Friday, December 05, 2014

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970)

My Debbie Downer book club (for which we only read depressing books) may have hit on our saddest book selection yet: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970). In fact, this book is so sad that I'm the only member of the four person book club that was able to cry my way through the whole thing. That shouldn't reflect badly on my fellow book club members though, while this book is important and enlightening and well-researched and I'm so glad I read it, it is hard. Some chapters physically hurt to get through. I'm glad I did, and I honestly feel changed by it, but I wouldn't want to read it again.

Brown takes us from about 1850 to about 1890, and covers tribes primarily west of the Mississippi river. Part of what makes the book so extra depressing is the repeating pattern of betrayal, misunderstanding, violence, and inhuman treatment. It happens over and over and over again, to tribe after tribe after tribe. Even when there is a glimmer of hope in a sympathetic general or helpful interpreter, it never ends up anything but extremely sad.

Because of what was going on in our current often very sad world while I was reading this book, I couldn't help but make a connection between the treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century (and beyond, really) and the treatment of African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and elsewhere. The troops who violently attacked tribes in the 19th century were often decommissioned Civil War soldiers who needed something to do in order to keep the war budget up. They had lots of guns and not a lot of enemies and their actions were exacerbated by exaggerated stories of the danger of the Native Americans. They often felt threatened when there was no threat, blamed any group of natives that they saw for the actions of unrelated people, and took actions as mob that they may never have done as individual men.

Since I'm the only one of my book club that read the whole book, I suggested a couple of chapters that we read together to discuss. If you don't feel like you can take the whole thing on, you might also check out Chapter 8 ("The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa," about an actual Native American head of Indian Affairs) and Chapter 16 ("The Utes Must Go!" which features the same general sad story as other tribes but with an interesting media twist and a rather bizarre agent. I'm also pretty fascinated with the second half of chapter 18: The Dance of the Ghosts (starting on page 431 in my copy with "In the Drying Grass Moon...").

So, yes, this is rough stuff, but I learned so much about the history of our country and the things that happened in the region of the country where I grew up. It might take you a while, but this one is worth the hurt.

No comments: