Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dee Brown

Dee Brown was born in Louisiana, but grew up in rural Arkansas. As a child, he befriended a Native American pitcher on his local baseball team. This experience helped to teach Brown that Native Americans weren’t as violent or backward as they were often portrayed as being. Brown later studied at the Arkansas State Teachers College. During the Great Depression, he worked as a librarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In World War Two, he worked as a librarian for the Department of War. In the 1950s, Brown wrote several works of fiction and nonfiction in his spare time, though none was particularly successful. In 1970, however, he published his defining work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The success of this book allowed Brown and his wife to retire to Little Rock, Arkansas. He died in 2002.
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Historical Context of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

There are too many historical events in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee to name, but some important milestones include Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americans in 1492, the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. These three events tower over Brown’s book, representing, respectively, the beginning of the European colonization of America, the point at which the U.S. government escalated its military aggression against the Native American population, and the symbolic ending of the Native American resistance to white American imperialism. Other notable historical events covered in Brown’s book include the government’s expansion of the railroad system. In large part, the goal of this project was to allow settlers in the eastern United States to colonize the country and harvest its natural resources, including metal, grain, and buffalo. In order to pursue this project, the government sent in the military to evict Native Americans from their own land, and also propagated the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the notion that American citizens have the right or duty to colonize America “from sea to shining sea.” The U.S. government’s expansion provoked a strong backlash from the Native American population, the major episodes of which Brown describes in his book.

Other Books Related to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

The most important literary text alluded to in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1930 poem “American Names.” This poem concludes with the famous line, “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.” However, most critics doubt that Benet was alluding to the Wounded Knee Massacre. In general, one could argue, Benet’s poem is an optimistic and even naïve ode to the grandeur of American culture, ignoring the genocide and racism that underlay much of modern American history, which seems to be the opposite of Dee Brown’s project. Another important influence on Dee Brown’s book is Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1881 muckraking classic, A Century of Dishonor. Like Brown, Jackson paints a scathing picture of the United States’ relationship with the Native American population. Brown’s book was published at the time of the Native American Renaissance, a literary period during which Native American authors published many notable works that were acclaimed nationally and internationally. These include N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977), and the works of the Kiallam poet Duane Niatum. Finally, it’s worth comparing Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee to other works of social history from the 1970s and ‘80s. One of the most notable of these was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, much like Brown’s book, begins with critical look at the history of the colonization of America by European explorers.
Key Facts about Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
  • Full Title: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
  • When Written: 1967-1970
  • Where Written: Arkansas
  • When Published: Fall 1970
  • Literary Period: Native American Renaissance, Social History
  • Genre: nonfiction, history
  • Setting: Western United States, 1850s-1890s
  • Climax: The Wounded Knee massacre
  • Antagonist: The U.S. government, white settlers
  • Point of View: third person omniscient

Extra Credit for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

A high compliment? It’s telling that when Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was first published, many readers assumed that Dee Brow was himself a Native American. They seemingly couldn’t believe that a white American would be capable of writing such an emotional, sympathetic portrait of Native American history.

A prolific author. Dee Brown is remembered for one book, but he wrote dozens. He penned a blistering satire of New Deal America, a history of the Union Pacific Railroad, multiple Civil War adventure novels, and a fictionalized life of Davy Crockett. His personal favorite of his own books was The Year of the Century, a study of the state of America in 1867.