During the period of time covered in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the United States government colonized much of North America using a mixture of political hypocrisy, racism disguised as patriotism, and outright violence. Native American tribes resisted this aggression in a variety of different ways. Some of them tried to use legal, political means to negotiate with government representatives, while others turned to forms of religious mysticism, such as the Ghost Dance movement. Experiencing the failure of peaceful resistance, however, many Native Americans turned to violence in retaliation for the injustices perpetrated against them. Though Brown does not suggest that all Native American violence was morally justified, he does make a nuanced distinction between white violence against Native Americans and Native American retaliation that aimed to protect their sovereignty. Because of this, Brown presents Native American violence as understandable, at the least, and perhaps often righteous.
The Native Americans’ peaceful means of resistance to the United States either failed or, even if they succeeded, failed to achieve more than a local, short-term victory. The Ghost Dance Movement of the late 19th century, for example, may have scored moral points against the expansion of the United States, but—as the atrocity of the Wounded Knee Massacre proves—it certainly didn’t halt this expansion. In addition, the Poncas’ legal victory of 1877 was one of the few times in 19th century when Native Americans triumphed in a U.S. court, despite that white Americans frequently broke their own laws and treaties in their treatment of Native Americans. The Poncas, who hadn’t yet been relocated to a reservation in Nebraska, won the freedom to live in a place of their choosing, but this victory only applied to one specific group of Poncas—not those who’d already been relocated (let alone Native Americans from other tribes). Thus, even somewhat effective peaceful means of resistance failed to disrupt the military tyranny at the core of the United States’ relationship with Native Americans in the 19th century.
In most of the cases Brown discusses in his book, the Native Americans resisted the U.S. with violence. In analyzing the various ways that Native Americans used violence against white soldiers and settlers, Brown makes a nuanced point about the ethics of violence, portraying the Native Americans neither as perfect nor barbaric, but instead as flawed human beings reacting out of rational self-interest to a dire, existential threat.
Although he studies many specific examples of Native American violence against the U.S. military, Brown never loses sight of the fact that this violence was fundamentally defensive and retaliatory. Native Americans were fighting a foreign civilization that was trying to destroy them and claim their lands. By the 1860s, white settlers regularly violated the United States’ own treaties with Native American tribes, hunting and building fortresses on lands that the U.S. government had promised to leave aside for Native Americans. In the second half of the 19th century, furthermore, the U.S. military became increasingly bloodthirsty in its interactions with Native Americans (in part, some historians have argued, because of the “precedent of violence” established during the Civil War). American soldiers murdered Native American children, sometimes for nonsensical, trumped up “crimes” and sometimes for no reason whatsoever. Confronted by a hostile, heavily armed power that refused to play by its own rules, many Native American leaders chose to respond in kind. They burned white settlements and in some cases murdered white children.
While Brown makes it clear that Native Americans’ violent resistance to the United States was retaliatory, he never argues that this violence was entirely justified. The murder of children, whether by Native Americans or U.S. soldiers, can never be justified—either way, it’s a brutal act of terrorism. Brown also makes it clear that some of the Native American chiefs who fought back against the U.S. were sadistic and volatile by nature. Indeed, Brown strongly implies that one of the effects of the U.S. military’s violent expansion was to empower the more violent, headstrong Native American chiefs and silence the calmer, more reasonable chiefs—in desperate times, Native Americans sometimes turned to frightening, dangerous men to protect them. Even so, Brown seems to believe that much of the violence in the Native American resistance was justified. Derailing a supply train that passed through exclusively Native American territory, which many different tribes did in order to assuage their own hunger and discourage further white settlers from moving west, would seem to be a justifiable act of violence. Though they destroyed American property, it sent a clear message to the government without hurting anyone. Brown doesn’t offer much explicit discussion of the ethics of violence, but he makes a point of distinguishing between different kinds of violence against the United States. Furthermore, he emphasizes that—contrary to U.S. propaganda of the time—not all Native Americans were equally supportive of violence. In this way, he allows readers to make up their own minds about the history of Native American resistance.
At the core of Brown’s book is one fact about the United States government: following the Civil War, its mission was to kill or remove the Native American population. Brown discusses some peaceful means by which Native Americans attempted to resist, but these were almost always failures, or successful only in the short term. Native Americans were severely weakened by their lack of legal rights and political representation under U.S. law. They also had virtually no control over U.S. media, and therefore couldn’t fight back against the government in print (unlike Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most successful nonviolent resistors in history). Perhaps the Native Americans’ use of violence, while not always commendable, and sometimes utterly despicable, was in many cases understandable. The Native Americans tried using politics, law, civil disobedience, and religion to protect themselves from the United States—nothing worked. Tragically, violence was the only means left to them.
Resistance and Violence ThemeTracker
Resistance and Violence Quotes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
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.
Before that winter ended, half the luckless Galvanized Yankees were dead or dying of scurvy, malnutrition, and pneumonia. From the boredom of confinement, many slipped away and deserted, taking their chances with the Indians outside.
As for the Indians, all except the small bands of warriors needed to watch the fort moved over to the Black Hills, where plentiful herds of antelope and buffalo kept them fat in their warm lodges.
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.
For several months he debated what his next course of action should be. Above all he wanted to help the advancement of his race, but if he remained in office with political enemies constantly sniping at him because he was an Indian himself, he feared that he might do his people more harm than good. He also wondered if his continuance in office might not be a political embarrassment to his old friend President Grant.
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.
At a place known only to them they buried Crazy Horse somewhere near Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee.
The Poncas of Indian Territory had learned a bitter lesson. The white man's law was an illusion; it did not apply to them.
As the constant fighting continued, Victorio's hatred deepened. He became a ruthless killer, torturing and mutilating his victims. Some of his followers considered him a madman
"Indians!" Sitting Bull shouted. "There are no Indians left but me!"
“You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always,” the Messiah commanded. Preaching nonviolence and brotherly love, the doctrine called for no action by the Indians except to dance and sing. The Messiah would bring the resurrection. But because the Indians were dancing, the agents became alarmed and notified the soldiers, and the soldiers began to march.