Dee Brown begins Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee with an overview of the major political forces in North America during the second half of the 19th century. During this period, the United States emerged from the Civil War battered on the one hand, and yet with its military and government more powerful than they’d ever been before. The government began to expand into the western half of North America, the territory it had gained in the Mexican American War of the 1840s. The U.S. government sent waves of settlers out to the Midwest and California, but much of the land west of the Mississippi was—according to treaties the U.S. government itself had proposed and signed—the property of Native American tribes.
Confronted with this problem, the U.S. government in many cases blatantly violated its own treaties and forced Native American tribes to relocate to small, desolate reservations in places where no white settlers wanted to go. Naturally, there were many Native American tribes that resisted the military’s relocation project. In each chapter of the book, Brown discusses a different tribe and its troubled history of resistance against the United States military.
In many ways, the Navaho tribe of the Southwest fared better than almost any other Native American tribe in the 19th century. The Navahos had for centuries raided Mexican communities, but after the U.S. acquired a swath of Mexican land, it sent troops to protect its new citizens from the Navahos. Kit Carson, a military commander and explorer, was tasked with uprooting the tribe and relocating it to Bosque Redondo, a miserable reservation. In the mid-1860s, a Navaho chief named Manuelito began to resist Carson. Manuelito led his people across the Southwest, giving up only when they ran out of food. In part, his people went hungry because the U.S. military burned all Navaho land and slaughtered Navaho livestock.
In the 1860s, the Santee Sioux in the North were led by a chief named Little Crow. Little Crow began to lead his people against the U.S. when he realized that his ancestors had been pressured into signing deceptive land treaties that forced the Santee onto tiny reservations. He led raids on white settlements, but he eventually had to lead his followers north into Minnesota to escape punishment. Little Crow eventually surrendered to the military, and he and his men were sentenced to death.
In the 1860s, violence broke out between the Cheyenne tribe and the U.S. military. After the murder of an innocent Cheyenne warrior, the Cheyennes mounted attacks on U.S. troops. The conflict culminated in the Sand Creek Massacre, during which the U.S. army murdered hundreds of women and children. Black Kettle, the Cheyenne chief, agreed to give up his lands and relocate to a reservation. Around the same time, a Hunkpapa chief named Sitting Bull learned of the massacre. He and dozens of other important chiefs realized that the U.S. government was trying to wipe out the Native American population, and the only option left to them was to fight back.
Following the end of the Civil War, the government sent negotiators to Native American tribes in order to convince the chiefs to give up their people’s land rights. One such chief was Red Cloud, leader of the Sioux. Red Cloud reluctantly negotiated with government officials. However, when he realized that white settlers were already violating the peace treaty, he began a guerilla war against the American army. Red Cloud’s example inspired Cheyenne warriors to begin their own war with the U.S. Red Cloud eventually surrendered to the military and signed a peace treaty giving up Sioux land. Meanwhile, the Cheyennes continued to fight, led by Roman Nose. However, even Roman Nose was forced to surrender. The Cheyennes’ most important leaders were now dead or imprisoned.
In the 1870s, the Apache tribe in the Southwest mounted its own resistance to the U.S. Although the Apaches were at first eager to maintain peace, the Apache chief Cochise became furious when he realized that his people were going to be forced off their lands. Cochise led attacks on white settlements, but after his death in 1874 the Apache resistance was temporarily weakened.
The Modocs of Oregon had been a peaceful tribe for centuries, even after they’d been relocated to California. But by the 1870s, they were starving because white settlers had deprived them of so much of their land and food. Kintpaush, the Modoc chief, led his people to the California Lava Beds. He begged the U.S. government to be allowed to return to Oregon with his people. The government refused, on the grounds that some young Modocs had been involved in a raid on American soldiers. Furious, Kintpaush killed Colonel Edward R. S. Canby during a negotiation. He was arrested and executed for the crime. Afterwards, however, the Modocs were allowed to return to Oregon.
The Kiowa tribe was led by Satanta and Lone Wolf, two powerful chiefs. However, the Kiowa way of life was under attack, as white settlers slaughtered millions of buffalo. In response, Lone Wolf led an army against white settlers encroaching on Kiowa land. His resistance continued for years, but in the end, he was forced to surrender, and from then on the Kiowas were a “broken people.” In Nebraska, the Sioux tribe suffered a similar fate. White settlers discovered valuable gold mines, and the government tried to convince Sioux chiefs to surrender the “mineral rights” to their land. However, the Sioux chief Crazy Horse led a guerilla resistance to the U.S. military in the area. His resistance culminated in the Battle of Little Bighorn, during which Crazy Horse defeated the army led by General George Armstrong Custer. However, Crazy Horse was arrested just one year later and fatally stabbed.
The Ute tribe had been peaceful for many years, but following a series of misleading treaties in the 1870s, the U.S. military began forcing the Utes off of their land. Incensed, a group of Utes murdered Nathan C. Meeker, the government commissioner in charge of the Utes. Afterwards, some Utes were tried and convicted of murder, and the rest of the tribe was relocated to Utah. During the same decade, the last of the great Apache chiefs, Geronimo, surrendered to the U.S. after years of guerilla warfare. He died shortly afterwards.
For years, Sitting Bull had led a resistance movement of Sioux warriors. But in the late 1870s, he led his people north into Canada. After his men began to starve, he was forced to come back into the U.S. There, he began an unlikely career as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However, he remained a living symbol of Native American resistance. Near the end of his life, Sitting Bull became a major proponent of the Ghost Dance movement, a de facto Christian sect that incorporated Native American ritual into its practices. Sitting Bull was arrested for supporting the Ghost Dance movement, and in the struggle he was shot and killed.
Following Sitting Bull’s murder, his followers were arrested and taken down to Wounded Knee Creek. There, soldiers disarmed the Native Americans. However, an elderly, partly deaf Native American, Black Coyote, waved his rifle in the air, complaining that he’d paid too much money for it. U.S. troops responded to this supposed act of aggression by opening fire, and a few moments later they’d murdered more than three hundred unarmed men, women, and children. The Wounded Knee Massacre is often considered the symbolic ending of the Native American resistance to U.S. expansion.