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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Dee Brown


The history of Manifest Destiny written from the perspective of its victims.

This isn't an easy read. The central characters are all doomed from the start by their weakness and lack of understanding of what is motivating their other side. However, what comes through clearly is both the nobility of the Native Americans in the face of their own destruction, but also the cruelty and capriciousness that led the new settlers to misunderstand their motivations and desires.

Stronger than this, though, is the Victorian hypocrisy of the settlers and weakness of the US government during the period. As soon as there's any value perceived in Indian lands, treaties are torn up and "re-negotiated" to their detriment. These depredations are all accompanied by the most suffocating cant about what's good for the tribes, or how much value they'll obtain for giving up their "worthless" land. This is what makes the story resonate, for me. It's not that the Native Americans were dispossessed of their lands: that's normal practice in an invasion and, while possibly deplorable, is at least commonplace in history. What isn't common is to assert, apparently sincerely on some people's parts, that the dispossession is happening for the good of, or to the benefit of, the dispossessed. It shows the settlers as unable to conceive of the Indians as partners with whom one treats seriously -- never mind as equals -- and provides a fig leaf behind which to hide their direct or indirect destruction.

The government also comes through as weak, in the power of vested interests and cabals of plotters, and unable to enforce its decisions over space or time. The people on the ground almost always have a different perception -- sometimes better, sometimes worse -- of the situation, but the lack of control means that these perceptions are of no use in improving in the long term how the Native Americans are treated. Perhaps this was inevitable at the time: reading in our own time, however, it's hard to think of the federal government being so helpless against the States or even its own agents.

I think the question of whether it was even conceivable that Indians and settlers could have lived together peacefully remains largely unanswered and subject to too many imponderables: if the Indians had been left enough reservations, if the central government could have prevented settlements from encroaching, if the railroads could have gone through without conflict, then perhaps. The fact that none of these approaches were ever tried with any seriousness does no credit to those involved either locally or nationally.

5/5. Finished 05 October 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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