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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: The Story Behind the Lakota Massacre

Memorialize the lives lost at Wounded Knee with the story behind Dee Brown's iconic work.

The New York Times #1 bestseller, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was published in 1970 by author Dee Brown. The book centers around the devastating nonfiction account of the slaughter of Indigenous American tribes on the western frontier. Brown details the gruesome events which took place between 1860 and 1890, including the description of many affected tribes and their acclaimed leaders, as well as the betrayals and the systematic eradication of their way of life and the eponymous conflict, the Wounded Knee Massacre. This work put a spotlight on a dark piece of history that had been taken for granted and forgotten for far too long.

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As the United States embarked on their ambitious westward expansion, the Plains Indians often (understandably) responded with passionate and aggressive resistance. The U.S. government had a devious history of signing treaties with the Native tribal leaders that they had no intention of honoring.

One of the more egregious instances of a treaty violation occurred in 1868. The United States joined Sioux Indians from South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Montana in signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which established the 60 million acres that would become the Great Sioux Reservation. The stipulations of the treaty were that, should the Lakota—a subset of the Sioux—remain on the specified land and refrain from attacking the white settlers, the Lakota would receive food, education, and other state-funded benefits. Unfortunately, conditions on the reservation were less than ideal.

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The settlers insisted upon uprooting the Sioux way of life. They pushed the tribes—who had lived off of hunting and gathering—to rely on raising livestock and farming crops, an agricultural design ill-suited to the geological climate. Beyond that oversight, the Lakota culture was further decimated. Those on the reservation were expected to learn English and adopt a more western appearance. The most devastating blow was the push for them to convert to Christianity, making them turn their backs on their own spirituality.

bury my heart at wounded knee
  • U.S. forces bury the massacred Lakota on January 3, 1891.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the cooperation of the Lakota, an interest in natural resources pushed the U.S. into increasing treachery. The 60 million acres of the Great Sioux Reservation were cut down to 12.7 million acres by 1877— a mere fraction of what the Native tribes were promised.

In response to the callous cruelty of the settlers, the Ghost Dance religious movement began to take root among the Native people of the Plains. The Ghost Dancers, driven by the prophetic dream of a Nevadan Paiute named Wovoka, believed that if they rejected the ways of the white settlers, then the gods would restore their lands to a pre-colonized state. The Ghost Dance carried the hope that the settlers would soon be purged from the lives of Native people, and it was a hope that spoke very deeply to the bereft Lakota.

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However, the new movement gaining traction amongst tribes inspired anxiety within the United States government. More trouble arose when Daniel F. Royer arrived to head the Pine Ridge Agency in October of 1890. The Ghost Dance movement was especially prominent among the Oglala Lakota on the reservation, and its popularity filled Royer with fear and paranoia, as he was convinced that the performance was a sign that the Lakota were preparing for battle.

Upon Royer’s insistence, U.S. troops were deployed to Lakota reservations in order to put a halt to the Ghost Dance. The famed Hunkpapa Lakota chief, Sitting Bull, was among those who refused to see his people further oppressed. Reservation agent Major James McLaughlin considered Sitting Bull at fault for allowing the spread of Ghost Dance, and thus set out to arrest him. In the resulting struggle, Sitting Bull was shot and killed by a lieutenant of the Standing Rock police force.

Filled with growing fear and hopelessness, the Lakota were desperate. On December 29th, 1890, Miniconju Lakota chief Big Foot (also called Spotted Elk) traveled to meet those in Pine Ridge, wishing for a peaceful conclusion. Instead, Big Foot and his following of around 350 others were met by the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry on the infamous site of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The army demanded the Lakota relinquish their weapons and submit to imprisonment.

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At the cavalry’s unreasonable request, an argument broke out between both sides. Amidst the confusion, an unidentifiable shot was fired. Colonel James Forsyth’s 7th cavalry retaliated with a brutal massacre that amounted to the deaths of 150 to 300 Lakota—almost half of whom were women and children. In contrast, the U.S. losses were that of only 25 soldiers.

The massacre at Wounded Knee went on to have very few consequences for American forces. Colonel Forsythe was found to be free of responsibility and was later promoted to Major General. As for the response of the American public? Most found the 7th Cavalry’s actions favorable, feeling safer with the near eradication of what they considered to be a violent cult.

wounded knee massacre
  • Sitting Bull's family outside their teepee after his death, 1891.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Lakota did their best to recover from the annihilation. Dewey Beard and his half brother Joseph Horn Cloud were both in attendance at the tragic battle of Wounded Knee. They lost many family members and sustained their own injuries. Fortunate to have made it out of the confrontation alive, the brothers founded the Wounded Knee Survivors Association

Plagued with the fatalities and injuries of their fellow Lakota, the Wounded Knee Survivors Associations turned to the U.S. government for reparations. No compensation was given in response to the massacre, but in honor of their lost people, the WKSA built a monument upon the Wounded Knee mass grave in 1905.

The Wounded Knee Survivors Association, now full of the descendants of those who saw battle, is still active today. The group fights independently to preserve the history that was created and lost at Wounded Knee. One major triumph of the association is the reclaiming of objects within museums that were taken from their people during that fateful massacre.

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The 1970 publication of Dee Brown’s book led to greater recognition of the harm done by the American government to Native people during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although many think of the Civil Rights Movement as an effort primarily focused on African-Americans, the movement also supported other people of color, like American Indians. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee assisted in making the modern and historical plight of the American Indian more visible among white Americans.

On the 100th year anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee and 20 years after Bury My Heart’s debut, the U.S. Congress finally admitted “deep regret”, but as their statement had the distinct lack of apology, many Lakota were disappointed.

Featured photo: Library of Congress

Published on 31 Oct 2019

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