Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – Classics Club, Back to the Classics

The Rose Garden cover

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown was first published in the UK way back in 1971 but the copy I read, in a very tightly bound and therefore difficult to read paperback edition was published in 1975 which is when Jack bought it, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since then, so I put it on my Classics Club list, to encourage me to get on with it. I also read it for Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge.

What can I say other than I’m really glad that I read this book, but it was so depressing. The American politicians of the day were so duplicitous, cruel and greedy and the First Nation Indians were so trusting, honest, dignified and forgiving – it was only ever going to end in tears for them.

Hunted like animals all over the country, by men who were no better than gangsters, whether in uniform or not and who conveniently didn’t even see the Indians as human beings. It was the Europeans who originally started scalping people, but the Indians who got blamed for it.

With settlers, gold rushers, corrupt government land agents and soldiers seeking glory it was only a matter of time before the First Nation people were either killed fairly quickly, or slowly by starvation as they were corralled in reservations (concentration camps) which had such poor land they couldn’t grow crops and all the animals had been frightened off or killed by hunters for their skins.

I must admit that after reading this book I’ll never see American settlers in quite the same light again, although to be fair they were also at times the victims of corrupt land agents. They must have known that they were usurping the original inhabitants of the land though.

It’s very true to say that history is written by the victors, which is why so many people believe that the American War of Independence was about a tax on tea. It wasn’t, it was about the fact that the British government had promised the First Nation people that they wouldn’t expand westward into their territory. That was something that the American politicians and businessmen were desperate to do – for profit of course. So they had to get rid of the British to get on with their expansion plans. A people with not much more than bows and arrows plus a strong tradition of caring for their land in what we nowadays see as a conservationist fashion just didn’t fit in to the American way.

This is an absolutely heartbreaking read with entire tribes being wiped out, ethnic cleansing is the euphemism now, but I’m very glad that I got around to it at last.

12 thoughts on “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – Classics Club, Back to the Classics

  1. It does sound depressing but then the truth often is. I read another book a few years ago – a factual book – that suggested the American War of Independence was because the Brits were planning to abolish the slave trade and the settlers wanted to keep slavery going. I guess there were probably lots of reasons, but the taxation one does sound like a bit of an excuse to cover up some unpalatable history.

  2. The thing about history is that it makes me wish time travel was possible so I could go back in time and find out how people like the settlers rationalized things. As is true of many times in history, they were basically good people that did things we are shocked by. I wonder how any conquering people convinces themselves that they are in the right when they are doing things like driving people out of their land. No country’s history can really stand up to examination which is heartbreaking in many ways.

    • Jennifer,
      That’s so true and in the UK anyway we’re the result of a hotch-potch of invaders most of whom settled here. Since reading this book I’ve thought about the part in one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books – the father built their cabin right next to an Indian trail, the kids pointed it out but he said it was an old one. Then a couple of ‘Indians’ terrified them by entering the cabin, staying a while and stealing some tobacco. I think they would have regarded that as fair enough given that their land had been stolen!

  3. This is one of those books that I’ve heard of but never read and didn’t really know what it was about. I’m not sure I could bring myself to read it right now but maybe someday. I have a daughter with a PhD in colonial religious history, and as she reminds me often, historians are among the most cynical of people. History only repeats itself, and we don’t seem to learn enough from it to not repeat mistakes. But, we keep hoping…..

    • Paula,
      Politicians in particular seem either to know nothing of history or are so arrogant that they think they can do better than the people of the past. One old Prime Minister here said that the most important thing to remember was ‘never invade Afghanistan’ – but the modern day ones keep trying!
      I am not religious but I can imagine that colonial religious history would end up being quite a big thesis!

    • tracybham,

      I could be wrong but I think back in the 1970s some people were just beginning to realise how badly the First Nation tribes had been treated. I’m glad that I got around to reading it at last anyway.

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