Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)

Dee Brown's classic and painstaking account of the catastrophes visited upon Native Americans of the U.S. West in the second half of the 19th century can be painful to read. It's engaging and thoroughly researched, and though it never breaks the fourth wall, filled with copious sources and citations, it's not very hard to read it as dark and angry. It sketches in its context from the beginning, with Christopher Columbus stumbling into the Bahamas and, believing he had reached India, naming the indigenous people he encountered (and kidnapped) "Indians" and putting them to work to win them their salvation. But the real genocide in the West—"real" meaning a systematic implementation of public policies—did not begin until the Civil War or shortly after. The 20-year period between 1871 and 1891 is when most of it happened and that's the story this book tells, simply laying out the facts. It's practically impossible to come away without some anger of one's own. That's as intended, and those not inclined to give the facts their due are likely to feel Brown's work is "manipulative" or even "self-serving." It's possible that the stories here might require some balance, whatever that means, and I think Brown's work here is scholarly and disinterested enough that one could as well turn to his bibliography for places to get what were once considered the more conventional views of the history of the times and places and peoples. If you want to start there, fine, but for what it's worth I recommend getting back here sooner or later. It's a quick, easy read full of fascinating stories—about the Navahos, Cheyennes, Lakota, Nez Perces, Apaches, and many more (including a good deal about perhaps the Native Americans' single greatest figure, Crazy Horse). You won't necessarily come away from any of it much impressed with the behavior of European Americans, but that's a worthwhile perspective too, and depending on one's own orientation, won't necessarily stay with you long—though it well might. Lots of massacres occur here, on both sides. Then it finishes with one of the saddest and most haunting episodes in American history, the pan-tribal embrace of the Ghost Dance. This book is not easy to forget.

In case it's not at the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment