Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ~ Dee Brown

With its powerful narrative voice, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, reads like fiction, but tragically, the book’s content is all painfully true. This heartbreaking 1970 classic, subtitled An Indian History of the American West, conveys, according to the Washington Post, “not how the West was won, but how it was lost.”

My copy sits beside me now, dog-eared to death, pages browned with time and coffee spills. Dates and names highlighted include such beautiful and poetic calendar terms as Time of the Big Leaves, Yellow Leaves Moon, and Moon When the Chokecherries Are Ripe.


Such beauty aside, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. There are chapters I can’t bear to re-read, and many of today’s words have been hard to write. But since we at Wildflower Junction, whether authors, readers, guests and commenters, love the American West, this book is not to be missed. The title comes from the last “Indian War” in December 1890 –the Moon When the Deer Shed —against the vastly outmatched Minneconjou (Sioux) chief Big Foot at Pine Ridge, South Dakota.  (This “battle” deserves its own blog post sometime.)

The TV and movie Westerns of my childhood often presented Indians as bloodcurdling enemies out to massacre innocent settlers. The occasional good “brave” was a mono-syllabic caricature, often a doofus.  No American history class I’d ever taken explained the truth about “Manifest Destiny.”  Maybe because we couldn’t handle the truth?  As a youth himself, Dee Brown bore a reaction similar to mine.  He did something about it.  A born researcher, he wrote this well-documented book of America’s westward expansion through the eyes and words of the great chiefs, vividly explaining four hundred years of injustice, broken treaties, and betrayal.

I hope things are different in classrooms now. No teacher or professor ever told me the complete truth about, say, Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868). I knew him as a national hero –his expeditions through the Rockies made him such. His first two wives were Indian. Yet in 1864, he relentlessly hunted down a group of Navajo. Not content with destroying their hogans (homes) and livestock, he chopped down their carefully tended grove of peach trees.

No one ever told me about the horrors of Sand Creek, Colorado, where friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children were mutilated by the Cavalry. Or of  Fort Robinson in Nebraska gifting a camp of Cheyenne, Lakota and Oglala with blankets infected with smallpox.

Or of Palo Duro Canyon, The Place of Chinaberry Trees. Only a few white men knew of this well-hidden north Texas canyon in the late summer of 1874. Without fear and stocked with food to last until spring, Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne sought sanctuary from the whites. Almost two thousand horses shared rich grass with the buffalo.  On September 26, the Bluecoats descended upon them, the warriors holding off long enough for their women and children to escape. But by days’ end, General Ranald “Three Fingers” Mackenzie rounded up the tribes’ treasured horses and had more than a thousand ponies shot to death. (In a subsequent book, I learned that the horse-loving Cavalry greatly resisted these orders, and that the slaughter of the terrified beasts took more than eight hours to complete.)

From the Nez Perce of the Pacific Northwest, I learned their poignant history in a personal way because my husband’s relatives hail from this area. Of the many massacres and betrayals in the book, I elected today to share a bit about the Nez Perce’s heartrending struggle.

As with Squanto who helped the Pilgrims in 1620 and the Taino who treated Christopher Columbus like a god in 1492, the Nez Perce tribe met the white man in peace. In 1805, the tribe saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from starvation and dysentery, fed and welcomed them, and tended their horses for months while the Corps of Discovery explored the Pacific shore. The Nez Perce themselves would gain recognition for their Appaloosa horses.  For seven decades of friendship, the Nez Perce proudly declared they had never shed white blood.

Their home turf was Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, the Valley of Winding Waters. By the 1870’s, simply put, settlers and gold-seekers wanted the valley. Negotiations failed, treaties cast aside despite the Great Father, Ulysses S. Grant,  having promised the Wallowa to the Nez Perce “forever.”  In May 1877, the young Nez Perce peace chief Heinmot Tooyalaket (1840-1904) chose to lead the tribe to refuge in Canada, the “Grandmother’s Land” (referring to Queen Victoria), following in the footsteps of Sitting Bull. The whites called this young chief, Joseph. By all accounts, he was a highly respected peace chief among Indians and whites alike.

  The fleeing Nez Perce consisted of 800: 450 “noncombatants” and 250 warriors, and 2,000 horses. Outsmarting the U.S. Cavalry for 1,700 miles through the Bitterroot Mountains and Yellowstone country, the Nez Perce journey has been called the most brilliant retreat in American military history. Newspaper accounts of the day had Americans cheering them on.

However, the Nez Perce were severely weakened by the capture of many of their horses. In October, the weary Joseph and his band stopped to rest only 30 miles from their destination. By that time, U.S. reinforcements and sharpshooters had arrived. After five days in bitter snow, Joseph surrendered.


Then he delivered the most quoted of all the great chiefs’ speeches, of which I include a few lines.

“…I am tired of fighting… it is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. ..I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I will find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where he sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who translated Joseph’s heart-rending speech, resigned his commission not long after and became a powerful attorney who fought for the rights of the dispossessed.

When Joseph died September 21, 1904, exiled at the Colville Reservation in Washington State, his physician claimed “a broken heart” was the cause of death.  (photo below courtesy http://www.juntosociety.com)

His name, Heinmot Tooyalaket, translates as Thunder Rolling in the Mountains.

Listen for him. Read this book. Try to keep your eyes dry and your heart from cracking while you do.

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26 thoughts on “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ~ Dee Brown”

  1. Hi Tanya,
    Thank you for your blog. It’s been awhile since I read the book but I never forgot the sadness I felt at the time.

    Ignorance and fear is at the root of so much cruelty in the world. We like to think that we would have done things different back then, but the sad truth is we probably wouldn’t have. The government still breaks promises and we still react out of fear and ignorance. It’s part of the human condition.

  2. Hi Elizabeth and Vicki, indeed, there are no words. As I mentioned in the post, there are chapters I can’t even reread. It hurts so bad. Thanks for commenting. oxoxoxxo

  3. Margaret, you are so correct. Governments, including ours, often don’t do the right thing and sometimes, there’s no excuse for humankind either. So sad, so tragic. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Hi Tanya,

    Funny how the winners write the history. My husbanda nd I recently wanted Into the West, a TNT mini-series that on eons ago. It’s truly horrible the lengths the army and settlers went to to rid the land of the natives. And how no matter what, the natives believed there’d be a time when the white man left and everything would return to normal. Even worse, the way Indian schools were opened to integrate the natives, but it really just made the graduates novelties to the white people. We live very close to the Trail of Tears, which is highway now and you can visit Blue Springs, Ar. and see where the Cherokee and other tribes camped in an overhang of rock on their way to Oklahoma Territory. It’s almost haunting.

  5. Tanya,

    I want to thank you for doing this post. It touched my heart to know others have read this book. I have it myself and I read it once a year as a reminder of how the American Indian has been done.

    I truly hold sadness in my heart forever due to the injustices done.

    I am part of Olympus Films and Don Vasicek is the owner. He is doing a film on the Sand Creek Massacre.

    Check out his website


    The above link is a great resource. If you go under Videos there are some he has posted on there revealing from the elders what this was like.

    I am Executive Producer of this and I am trying to get funds to finish it. Please take a moment and check it out

    Thanks again Tanya.

    Walk in harmony,

  6. Hi Tanya,
    My family and I visited the Big Hole National Battlefield a few years ago on our way to Yellowstone. You are able to walk through the camp and see where it all happened. I wouldn’t go. I waited until my husband and daughter walked through. As they reappeared on the trail my husband had lost all his color (brown) and said I was the smart one. The impact was too much. Being a Native, he was really affected by this walk. I am too sensative to spirits and wouldn’t go. He got bombarded and it made him sick to his stomach. My daughter felt the same. It is a powerful place. One I won’t soon forget. Chief Joseph was an amazing person.
    I read your blog with so many tears, I had to shut it all down and come back an hour later to write this. I am glad you brought all this to light. It is amazing how many people still hate Indians.

  7. I still find it hard to see how any kind of moral person could do what the whites did to the native peoples of this country. The warped justification used for many actions is so far from reasonable, it is hard to believe people could honestly accept it. I remember when they taught about Custer and the Little Big Horn in school. Those terrible, sneaky indians and the poor brave soldiers who were slaughtered. It never rang true for me. Maybe I had been able to put the overall picture of broken treaties and mistreatment of friendly indians together in my mind even at that early an age and I just wasn’t buying the story. I think it is so much better now with the real circumstances coming out and more people paying attention to what really happened. I know not everyone believes or cares what the facts were, but at least more people know and are paying attention. I think it goes back to the country’s english background. England never had a problem with murdering anyone who got in the way of what they wanted, be they natives, Scots, Irish, Catholics, Indian.
    I have this book on my shelf, but have never made it all the way through. I will have to make a point of sitting down a seriously reading it all the way through. I have heard of most of the incidents from other sources. I truly feel it should be required reading for all high school American History students. The sooner they know the true history of our dealings with the Native Americans, the better. We also need to change the way we teach things like Thanksgiving in the earlier grades. A bit more of the truth needs to be included. And lets not even begin to consider the Disneyesque (is that a word?) treatment of Jamestown and Pocahontas in our history books. The INTO THE WEST mini-series was excellent in portraying what it was like for both settlers and native peoples in the drive west. It certainly dispels the idea that it was a glorious, easy picnic to be a pioneer.

