Monday, September 01, 2014

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee

I thought I had read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. In sooth, I confounded Wounded Knee with In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen’s book details the beginnings of the American Indian Movement. Brown’s book gathers rather anecdotally some historical moments of the Western Indians.

Dee Brown has often been thought an Indian. The misprision seems natural. He writes from the Indian point of view. He often refers to people by the names the Indians used for them: Long Hair (Custer), Three Stars (General Terry). Brown also depends heavily on statements and remembrances made by the Indians themselves. He lets them have their word, late as it may seem now.

The subject of course leaves one dispirited. Not only has this nation been ruthless in its treatment of the natives who were here, the history of the Indians has been allowed to shrink to a few episodes.

Surely I am not alone in having wondered as a youngster how the nice Indians who helped the Pilgrims in a few years were savagely trying to kill John Wayne. What happened? America the opportunity happened. Once the Pilgrims and others got a foothold on the land, they wanted more.

As the Eastern seaboard became established and colonists became less dependent on Europe, the vast expanses out West became more enticing (“the only nest is West”, as Charles Olson wrote). The Indians were wasting all that potential. They weren’t building cities, weren’t digging ore from the ground, weren’t settling down. Settlers came and took what they thought was not being used. Mercantile America. Has mercantilism declined since then? Uh, no.

So here we are with this history. And words are at the bottom of it all. Words given, treaties broken. There’s something not being heard.

Anyway, a number of the episodes in the book were new to me, and those I had previously read about were new by way of the different viewpoint. I think I read history to keep stupid assumptions and ignorant expectations in line.