Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Symbols



Buffalo were integral to the survival of many Plains Indians. Although buffalo were first and foremost a source of food, they found their way into every part of Indian life. Buffalo sinews—or tendons—were used to make bowstrings and thread. Horns were turned into spoons and cups. Buffalo hair was woven into ropes and belts, and the buffalo's hides became tepee covers, clothing, and shoes. Not one bit of the buffalo was wasted. The Indians hunted buffalo only when they needed to so as to preserve the size of the herds, thereby ensuring the longevity of the buffalo and themselves. As a symbol, the buffalo represents the Plains Indians' respect for the earth and the bounty provided them by God.

White settlers didn't have the same amount of respect for the buffalo as the Indians. They hunted for entertainment and sport. Most of the buffalo they killed were for their hides, which could be traded or made into garments. The meat that was so valuable to the Indians was generally left behind to rot under the hot summer sun. White men killed far more buffalo than they needed, racking up nearly 3.7 million hides between 1872 and 1874, thinning the herds so much that recovery was impossible. During the same time period, Indians killed only 150,000. The white man's indiscriminate killing of the Plains Indians' only food source is symbolic of both their disregard for the "gifts" of the earth and for Indian survival.

Ponies and Guns

Most Plains Indians were relatively nomadic. They moved with the buffalo and other wild game, often spending spring in one place, summer in another, and so on. Two things were key to this lifestyle: ponies and weapons. Ponies, which are equines less than 4'10" tall (horses are taller than 4'10"), are necessary for travel and chasing fast game. They're also extremely helpful in battle, and when trying to escape an enemy. Weapons are of course necessary for battle, but they're also hunting tools. Although some of the Plains Indians used bows, arrows, and other more "primitive" weapons, most favored guns for hunting.

Peace commissioners try to get the Sioux and their allies to sign the peace treaty of 1876 following the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Indians don't want to do it—the treaty calls for them to give up the Black Hills and the Powder River country and move to a reservation on the Missouri River. The Sioux point to the treaty of 1868, which says three-fourths of all adult males need to approve any changes to the terms of the treaty. The peace commissioners pressure the Indians by saying they will take away their guns and ponies. If this happens, "they would no longer be men." The Plains Indians' guns and ponies are symbolic of their masculinity. Without them, they could not provide for, nor protect, their families. If they are taken away, they are no better than the women of the tribe, who hold little political power. The government's threat is enough to convince the Indians to sign the treaty.

Wounded Knee

On December 19, 1890, nearly 300 Minneconjou Teton Sioux were killed by U.S. soldiers at Wounded Knee Creek in present-day South Dakota. This horrific event is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee, but there was no battle—the Indians had been relieved of their weapons before the shooting began, and they were defenseless against the machine guns overlooking their camp. A small misunderstanding led to the uncontrolled slaughter of men, women, and children in one of the darkest events of American history.

The events at Wounded Knee are symbolic of the long and tense relationship between the U.S. government and American Indians. Like the deaf Minneconjou who just wanted to keep his gun, the Indians just wanted to keep their land. This wasn't acceptable to government officials who wanted the land for the growth of the nation. The public-facing policy was to confine the Indians to smaller parcels of land for their own safety, but the real intent was to eradicate the entire race.

Wounded Knee was the last genocidal act of the Indian Wars. It is also the symbolic end of the age of the Indian in the American West. Once free to hunt and live where they wanted, American Indians were now confined to reservations, forbidden to continue traditional cultures and lifestyles, and wholly dependent on government funds for survival. Wounded Knee was the final blow against a people who had already been beaten—both literally and figuratively—into submission.

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