    Thanks for a good, thought provoking post.

  8. Hi A.R.,thanks for sharing today. The Trail of Tears is another horror, another of so many. Ironically, the Native tribes, who didn’t understand the European concept of land ownership, were were almost always willing to share.

  9. Hi Mary J, I too weep. Thanks for sharing your heart today. I would some day like to vist the Big Hole, but like you, I doubt if I could bear it. Or at least not come back unscathed. These are spiritual places, aren’t they? Thanks for posting.

  10. Hi Patricia, always good to hear from you. I’ll have to find Into the West…it certainly sounds like I’d appreciate it. I absolutely agree taht Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee should be required reading. It is a difficult book to finish, but I hope you do. A life-changer. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Hi Tanya,

    I started Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee many years ago, and could not finish it. Maybe I will try it again. So much was done to the Indians, it is unbelievable. My gr gr gr grandfather was taken from his tribal family and given to a Presybterian minister to be raised. They changed his name to David Walls. They sent him to medical school in Missouri to become a doctor. I don’t know if he ever saw his real family again or not, after he was taken and “adopted”–actually, during that time period when that was happening, the government was paying white people a stipend to take the “savages” into their homes and raise them to make them civilized. If you have ever read The Education of Little Tree, that is similar to what they did to my grandfather. That’s just on my mom’s side of the family…LOL I am going to try to read Dee Brown’s book again. Hopefully I will be able to get through it. It is just so so sad.
    Cheryl P.

  12. Oh, Cheryl, what a terrific but sad part of your family history. But awesome fodder for a book. A good way to honor your grandfather. I know, the Indians were always considered “savages”… yet how they treasured and respected the earth as their mother.

  13. Dee Brown is a great author. Imagine having to immerse yourself in those horrible stories in order to write that powerful book. I feel badly for you even writing this blog about it! The sadness just seems to seep into you. Sometimes story tellers are truly heroes for not letting the world hide or forget these tragedies.

  14. Thanks, Judy H. It almost killed me to write about the Palo Duro ponies. The US Gov’t made a token donation of several ponies to the tribes a few years ago as a symbol of regret. I just cannot even imagine the terror of those precious creatures.

    In my first book, I had a secondary character, an Oglala woman who had survived the smallpox, and a critic ripped me for including history that had no business in the story. No business?

    Thanks so much for posting. IMO Chief Joseph is one of the greatest American heroes.

  15. Tanya,
    You’re right, those of us who love the West can’t ever forget that before the white man arrived, there were people here. When we now look back on that horrific period, we can’t believe how brutally the Native people were treated. It is truly heartbreaking. Chief Joseph was an amazing leader.
    Thank you for a great post.

  16. Hi Deb, thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, Joseph will always live in my heart. oxoxox

    Oliver Otis Howard (the one-armed general who hunted him down) often said Joseph was one of America’s greatest generals. He just fought for the “wrong” side. Grrrrrrrrr.

  17. I read this a long time ago, but even the small quote you have here sent a shiver up my spine. It is so sad, yet elegant.

  18. Tanya, you know how I feel about the Nez Perce having grown up in their beloved Wallowa Country. Their flight to Canada is the focus of my third spirit trilogy book. All my research to wrete this trilogy has made the tribe even more special to me. This was a moving post.

  19. Tanya, this sounds like a book I should read, but I don’t know if I could. So much cruelty and tragedy took place in the settling of our continent, from East to West. All we can do is remember the good too.

  20. Hi Paty, yes, your love for the people sure shows up in your series. I love Spirit of the Mountain. Thanks for the compliment. You’re one person that I hoped liked it. oxoxox

  21. Hi Jennie, always so good to see you here. Yes, it is a difficult, heart-rending book and hard to get through. But sure taught me things I’d never have known any other way. oxoox

  22. I am an old man now. I am retired Marine with over 20 years in the Corps. Have seen and done many things. Read this book when I was a teenager. As I think of the glories of combat I thimk of the loss. Out of thousands of books I have read this one story frquently enters my mind. I put down my guns when I retired and often I say to myself “I buried my heart at Wounded Knee and I will fight again no more” Not an accurate quote but stays in my mind. As I grow old I use it to explain to my Marine son why I no longer pickup weapons – they are weapons to me and not guns for play. I hold one and remember things best left in the past. Guess I would have understood Chief Joseph.

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