The Heartbreaking, Transformative Effect of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

This past summer, as my wife and I drove through parts the American West, we visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota. During our brief stay in the park, we made the obligatory visit to the visitor’s center: to pick up maps, refill our water bottles, and perhaps to pick up a book or two from the bookstore. Unsurprisingly, one of the books on the shelves was Dee Brown‘s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I picked it up and turned, as I always do, whenever I find a copy of Bury My Heart in any bookstore anywhere, to the penultimate page, to a few sentences, which have always cut deep, right from the time when I read the book as a boy, when the word ‘Hotchkiss‘ came to stand for the first weapon of mass destruction I had encountered:

Whether or not Black Coyote had meant to shoot his gun, it gave the soldiers a signal to open fire. In the first seconds of violence, the sound of rifles was deafening, and the air was filled with powder smoke. Among the dying who lay sprawled on the frozen ground was Big Foot[Spotted Elk]. There was a short pause in the sound of arms while small groups of Indians and soldiers fought each other with knives, clubs, and pistol butts. But because most of the Indians had no weapons, they soon had to flee. Then the four big guns on the hill opened up on them, shredding the tepees with flying shrapnel, killing men, women, and children. [links added]

I had read Dee Brown’s searing story of the American West as a schoolboy (as a sixth or seventh grader). It wasn’t on any class’ reading list; rather, my brother had brought it back from the school library and thrust it into my hands, urging me to read it. I know why he did so; we used to often argue about the Cold War and its protagonists, and he thought my vision of the US was a little too rosy, a little too blinkered, a little too ignorant of its history. One of those rosy conceptions of the US centered around my understanding of the West, made up of too many Hollywood westerns, of handsome, Stetson-wearing cowboys who gallantly fought off bands of marauding, whooping, feathered, er, Indians.

I read the book at breakneck pace. The version I read had originally been a paperback; its shelf life extended by binding it with a material that was cardboard-like. I still remember the touch and feel of that tightly gripped copy, so distinct and transformative was that reading experience. My brother’s loan had the effect he had intended.

There are only a few books in our lives that can affect us so deeply that their reading marks a fundamental fracture of sorts in our understanding of the world we live in. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is on my little list. It won’t be displaced; indeed, it can’t.

If you’ve just read about Russell Mean‘s passing away, and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, and wondered why the standoff took place where it did, consider reading Brown’s classic. It still retains its ability to educate and enrage.

4 thoughts on “The Heartbreaking, Transformative Effect of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

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