by Dee Brown
Dee Brown’s “Indian History of the American West” shocked a lot of people when it was first published in 1970. After all, this was an America in which cowboy westerns had been making Indians out as villains for decades, and suddenly this book appears that describes horrors and atrocities inflicted not by the savages of Hollywood, but the American government. Now, forty-some years later, the Indian perspective has become a standard lesson of American history, and I was curious to see how well the book holds up.
The book covers the second half of the 19th century, and the often rapid deterioration of Indian-American relations. As more and more white settlers poured into the Western half of the United States, tensions mount, with treaties and armed fighting breaking out. Some of history’s most famous Native Americans, including Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, struggle to steer their people to safety – but who can know what the right choice will be when the “Great Father” in Washington DC constantly breaks his word? Utilizing primary source documents, Brown describes the fates of the Apache, Navajo, Sioux and many other tribes in one heartbreaking story after another.
Before reading this book, I had not known the extent to which many of the tribal chiefs had been lied to, or how determined some government officials were to exterminate the Indians. It’s an absolutely horrible story. In a period of roughly thirty years, the Native Americans were effectively rounded up across the West and either penned in ever-shrinking reservations or slaughtered. The book is arranged in chronological order, and if I remember correctly there’s a summary at the end of each chapter of other major events going on around the world in the same timeframe. (I was listening to an audiobook, so I’m not sure if these timelines appear at the beginning or end of each chapter.) The book can be difficult to keep reading, because each tribe’s tale only gets sadder, with very few light moments to break up the tragedy.
The only real criticism that I would have against this book is that it makes no attempt to be balanced. Now, to be fair to Brown, this is made quite clear to potential readers. The book is subtitled “Indian History of the American West” and therefore it can’t be a surprise that nearly every perspective in the book is from that of the Native Americans.** The Native Americans weren’t saints, to be sure, but the final impression given is that their ‘bad behavior’ was justified because, after all, they were only trying to preserve their ancestral homes from invading white men.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee still packs a heckuva punch, so many years later. I’ve seen it criticized as ‘overblown’ because it is so focused on the harm done to Native Americans, and I can be somewhat sympathetic to that view. There’s so much horror here that it does lose some of its potency through sheer repetition. But overall, I think this book is still a valuable read and a great launching point for anyone who wants to know more about the Indian Wars.
4 out of 5 stars
**Although, part of me feels like this is like reading a book called “Kristallnacht: A Jewish History of WWII” and criticizing it because it doesn’t spend enough time talking about the Nazi point of view.
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