Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee is a book about genocide, the deliberate and systematic murder of an ethnic group. The title of the book refers to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when U.S. troops marched hundreds of followers of Sitting Bull to Wounded Knee Creek, which is located inside the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. There, the troops shot and killed more than three hundred Native Americans, many of them children. While the government of the United States claimed that the massacre was an “accident,” supposedly set off because a single Native American man was waving his rifle, it’s almost impossible to imagine that such an incident could have caused three hundred accidental deaths. As Brown makes clear, the troops who marched the Native Americans to Wounded Knee despised Native Americans, and many of them relished a chance to hurt their enemies.
In the early chapters of his book, Brown discusses the United States’ motives for genocide. The U.S. had acquired a large amount of territory in the Mexican American War, and powerful elites wanted to use the land to build railroads, mine for gold, etc. The problem, of course, is that the land was already occupied by Native American tribes, many of which had been based in the same place for many centuries. Elites, then, had an economic incentive to support policies that would remove Native Americans from their land, either by relegating them to small, barren reservations where the quality of life was miserable, or by killing them.
Brown is careful to distinguish between different forms of genocide—in particular, between attempts to literally kill Native Americans, and attempts to systematically eradicate Native American culture and identity. In the former category, Brown lists several instances during which generals in the U.S. army were given instructions to murder Native Americans even if they hadn’t committed any crimes—for example, in Sand Creek in 1864. But Brown also discusses instances in which the United States practiced genocide by slower means. The military and the federal government supported white settlers’ efforts to slaughter buffalo, often with the explicit goal of depriving Native Americans of food. Furthermore, the military marched tens of thousands of Native Americans off of their homeland and onto a distant reservation; during these long marches, significant numbers of Native Americans died of exhaustion or hunger, largely because U.S. soldiers wouldn’t give them help of any kind. For those who made it to Native American reservations, life was difficult—the soil was dry, and there was almost never enough food. Without a doubt, the results of the Native American relocation process were genocidal. And in a great many cases, Brown shows, the process’s intent was genocidal, too. One American military commander said of the Santee tribe, which was starving on its tiny, barren reservation, “If they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” One of Brown’s key insights, then, is that the relocation process was not an alternative to extermination—it was just a slower, arguably crueler form of extermination.
Finally, Brown comments on the U.S. government’s acts of cultural genocide—in other words, its systematic attempts to wipe out Native American culture. To name one particularly horrifying example, Nathan C. Meeker, government agent in charge of the Ute tribe, made it his mission to wipe out the Ute language, Ute artistry, and Ute religion. He forced Ute children to attend English-language schools that trained them in agricultural work—a kind of labor alien to Ute society. More generally, one could even argue that the relocation of the Native Americans onto reservations was itself an act of cultural genocide, because many Native American societies attached enormous cultural importance to their land: to force the Native Americans to live on a reservation was, in a great many cases, to force them to live without a culture.
While Brown is highly critical of the United States during the 19th century, he’s emphatically not saying that all white Americans were genocidal during this era. Indeed, there are many instances in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee of white settlers and soldiers developing great respect and trust for Native Americans, and transcending the racism of the era. On a similar note, Brown never suggests that the U.S. government only supported genocidal policies. At times, it tried other means of dealing with Native Americans, such as negotiation, bribery, and intimidation. Nevertheless, Brown makes a convincing case that the fundamental, unalterable goal of the United States’ leadership during the second half of the 19th century was genocidal: to eliminate the Native American population either through murder or by relocating Native Americans to miserable reservations where the population would inevitably decrease. According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Toland, Adolf Hitler was a great admirer of the U.S. government’s Native American policies in the 19th century, and used them as a model for his own genocidal policies. After reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, it’s not hard to understand why.
Genocide Quotes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Before these laws could be put into effect, a new wave of white settlers swept westward and formed the territories of Wisconsin and Iowa. This made it necessary for the policy makers in Washington to shift the "permanent Indian frontier" from the Mississippi River to the 95th meridian.
Late in July Carson moved up to Fort Defiance, renamed it for the Indians' old adversary Canby, and began sending out reconnaissance detachments. He probably was not surprised that few Navahos could be found. He knew that the only way to conquer them was to destroy their crops and livestock—scorch their earth.
The superintendent examined the soil on the reservation and pronounced it unfit for cultivation of grain because of the presence of alkali. “The water is black and brackish, scarcely bearable to the taste, and said by the Indians to be unhealthy, because one-fourth of their population have been swept off by disease.” The reservation, Norton added, had cost the government millions of dollars.
Little Crow rejected their arguments. The white men were too powerful, he said. Yet he admitted the settlers would exact bitter vengeance because women had been killed. Little Crow’s son, who was present, said later that his father's face grew haggard and great beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
Truly, he thought, that nation of white men is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path. Soon they would take the buffalo country unless the hearts of the Indians were strong enough to hold it. He resolved that he would fight to hold it. His name was Tatanka Yotanka, the Sitting Bull.
As soon as his wound healed, George made his way back to his father's ranch. There from his brother Charlie he heard more details of the soldiers' atrocities at sand creek—the horrible scalpings and mutilations, the butchery of children and infants. After a few days the brothers agreed that as half-breeds they wanted no part of the white man's civilization.
Thus did the Cheyennes and Arapahos abandon all claims to the Territory of Colorado. And that of course was the real meaning of the massacre at Sand Creek.
The Indians who ambushed Fetterman were only imitating their enemies, a practice which in warfare, as in civilian life, is said to be the sincerest form of flattery.
Incidents such as this, combined with Red Cloud’s continuing war, which had brought civilian travel to an end through the Powder River country, had a strong effect upon the United States government and its high military command. The government was determined to protect the route of the Union pacific Railroad, but even old war dogs such as General Sherman were beginning to wonder if it might not be advisable to leave the Powder River country to the Indians in exchange for peace along the Platte Valley.
No lawyer represented the Modocs, and although they were given the right to cross-examine witnesses, most of them understood very little English, and all spoke it poorly. While the trial was in progress soldiers were constructing a gallows outside the prisoners' stockade, so there was no doubt as to what the verdict would be.
Of the 3,700,000 buffalo destroyed from 1872 through 1874, only 150,000 were killed by Indians. When a group of concerned Texans asked General Sheridan if something should not be done to stop the white hunters' wholesale slaughter, he replied: Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.
There was not enough to eat in this empty land—no wild game, no clear water to drink, and the agent did not have enough rations to feed them all. To make matters worse, the summer heat was unbearable and the air was filled with mosquitoes and flying dust.
It was the fourth day after Christmas in the year of Our Lord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into the candlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hanging from the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung a crudely lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.