. He is killed in the Battle of Beecher's Island. Many of his followers head back south to live with Black Kettle, who is constantly on guard for the next Sand Creek. It happens on November 27, 1868. Over 100 Southern Cheyennes are killed, including Black Kettle.

The Northern Cheyennes are forced to move to Indian Territory in 1877 after the Black Hills and Powder River country are claimed by the U.S. government. There is barely any food on the reservation, and what is offered isn't fit for human consumption. Because of the lack of food and spreading disease, the Northern Cheyennes start dying. Little Wolf and Dull Knife take their followers north. Little Wolf intends to return to the Powder River country so his people can "live like Cheyennes again," while Dull Knife and his followers decide to go to the Great Sioux Reservation to ask Red Cloud for help. They are captured on the way and taken to Fort Robinson for a few weeks. In January 1879 they are told they have to return to Indian Territory. Dull Knife's followers organize a mass jailbreak a few days later. Only six, including Dull Knife, make it to Red Cloud's reservation. The rest are taken prisoner by the Fort Robinson soldiers or killed during the escape. Little Wolf's people are forced to turn themselves in at Fort Keogh. Both groups are eventually reunited at a reservation on the Tongue River, although their numbers are drastically reduced.

Other Plains Tribes

The buffalo are dying on the southwestern Plains, which means trouble for the tribes like the Kiowa, who rely on the herds for food, clothing, and supplies. In 1868 the Kiowas, Comanches, and Southern Cheyennes are forced to move to the reservation at Fort Cobb, where they are instructed on how to farm. The Kiowa have no interest in farming, and they are worried about the state of the buffalo herds now that railroads are being built through the territory. In May 1871 a party of Kiowa warriors raids a train consisting of 10 freight wagons. Civilians are killed during the raid, and three Kiowa chiefs are sent to prison for their involvement. One of them is killed en route. Lone Wolf is now the sole leader of the Kiowas. He travels to Washington, DC, with leaders of other Plains Indians, where they are all told their people must spend the winter of 1872-73 within 10 miles of Fort Sill. Lone Wolf says he can do this only if Chiefs Big Tree and Satanta are released from prison. Government officials are forced to let them go, although it takes over a year. During this time, Lone Wolf becomes disillusioned with the promises of the white men. In 1874 he and his followers join the Kwahadi Cheyennes and the Comanches in a war against the white men to save the buffalo. They spend the summer living in a canyon with the buffalo herds. Angered by the Indians' defiance of the white man's ways, General William Tecumseh Sherman sends five columns of soldiers to rout them out. All their property is burned, their livestock is shot, and 26 Kiowas are sent to prison, including Lone Wolf and Satanta, both of whom die while there.

Although the peaceful Poncas took no part in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the federal government is taking away their northeastern Nebraska land, and sending them to Indian Territory. Indian inspector Edward C. Kemble convinces Chief White Eagle and 10 other Ponca chiefs to visit Indian Territory in January 1877. They tire of the trip before reaching their destination and are forced to walk home for 40 days in the snow. Kemble is waiting for them when they arrive, and the Poncas are forced to move to Indian Territory that spring. A quarter of the Poncas die during their first winter in Indian Territory, including Standing Bear's son. Standing Bear and 65 other Poncas try to bring his body back to their home along the Niobrara River, but they are intercepted by General Crook. He is told to return them to Indian Territory, but instead, he helps them spread their story to earn public sympathy. A landmark hearing is held in which Standing Bear and his followers are declared persons in the eyes of the law, which means they are free to live wherever they please. They are able to stay in their former territory, but the rest of the tribe isn't allowed to join them.

The Southwestern Indians

The Navaho Indians live in New Mexico and Arizona. White men cross their land on their way to California to look for gold in the late 1840s and early 1850s. They are invaded by white men again in the 1860s, this time by Union regiments moving east to fight in the Civil War. General James Carleton comes to Navaho country to fight the Confederate rebels, and with none around, he sets his sights on the Navahos and their land. He insists they and the Mescalero Apaches move to a reservation called Bosque Redondo, and in 1862 he sends the cavalry after them. The Navahos hide in the mountains and canyons. Their camps are burned to the ground, and all their possessions, including their crops, are destroyed. With no food to eat, they are eventually starved out and forced to surrender. Carleton is replaced by Superintendent A.B. Norton shortly after the last band surrenders in 1866. Norton is appalled by the living conditions on the reservation. An investigation follows, and the Navahos are allowed to return to their land in 1868.

