Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (BMHAWK) by Dee Brown is a detailed and honest portrayal of the United States government’s efforts to claim the Wild West and how they destroyed Indians in the process. 

For this review I will use the term "Indians" because that's what the book used, although I was personally taught in school to say "Native American" and that's what I always say in real life. Interestingly, the Smithsonian museum in DC uses "American Indian." Is that the new correct terminology?

"They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it."


I'm reviewing BMHAWK outside of my monthly posts because this actually took me about six months to finish. I found the content enlightening, but incredibly heart breaking so it was hard for me to read more than a few pages at a time. I'd get so depressed I'd take a break for a week. The writing itself was the reason I deducted a star; it was pretty dry and redundant. Each chapter followed the same arc: Indians were promised something; white men lied; Indians either moved, tried to compromise, or fought back; then eventually they lost everything anyway. As I said - redundant. In the most depressing way possible.  

As a kid, I learned that Thanksgiving was when the Indians and white pilgrims became best friends. I sang along with Disney’s sexualized and historically inaccurate Pocahontas. I remember later reading a middle grade book about the Cherokee Trail of Tears that first introduced me to the fact that Indians were not fairly treated. The older I got (as is true with people in general) I learned more about the USA’s violent history. 

So adult me knew better, but I picked up BMHAWK because adult me didn't know many facts about what really happened. BMHAWK pretty blatantly pointed out that the white men of the 1800’s were liars, thieves, and perpetrators of an ethnic cleansing. Is it biased? Sure, if by biased you mean that this was one of the first books written (1970's) to share the victim's point of view. Brown intended to make his readers think like the victim - "looking eastward." Some have criticized his lack of sources within the text, which I understand, but the back of the book had pages of references for those curious. 

I'd have no objection to BMHAWK being required reading for Americans.  

Rating: 4 of 5 stars




Below are tidbits and quotes from BMHAWK that stood out to me. I know it’s long, but I actually cut it down to about half of what I marked while reading. 

Sprinkled (lightly, because it was rare) throughout BMHAWK are the names of white men who tried to do the right thing:

1) Lieutenant Royal E. Whiteman: Attempted to warn Indians near Camp Grant of a potential attack and cared for their dead after the fact. His own military career suffered because of it. (Chapter 9)

2) Tom Jeffords, a mail carrier: Jeffords and his riders were often ambushed by Apache warriors on their routes, so he finally went to Cochise himself to see what could be done.
"After a proper interval of silence, Taglito Jeffords told Cochise he wanted a personal treaty with him so that he could earn his living carrying the mails. Cochise was baffled. He had never known such a white man. There was nothing he could do but honor Taglito's courage by promising to let him ride his mail route unmolested." They continued having a respectful relationship; all Chiricahuas trusted Jeffords. (Chapter 9)

3) William P. Clark, "White Hat": He "genuinely liked Indians, was interested in their way of life," and the Cheyennes requested he accompany them when they were being forced out. (Chapter 14)

4) Henry W. Lawton, "Tall White Man": Was assigned to the Cheyennes instead of Clark above, made sure the Indians received enough food. Also attempted to get more food for them from Washington. (Chapter 14)

And now, quotes:


"It was an incredible era [1860-1890] almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it."

"And if the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reasons why."

Ch. 8 - The Rise and Fall of the Donehogawa

When Spotted Tail tried strawberries and ice cream in Washington, DC: "Surely the white men have many more good things to eat than they send to the Indians."

Ch. 10 - The Ordeal of Captain Jack

"Captain Jack was hanged on October 3. On the night following the execution, his body was secretly disinterred, carried off to Yreka, and embalmed. A short time later it appeared in eastern cities as a carnival attraction, admission price ten cents."

Ch. 11 - The War to Save the Buffalo

"Of the 3,700,000 buffalo destroyed from 1872 through 1874, only 150,000 of them were killed by Indians. When a group of concerned Texans asked General Sheridan if something should not be done to stop the white hunters' wholesale slaughter, he replied: 'Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.'"

Ch. 12 - The War for the Black Hills

"'It is only six years since we came to live on this stream where we are living now,' Red Dog said, 'and nothing that has been promised us has been done.' Another chief remembered that since the Great Father (President) promised them that they would never be moved they had been moved five times. 'I think you had better put the Indians on wheels,' he said sardonically, 'and you can run them about whenever you wish.'"

"'What have we done that the white people want us to stop?' Sitting Bull asked. 'We have been running up and down this country, but they follow us from one place to another.'"

"With them went the father and mother of Crazy Horse, carrying the heart and bones of their son. At a place known only to them they buried Crazy Horse somewhere near Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee."

Ch. 13 - The Flight of the Nez Perces

"The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told."
-Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perce

"Leaving the soldiers floundering in their rear, the Indians crossed Targhee Pass into Yellowstone Park on August 22. Only five years earlier the Great Council in Washington had made the Yellowstone area into the country's first national park, and in that summer of 1877 the first adventuresome American tourists were admiring its natural wonders." 

"I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me."
-Chief Joseph

Ch. 16 - "The Utes Must Go!"

"It was Nathan Meeker's fancy to have the Utes address him as Father Meeker (in their savage state he looked upon them as children) but most of them called him "Nick," much to his displeasure." (I have so much love for the fact that they wouldn't call this ass "Father" ha!)

Ch. 17 - The Last of the Apache Chiefs

"He found plenty of evidence that white men were trying to arouse the Apaches to violent action so that they could be driven from the reservation, leaving it open for land-grabbing."

Ch. 18 - Dance of the Ghosts

"On September 8 Sitting Bull and the young Bluecoat [and translator] arrived at Bismarck for the big celebration. They rode at the head of a parade and then sat on the speakers' platform. When Sitting Bull was introduced, he arose and began delivering his speech in Sioux. The young officer listened in dismay. Sitting Bull had changed the flowery text of welcome. 'I hate all the white people,' he was saying. 'You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.' Knowing that only the Army officer could understand what he was saying, Sitting Bull paused occasionally for applause; he bowed, smiled, and then uttered a few more insults. At last he sat down, and the bewildered interpreter took his place. The officer had only a short translation written out, a few friendly phrases, but by adding several well-worn Indian metaphors, he brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for Sitting Bull." (Sitting Bull was my favorite person by the end of the book. I had a lot of respect for him.)

"'The white man knows how to make everything,' he said, 'but he does not know how to distribute it.'"
-Sitting Bull to Annie Oakley when discussing how white people treat their own poor.