Monday, October 22, 2012

Musings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has become a classic in American history.  I've had the book for a few years, but I own a bulky hardcover edition and just couldn't motivate myself to carry it around with me.  Luckily, it was also available via the Chicago Public Library's digital audiobook collection, and I was able to remove it from my TBR list that way.  I'm glad I did.  While so much of this book is about long-term suffering and a sense of doomed inevitability, it is also about the power of resistance and standing up for what you believe in, even if you know that you are going to lose.  In Brown's preface to the new edition of the book, he said that the history is in print in so many countries which have populations of people who have been beaten back and oppressed through time.

In a way, that made me feel better.  One of the worst things about knowing history is knowing that we are doomed to repeat it - collective human memory is too short for us to remember all of our misdeeds in the past so that we can avoid them in the future.  While it's no better to know that Native Americans are not the only people who have been driven to near extinction by conquering forces, it is easier to accept the fact if you realize that this same thing has happened the world over, time and time again.  There's a fatalism that pervades this book - you know when you begin reading it just how it will end, but that doesn't make the events any less horrifying or depressing.


Some months ago, Kari and I read Lions of the West, which tells a very biased account of westward expansion.  After that, I wanted to know more about the other point of view.  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee provides that view and makes so strikingly clear that westward expansion was not a result of manifest destiny, with a whole empty continent opened up wide before Americans.  It was fought for and squabbled over and won, with the loss of a lot of blood, the help of a huge number of broken promises, and a terrifying dose of genocide.

By its very nature, this book is cyclical and fairly repetitive.  Americans want to push Native Americans out, the Native Americans resist, a war ensues, the Native Americans are forced onto a reservation, and often they die or waste away.  There isn't a lot of variation.  And that's actually what makes this book so inspiring and fascinating.  That people can wake up every morning knowing that they are going to lose, knowing that their culture is on the brink of annihilation, and they will still fight for it.  And it was much easier to understand why some chose to go to reservations instead of fighting - when you've seen so many of your friends and family die around you, it makes your heart sick.

What is most disturbing about reading this book is less obvious.  In previous generations, Americans knew tribes of Indians, knew how to differentiate between them, knew that different cultures existed.  And Indians were present in their lives and their histories and their knowledge of America.  But now... it seems as though Indians have just faded away from our collective consciousness.  They were here, now they're gone, and it's sad, but it happened.  And now we keep claiming that disease is to blame for the deaths of so many Indians, which is true, but it's also true that Americans and the American government are to blame for a huge number of deaths, too.  And we tend to ignore that part of history because we are so ashamed of it.  I wonder why, though, we are willing to accept slavery as part of our history and try to make amends for it, but we cannot do the same for westward expansion.  African Americans have become a prominent group in our country's history and politics and culture.  But Native Americans have not.  I don't blame them, really - once you learn the history, it's completely understandable that they want absolutely nothing to do with this country.  But at the same time, I wish that they were more vocal and visible in our everyday lives.

This is a difficult book to read.  There are so many heroic last stands, so many rebellions, so many villains, so many lies.  Most of us are taught to obey the law and to trust the system - that if you have right on your side, then justice will be yours.  But time and again, Indians trusted the system, trusted that people were good at heart, trusted that promises would be kept, and every time, they lost.  The racism implicit in every decision, the arrogance of Americans as they swept across a continent, the collusion of government officials and greedy individuals - it is all sickening, all disheartening.

But does that mean we shouldn't know that it happened?  Not at all.  So many of these names have been lost to history, or they have been warped into stereotypes and ideals that have nothing to do with real people.  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee brings them back to life, makes them dynamic.  And it gives us that horrible but very important lesson that governments are only a reflection of the people they govern, and sometimes people can be pretty horrible.

Such an important book, and such a painful read.

34 comments:

  1. Your reviews of history books are some of my absolute favourites. Sadly disenfranchised people often learn that you CAN'T trust official channels to act in good faith or be on your side. And although the details have changed, that happens as much today as it did back then.

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    1. I know, and it's so depressing to realize it. I feel like that sometimes makes us think it's inevitable, when it doesn't have to be.

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  2. What a strange coincidence that I just saw this book at my favourite charity shop this weekend. I've known about this book for a while now and I think I saw a bit of the tv adaptation. I don't really know much about Native American history (apart from the little I learnt in museums when I visited the States years ago) so it is something I really want to know more about.

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    1. I did not know there was a TV adaptation - I will have to look into that!

      Just based on my general knowledge of your interests, I think you would really enjoy learning more about Native American culture and history.

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  3. Reading books like this is painful but important.

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  4. I've been meaning to read this one for years, but I always end up just listening to the Indigo Girls song of the same name, instead. Not quite the same, but still a great song...it always seems to radiate such anger.

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    1. Whoa, I was completely unaware of that pop culture link! Will have to look into the song. Thanks!