The Apaches also live in New Mexico and Arizona, as well as Texas. Brown covers three separate bands: the Chiricahuas led by Cochise, the Aravaipas led by Eskiminzin, and the Tontos led by Delshay. All three of these men and their tribes want lands other than the reservations they have been assigned. Their qualm is not being kept in one place but rather being forced to live where their people will not be able to thrive. Cochise has the most luck in securing the desired lands for his people, and he is even allowed to pick his own agent, who is a longtime friend. Eskiminzin's Aravaipas do well at Camp Grant—they are so good at growing their own crops and working around the reservation that they are hired by their agent and the reservation's neighbors—but they are detested by the citizens of nearby Tucson. They suffer a terrible massacre on reservation land, starvation while on the run, and then separation from their chiefs. Delshay has it even worse. The Tontos' request for a reservation in the Sunflower Valley is ignored, and they are always on the run because Indians not on reservations are automatically considered hostiles. Delshay is beheaded after General Crook offers a bounty for his head.

Crook returns to the Southwest in 1882 a changed man. He is now an ally of the American Indian, and he does everything he can to ensure peace between the Chiricahuas and the white residents of Arizona. The Chiricahuas are now led by Geronimo, who has been villainized in the press for terrible deeds he never committed. He's not a killer—that title goes to Warm Springs Apache Victorio, whose hatred for white men sends him spiraling into madness—but he has no problems with raiding Mexican ranches. Crook finally has a face-to-face talk with Geronimo, who promises to come to the reservation as soon as he has gathered every last Chiricahua in the territory. Crook is skeptical, but Geronimo remains true to his word. He and the Chiricahuas live peacefully on the reservation for years. In 1885 the Chiricahuas become restless, and Geronimo leads 134 of them off the reservation. Crook chases them down a year later, but the U.S. military doesn't like the way he handles the situation, and he ends up resigning. Geronimo is caught by someone else a few months later, and he and his followers are sent to a Florida prison. They end up at Fort Sill in Indian Territory a few years before Geronimo's death in 1909.

The Plateau and Basin Indians

The Modocs live in northern California near the Oregon border in the Plateau region. They have a friendly relationship with the settlers who begin arriving in the 1850s, but trouble arises during the early 1860s when the Modocs start "borrowing" more livestock and horses than the settlers like. They are sent to live on the Klamath reservation, but they end up starving there. Their chief, Captain Jack, takes his people off the reservation, and in 1872 they are told to go back to the reservation. The cavalry tries to take them by force, but a gunfight erupts, and the Modocs escape into the nearby California Lava Beds. The cavalry hunts them down after learning that a few of the Modocs have killed some white settlers as an act of revenge. Captain Jack doesn't want to fight, but they have no choice. The Modocs manage to fend off the soldiers after a day of battle, and Captain Jack is invited to a peace council. Hooker Jim, one of the Modocs who murdered the white people, gets there before him. Jim and his friends are given false information, and they return to the Lava Beds convinced the peace negotiations are a trap. The murderers threaten to kill anyone who surrenders to the white people, and they goad Captain Jack into agreeing to kill General Edward R.S. Canby. Captain Jack tries to back out, but the majority of the tribe wants him to go through with it. He does, and he and the rest of the Modocs are chased out of the caves and through the wilderness. Captain Jack and three other Modocs are captured and tried for murder. They are all hanged.

The Nez Percés live in territory spanning parts of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, in the Plateau region. The government first tries to take their land in 1855, but Chief Old Joseph refuses to sign the treaty. This is followed by another treaty in 1863, which all the other Nez Percé chiefs sign. Old Joseph abstains again, but the government doesn't need his signature. It seizes three-fourths of the Nez Percés' land, including the Wallowa Valley where Old Joseph and his tribe live. He refuses to give it up, as does his son Joseph, who becomes chief after Old Joseph's death. In 1877 the Nez Percés are forced to move to their reservation in northern Idaho. Along the way, a few of the warriors kill 11 white men. Joseph had been trying to avoid a war, but now he has no choice. He leads his people and their allies to Canada, where they hope to take refuge like Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa Teton Sioux. Joseph is forced to surrender before the group makes it across the border. A few renegade Nez Percés do make it to Canada, but the rest of the band, including Joseph, is sent as prisoners of war to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then a barren reservation in Indian Territory.

The Utes live on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, which means they are Basin Indians. In 1873 they sell their mountain lands to the government so the white men can mine the gold and silver within, and they move to two agencies. Trouble really begins for the Utes in 1878 when a new agent arrives at the White River agency. Nathan C. Meeker is desperate to make the "savage" Utes into the very model of white men. He wants them to give up hunting for farming, but the Utes aren't interested. Meeker cannot understand why his plans aren't working, and in his frustration, he writes a newspaper article in which he scolds the Utes for not giving up their culture for the white man's ways. He also says their reservation actually belongs to the government, who is just letting them use the land. This last part really angers the Utes, and tensions between them and Meeker increase. Meeker and Chief Jack both appeal to Colorado politicians for help, but this is exactly what Governor Pitkin wants. If Meeker and the Utes get into a fight, then the army can be brought in and the Utes can be exterminated. This is exactly what happens. Meeker is killed and the Utes are forced to move to Utah.

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