In the fall of 1971, just months into my life in the Wallowas, my mind muddled with the Peace Corps and Washington D.C. lives I’d only recently left, I got a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in the mail from Barb, my old Peace Corps partner. Her note said she was working in a bookstore in Sun Valley, and thought the book was “great but terribly maddening.”
I think I read the brief chapter on “The Flight of the Nez Perce,” an early start on what is now a 50-year Nez Perce education project; I want to understand the people who lived in the Wallowa for millennia before the whites came to dispossess them, and how we came to be where we are now. If I read more of the book at the time, I don’t remember, but assume I too would have found it “maddening.”
Today I read books by and about Indians continuously, looking for true history and meaning in the huge dispossessions that have given us the country we call ours today. I follow the cue of Alvin Josephy, who always maintained that Indians are unfairly treated in our histories, often omitted completely; I look for reason but mostly find irrational boosterism fueled by thirst for land and gold—and a staunch and consistent gospel of white superiority and Manifest Destiny.
The early Anglo settlers who built a cotton empire in the South were not conscious of their imperialistic role; the California gold miners who shot Indians for sport or bounty didn’t know that they were part of the gospel of supremacy and expansion. The good-hearted settlers in the Wallowa who wanted a plot of land for themselves were often divided on the idea of living with or replacing Indians—but they were all part of the irrepressible white march across the continent.
As I gobble up Black histories and “new” white histories of the country, and read the novels and essays of Indians who now have some voice in a rising chorus of literary diversity, something sends me back to Wounded Knee. I’ve read several accounts of the place—and its two historical moments—over the years, but don’t see them mentioned in the new white histories. I decided to go back to Bury My Heart to get some kind of overview of the dispossession that gets little attention in our books and classrooms.
In the brief introduction, author Dee Brown explains that he has relied on Indian sources, some from newspaper interviews with Indians—sometimes but not always fair; but often he uses civilian and military government documents—where the perpetrators faithfully took down the words of the people they were making and breaking treaties with, warring with, and flat out chasing from one part of the West to another. “I have tried,” Brown says, “to fashion a narrative of the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it, using their own words whenever possible.”
He gives brief mention of Columbus in the Carribean and first contacts in the East, little of the Peguot War and Jamestown, the early capture and barter of Native Americans as slaves sent to Europe or to the Caribbean plantations. Indian Removal and the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears is background to Brown’s work. By the time he begins his narrative—with 1860 and the Long Walk of the Navajos—almost all Eastern Indians have been forced West of the Mississippi. The rest of the West was full of hundreds of tribes and bands tied to specific lands—although with the advent of the horse, tribal movements that in the past had taken centuries had been compressed into years, and the Plains and mountains had become the homes and battle grounds of many tribal nations. The book ends at Wounded Knee, just 30 years after the White assault on the Western tribes.
Bury My Heart was published in 1970 and has been continuously in print since that time. It has been translated into 17 languages and sold over 5 million copies. The picture of dispossession it paints is embedded in millions of minds in America and across the world. There have been, to my knowledge, no serious objections to the book. Rather, it has been ignored by the academy and the places that train our high school and elementary school history teachers. It is not part of the standard curriculum.
As my friend Robert reminds me, “In the words of Marianne Moore, ‘Omissions are not accidents.’” We’ve not been ready to confront this hallmark of our history.
Maybe now that Black writers can talk openly about reparations for slavery in national journals and we have the first Indian Secretary of the Interior, we can insist that the real story, that begins in 1492 and 1620 and passes through the horror of Wounded Knee, be told in our textbooks and in the “new” histories that celebrate the ideals of liberty and equality for all.
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