Dee Brown held several jobs, none of which are indicative of what was to come. He was a library assistant at the USDA, technical librarian for the War Department, librarian at the University of Illinois, and professor of library science there. In 1971,1 he took a great deal of research,passion, and dedication and, borrowing a line from a Stephen Vincent Benét poem,2 wrote an important book on the history of the American Indian: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian History of the American West.
Some have said that it was the first history (he concentrates on the thirty years from 1860-1890) to be told from an Indian perspective. While not strictly true, one cannot underestimate the impact of the book because it did something that no previous book did, it presented it in an easily accessible format for the general reader. It wasn't a history text to be relegated to classrooms in colleges and universities, but a popular edition that was available at your local bookstore. Not only a critical success3, but a popular one, it has sold over five million copies, one million of those in hard cover (no Stephen King, but impressive nonetheless) and been translated into fifteen languages.
For many readers (then, as now), the history of the Indian has not only been told by and from the point of view of the victor/conquerer, but came from other popular outlets like television, movies, novels, and comic books (admittedly a more important medium for the dissemination of culture in the past than it is today). In most cases the stories were totally fictional or fictionalized versions of "what happened." Information was usually inaccurate or misrepresented and Indian stereotypes would enhanced and perpetuated. They were savage,scalping heathens that had to be beaten back by the heroic soldiers and pioneers of the Old West. This book took all those images and stereotypes and set them aside to give a more objective history (sympathies noted). Indians were not one dimensional stock-characters from a mass produced western, they had families, feelings, philosophies and world views, prejudices, flaws—they were human just like the rest of us.
One of Brown's strong points was the research he did to not only give an accurate account of the stories but would give the statements and feelings of the people involved (on both sides) in their own words. A glance at the "Notes" section confirms this by showing that he went to the notes of treaty councils, congressional records, reports from government agencies, and autobiographies of those who are part of the story. Not only does this enhance the credibility and accuracy of the book, it functions to do something else: it allows him to tell it not as a dry history of facts and details hung on the skeleton of chronology, but as stories with all the dramatic elements that can (and should) be found in a good history book. This is at the heart of the book's popular success. The novelistic approach lets the reader "get into" the "characters" and the drama (and tragedy) of the stories. It also makes the impact all the more immediate—something that Brown wanted and the readers undoubtedly responded to (and continue to do so).
Accompanied by numerous photos of the people being written about about, Brown mainly tells about the events and history of the tribes of the plains during his time span (not to say it focuses strictly on there, as he deals with some tribes of the Southwest, the Northwest, and the Great Basin). Given the time period, that was where most of the remaining Indians could be found. Some have criticized that sometimes confusing chronology of the book. Not without merit but it deserves explanation. Since Brown is telling the stories of many tribes (the Sioux Nation—which was made up of many tribes ranging from Minnesota to Colorado, Apaches, Comanches, Modocs, Utes, Paiutes, Cheyenne, Arapahos, and other) in different locations, there is some necessary overlap in time between chapters. This can't be helped as historical events don't tend take place on a premeditated time schedule. The only way to avoid this would be to cut out the comprehensiveness of the coverage or to simplify much of the detail. That he refuses to do that is to the benefit of the reader.
To give more historical context, each of the nineteen chapters had a short list of dates contemporary to the "story" it contains (within reason, given what is noted above). Important events in the history of the United States are mentioned, some related to the events of the book, some not. Brown also begins each chapter with one or more quotations from Indians, often ones who are a part of the events in that chapter. He also reproduces some sheet music of Indian songs (with translation) form the Bureau of American Ethnology Collection. All these things, the words (and songs) of the Indians both at the beginning of the chapters and within the stories, the black and white photos, and the novelistic approach bring the history alive to the reader in a way no textbook ever can and with an impact no novel could.
After a short chapter on the general postcontact history, the book traces the events and people from the Navaho's "Long Walk" through the Sand Creek Massacre, Little Big Horn, and finally to the massacre of the title—an event that effectively ended any hope for the resurgence of the Indian on the plains or elsewhere unless it was under terms dictated to him. The original introduction ended with Brown hoping that
if the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reasons why.
And in the introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition, he writes:
We rarely know the full power of words, in print or spoken. It is my hope that time has not dulled the words herein and that they will continue through the coming generation to be as true and direct as I originally meant them to be.
That the book is still in print and readily available at most local bookstores is testament to the power of those words and the people and events they describe.
1The copyright is 1970, however.
2The quote appears on its own page before the start of the work. It is the final two lines of the poem "American Names":
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
3The back of the current edition, alone, has raves fromThe Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker; the New York Times getting the cover.
Some personal comments.
Not only a compelling read but an important book on the history that, even today, is largely ignored, glossed over, or misrepresented. Because of the style, it is a good introduction to the subject, though a small knowledge of the history and (perhaps especially) the geography and locations would help the reader. A good general history that outlines such things would make a helpful companion piece (I highly recommend Carl Waldman's Atlas of the North American Indian, including histories, contexts, essential maps, and other good information from precontact to the present). The way Brown includes what are relatively well known incidents along with stuff that even someone somewhat versed with the history of the Indian would be unaware of makes it all the better read.
I did wish for more footnote/endnotes and detail—but that's just me, the typical reader usually doesn't want to be paging back and forth or looking to the bottom of the page time and time again. Really, my only criticism (which is still mild and not meant to deter the interested reader—I liked the book) is of two of the key events. I felt that the Sand Creek Massacre was not given the full treatment for what horror happened there that day. Perhaps it would be too difficult for the general reader to read the testimony of all the atrocities (at least in 1971). On the other hand, it isn't "glossed over," either. I'm just being picky. Finally, I was surprised that the final incident—for which the book was titled—seemed almost abbreviated in length. Not only because the incident deserves more space because of the tragedy and its importance in a historical context, but because it seems so much shorter than what comes before. Other than the "general history" chapter, it's the shortest one. Perhaps by then, the numerous treacheries, broken treaties, atrocities, and miseries have probably worn down reader and writer alike.