Vanishing Indians and Wounded Knee

There’s a new history book that is rattling across the best seller lists. It’s a collection of essays called Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past. There are 20 chapters on everything from “American Exceptionalism” to the “New Deal” and the “Southern Strategy.” The third chapter is “Vanishing Indians.”

Today, those of us who know even a little about efforts to revive language and culture among tribes, who follow the news about boarding schools and the Dakota Access Pipeline, know that Indians—Native Americans—have not vanished. We might know Edward Sheriff Curtis’s famous photo of the horseback Navajo moving away in the distance: “Vanishing Race.” We know about Carlisle Indian Boarding School founder Pratt’s dictum to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” And we are now following stories of Native Revival after decades—centuries—of attempts to assimilate and/or kill Indians, to make them disappear.

I knew this much when I began reading Ari Kelman’s chapter in the new book. What I hadn’t considered was that Dee Brown’s epochal Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a verse in the vanishing Indian song. What we knew was that Brown chronicled the atrocities, the broken treaties and broken promises the settler economy of the expanding United States brought on the indigenous peoples of the land.

What hadn’t occurred to me was that Brown basically ended his story in 1890 at Wounded Knee—with the last and one of the most poignant instances of mistreatment. Good for Brown for bringing all of the misdeeds to our attention. Not so good in discounting or ignoring the Indians of his time—the book was first published in 1971. According to Kelman, Brown searched diligently through the record books for white testimony about those misdeeds, but did not talk with Indians. For that reason, he did not get the story of Native resilience that was happening under his nose.

Kelman mentions one Native writer who has taken the vanishing myth on directly. David Treuer and his The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present. In his 2019 New Yorker review of Treuer’s book, Ned Blackhawk says of Brown’s Wounded Knee:

The problem was that in place of Indian vilification Brown offered victimization. Despite their nobility and fortitude, he suggested, Indians were still defeated. In his telling, Native history became a slow, inexorable decline toward disappearance.

Treuer, on the other hand, chronicles what Indians were working against—assimilation and disappearance–while he celebrates activism and resistance, from Native US war heroes in both World Wars through the relocation and termination programs of the 50s and 60s to current language programs and reservation colleges. (Did you know that the movie, “Star Wars,” was dubbed into Dine for tribal viewing!)

Kelman does not mention Phil Deloria, but he should have. Deloria, the first Native American in the history department at Harvard, published Indians in Unexpected Places in 2004. His research shows a pervasive twentieth century presence of Native Americans in movies, advertising—think Pontiac cars and Land O’Lakes butter—and even classical music.

We should, following Treuer and Deloria, remember Wounded Knee, but we should not see it as the signal of Vanishing Indians.

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