Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee

I can’t really remember when I became interested in Red Indians, or to be more precise, Native American Indians. In a way it was an interest in philosophy and the meaning of life that led me to them. I liked the idea of the Great Spirit and the Mother Earth. Those intrinsic ideas of nature and faith greatly appealed to me and showed me a different Indian to the one I have seen on feature films, here was a thoughtful race, in tune with nature. A speech made in 1854 by Chief Seattle has always moved me and in part says this:

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.

What more eloquent description of the world and man’s place in it could there be?

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is a book by Dee Brown published in 1970. It is a sad book telling a sad tale of murder, lies and ethnic cleansing. It tells the story of a proud race of people driven from their homes by invaders from Europe and forced to leave behind their homes, their memories and their traditions. Much of the book is in the actual words of the Indians whose words were taken down in treaty meetings and councils, by government stenographers.

Columbus arrived in the new world in 1492 and he described the natives at ‘tractable and peaceable’ yet in less than a decade Spaniards had looted and burned villages in their search for gold and treasure, kidnapped men, women and children for sale as slaves and destroyed entire tribes. Things were similar on the east coast of the country. Englishmen landed in 1620 and found the natives friendly and even helpful. They would probably have died during their first winter in America had the natives not showed the newcomers where and how to fish and how to cultivate and plant corn. For several years the Indians and the new white settlers lived in peace but then more and more settlers arrived and settlements in the place the newcomers called New England became more crowded.

in 1625 some of the colonists asked the Indians for more land. The Indians who knew that the land came from the Great Spirit and belonged to no one went through a ceremony to give the English more land. It was more to humour these strange men that the Indians did so but it was the first deed of Indian land to English colonists.

When Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags died in 1662, his people were being pushed back into the wilderness as so many more Englishmen arrived and their settlements became bigger. The New Englanders flattered the new Indian chief Metacom and crowned him ‘King’. Metacom though made new alliances with other Indian tribes and in 1675 began a war to save the tribes from extinction. The firepower of the colonists however overwhelmed the Indians and Metacom was killed and his head publicly displayed at Plymouth for the next twenty years. His wife and son were sold into slavery.

Over the next two hundred years these events were repeated time and time again as the colonists moved ever westwards. In 1829 Andrew Jackson took office as President of the United States.. He suggested setting an ample district of the country, west of the Mississippi, to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes. On May 28th 1830 Jackson’s recommendations became law. Two years later he appointed a Commissioner of Indian Affairs to see this was carried out and then on June 30th 1834 Congress passed An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes and to Preserve Peace on the Frontiers. All the land west of the Mississippi and not part of Missouri, Louisiana or Arkansas would be Indian country. Also, no white persons would be able to trade in the Indian country without a licence and no white persons would be allowed to settle on Indian lands. However, a new wave of settlers surged west and formed the territories of Wisconsin and Iowa and so the Indian frontier was shifted even further west.

At the beginning of the 1860’s the American Civil War began. Perhaps the Indians hoped the white men would destroy each other but it was not to be. The colonists wanted more and more land and the Indians had to cede more and more to the newcomers until there was nothing left for them to give. One thing they would not give was the Black Hills.

The Black Hills were sacred to the Indians. Paha Sapa was the centre of the world, the place where warriors went to speak with the Great Spirit and await visions and where the spirits of their ancestors dwelt. In 1868 the Great Father, the President, considered the hills worthless and gave them to the Indians forever by treaty. Four years later the cry of ‘gold’ was raised and miners and pan handlers made a bee line for the hills. Many were killed or chased out by the Indians but by 1874 gold crazy prospectors were making such a hue and cry that the army decided to send soldiers to the area for a reconnaissance. A thousand pony soldiers of the 7th cavalry marched into the area  commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. Custer had years before slaughtered Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyennes. Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux was not happy. He made complaints to the Great Father in Washington but their response was to send negotiators to buy the Black Hills. Councils were set up with the chiefs of all the tribes in the area but the word was firm. The Black Hills had an importance to the tribes that went beyond money. They would not sell.