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  5. I've always been like 'DAMN THE COLONISERS!' without really having much idea of what went down, so I do really really want to read this at some point. I definitely agree that it sounds like an important read, even if it is kind of, you know, depressing and horrible and stuff. Cause, you know, history is important!

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    1. History IS important! And, so often, depressing and horrible and stuff ;-)

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  6. I think Black Americans were so much more a part of the economics of America (and such a HUGE population) that they couldn't be ignored. Plus, you know, they had nowhere else to go or no one culture to really isolate themselves around. Unless you count Liberia.

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    1. I don't know if I agree with that. Native Americans were a pretty huge population at the get-go and could have had the same economic impact. And I don't think the Native Americans had many other places to go, either - they just kept going west, but that obviously stopped working.

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  7. I read this years ago, I was still in school I think, and it is one that stays with you.
    Actually that was something I meant to reference in my review of The Way of Thorn & Thunder. It brought back instant memories of Bury My Heart, especially the parts dealing with the Trail of Tears.

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    1. I imagine that it would! I wish that book had been more of a success with you.

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    2. I do too! :)
      I did like the idea and some of the execution was good. I think the message overwhelmed the story though.

      However the sense of desperation in Heath Justice's version of the Trail of Tears was very well done.

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  8. I have never read this, and feel the need to. I think that the fact that this all took place so fiercely and devastatingly really is what gives this book power. It's terrible that it had to happen at all, and the fact that you mention that there is a collective forgetting or ignorance about the Native Americans and their plight really kind of makes me angry. I am glad that you put this book back on my radar. It fell off long ago, and I feel that it's a very important read. This was an intense and very well written review!

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    1. Thank you, Heather! I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

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  9. That would be horrible if you all keep forgetting. It's a part of US history, a big part, and not always a nice part

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    1. Yes, it's hard to learn about history in an objective way here.

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  10. What a beautiful review, Aarti! I have always found it baffling that our government has never, in any way, acknowledged the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans. :-( I've been meaning to read this book for years -- I should make a point of getting to it soon.

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    1. It's true. We did acknowledge slavery, but not nearly so much the horrors against the Native Americans.

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  11. Thanks, Aarti, for an excellent review. I am glad you read it to balance the one on Manifest Destiny. I think native Americans may be less interested in politics than African Americans, so are less visible. Thomas King's The Truth about Stories, is a more hopeful account by a Native American and the choices they have made. Also Momaday's Way to Rainy Mountain.

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    1. Ooh, I loved the other book by King I read, so I'll be sure to look into this one! Thanks for the recommendation.

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  12. Excellent review, Aarti. While I agree that it's a shameful time in our history, the racial politics are also a bit of given at the time - and all times, in fact. There's always been the Them and the Us, just defined by country, by color, by education, by class. Someday I hope we all get past that but I'm not holding my breath.

    And now I have to re-read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee because I think it's been decades.

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    1. See, I just don't like that excuse. If we are getting better slowly with time, then surely part of that getting better requires acknowledgement of the past. We don't get better by ignoring what we did before and just becoming more open-minded going forward. You have to know what happened before to prevent it.

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  13. I read it years ago when in college and occasionally threaten to re-read it, I was both very upset and very angry by the end of the book.

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    1. Those are completely normal reactions!

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  14. What an essential read. I think my copy is like yours, which hasn't inspired me, either, to pick it up, but I should! At two literary events I attended this week/end, the inimitable MC (Shelagh Rogers) began by welcoming attendees and immediately thanking the original inhabitants of this particular part of land (the Mississauga tribe) for their stewardship of the land, which reminded me how such a simple statement is such a powerful reminder that where we all sit now is on land with a long (and often brutal and unjust) history. Imagine if we are reminded of this fact in ordinary situations more often!

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  15. I read this a few years ago though I admit I didn't get through the whole thing, it made me too sad! I knew more or less what happened, but to get close-ups of the people who had no regard for others, who acted so destructively, so inhumanely, was oh so painful. Not to mention the close-ups of those who suffered. I cannot believe that history was so brutal and yet what is left of this beautiful culture lives on reservations.

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  16. Great review, Aarti. It has been a while since I've read this book but it sits on my shelf along with In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and theMemory of Fire trilogy, two other books about native people of North and Latin America.

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  17. Just spotted this post on Metafilter : http://www.metafilter.com/121269/When-the-lights-go-out-for-good-my-people-will-still-be-here-We-have-our-ancient-ways-We-will-remain

    It is about a National Geographic piece on Wounded Knee & the Oglala Lakota people living on the Pine Ridge reservation. Haven't read it all yet, but it looks like it might be of interest.

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  18. Sorry, forgot my html. This is the metafilter post.
    I'd recommend taking a look at it, usually some good discussion on the blue.

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  19. I don't think I've ever been motivated to read this book until now - thanks, Aarti.

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  20. I'm glad you're sticking to that reading goal of finding the opposing viewpoints of Lions of the West! I'm just going to start adding things you've read to my TBR list to get around to eventually!

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