The negotiators packed up and returned to Washington. Their recommendation? That congress ignore the wishes of the Indians, take the land and pay a ‘fair equivalent of the value of the hills.’ to the Indians.

On December 3rd the Commisioner of Indian Affairs ordered all Indians to report to their reservations by January 31st. This was impossible as all the tribes were at their winter lodges and many were searching for game to assist with their meagre rations. A mixed band of Oglala Sioux and Northern Cheyennes were hunting Buffalo in the Powder River area. On March the 17th they were asleep in their lodges when a company commanded by Captain James Egan charged through the sleeping camp. At the same time a second troop of cavalry came in from the left flank while a third swept away the Indians’ pony herd. Many were killed. The Indian Teepees were burned with everything inside and the survivors were left with nothing, no food or weapons and only the clothes they were wearing. Later that night while the soldiers camped, the survivors returned and stole back their horses, then without adequate food or clothing they made their way to the camp of Crazy Horse. The Oglala chief took in the survivors and gave them food and shelter.

As the weather warmed the Sioux and Cheyenne decamped in accordance with their treaty rights as hunters. Several thousand Indians of many tribes came together. After an engagement with the forces of General Crook the chiefs decided to move to the valley of the Greasy Grass, or as the Americans called it, the Little Big Horn.

Some minor battles with other US cavalry groups had occurred before the  Little Big Horn engagement, notably with Major Reno. It seems that when the Indians attacked Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Custer meant to break back south and meet up with major Reno’s forces not knowing that they had already been beaten back by Indian forces. Custer also apparently did not realise the true scale of the Indian forces. Five of the 7th Cavalry’s 12 companies were annihilated and Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law. The total US casualty count included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded (six died later from their wounds).

After the battle the tribes hunted and feasted. Generals Crook and Terry would not attack again until reinforcements arrived. By then, many of the tribes had left for their own reservations and lands and the huge force that had existed before was gone. The Sioux were finally defeated by General Miles in 1877. Threatened with starvation the tribes were forced to finally sell the Black Hills.

One last sad story is one that gave its name to the title of Dee Brown’s book. In December of 1890 a band of Lakota Indians were escorted to the Wounded Knee creek where they camped. The next day Major Whiteside’s regiment was replaced by soldiers of the newly built up regiment once commanded by Custer and now led by Major James Forsyth. Forsyth decided to disarm the Indians and had his troops surround them. He had new Hotchkiss guns set up on a hill to cover the camp.  It is not certain what happened but the next morning one Indian was reluctant to give up his rifle. Soldiers tried to seize the rifle and a shot was heard. Perhaps it was the Indian, Black Coyote, perhaps not. Soldiers then opened fire, shooting indiscriminately. Fighting began but as only a few of the Indians had weapons they were forced to flee. Then the Hotchkiss guns on a hill overlooking the area opened fire, raking the teepees and killing women and children and anyone in their path. 153 were known to be dead but many died later from their wounds.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells of the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Arapaho, the Brules, the Cherokees, the Shoshone and hundreds of others, their names now forgotten. It tells of chiefs like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Standing Bear, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Cochise and many more. All are gone and few remembered but the Native Americans survive to this day. Many have adapted, many have changed. Most live in poverty on reservations described by observers as being like third world nations.

Today, the Sioux still ask for the return of their lands. In a 1980 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court found that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” It authorized a settlement now worth nearly $200 million, but ruled that it had no power to return the land. The Sioux live in poverty, yet they refused the pay out.

The Hills, the Indians say, are sacred soil, Wamaka Og’naka I’cante, the heart of everything that is, and not for sale.

The fight for the return of their lands goes on.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is still in print 48 years after its publication in 1970

For more information, read this article in the New York Times or this one on the PBSO news Hour page.

Enjoyed this post? Why not try my book Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977? Watch the video below for a quick taster or click the options at the top of the page for info or to buy!