Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

This is my grandfather's favourite book, and I suppose the inspiration for this reading adventure. I'm quite pleased to place it unobtrusively as the seventh book in my reading - neither a scary 'first step' nor a scary 'final stop'.

It's just come up as I found a copy of it - in that gloriously impenetrable beast of a secondhand shop down from the Westgarth in Northcote. I scrabbled the book out of a wicker shelf at the door and exclaimed at the serendipity of the find. The small woman sitting crosslegged on the floor of the shop looked up from her game of Patience. "What've you found?" she asked. I held out my trophy. "Oh, it just gets you right here, doesn't it?" She thumped one hand on her heart. I wasn't sure what to say; I hadn't read it yet.

Paul and I clambered down through half the rest of the shop and back up the other side (you can only get halfway down before the mountains of furniture and decaying whitegoods prevent any further exploration). I confused the card-playing shop owner by attempting to make changing a $50 note easier by handing over $53 for an $8 book (it's a habit that I get from my father. Because then you see she only has to give me back $45, without fiddling for change...oh forget it).

Anyway, the book. I hardly ever read non-fiction, let alone history. So I approached this book with confidence.

I was confident that, as a history of colonisation, it would be a story of cruelty, suffering, misplaced trust and unimaginable ignorance.

I was also confident of my own ignorance, given that the majority of my knowledge of American Indian history is gleaned from Ed from Northern Exposure.

Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navahos in 1860 and concluding with the massacre, twenty years later, at Wounded Knee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is an account of the systematic destruction of the Indians of America (I'm going to use the book's terminology). The story is an all-too-familiar one for any colonised country: invasion, casually brutal massacres, and 'treaties' that cheat the Indians of their land in return for a pittance while forcing them onto barren reservations where they either starve, freeze, or are shot for trying to escape. Brown's book was very controversial for presenting a view of the so-called 'opening' of the West that portrayed white settlers as (with only occasional exception) cruel, brutal, greedy and untrustworthy. Since its release in 1970 it has sold over 5 million copies and been translated into 17 languages.

Brown's narrative is distinguished by his measured prose style that means this book never becomes a voyeuristic 'dramatised' history. You can't get lost in the horrors as if they were part of a Law & Order episode. Nothing is embroidered or melodramatised. But this isn't to imply that the book is blandly written. Brown uses, for example, the Indians' evocative and lovely form of chronology - instead of describing an event as occuring in March, or Winter, we are told that something happened during 'the moon when the ponies shed' or 'the moon when the deer paw the ground'.

But what makes this book so effective is Brown's use, wherever possible, of documents from the time - the words of the Indians themselves (translated from speeches, letters and interviews by Indian interpreters) and reports of soldiers. Like Brown's own writing, these are often all the more shocking for their lack of emotionalised details. It's rather like in the 1940s film of Oliver Twist where Sykes is beating Nancy to death. All we are shown is Sykes' dog scratching desperately at the door to get out; even his own dog can't bear to be in the room with him. What we are not shown is what we then imagine. In Bury My Heart, Brown quotes from a soldier's report of a Cheyenne massacre:

"There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed, and four or five bucks outside. The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side. Captain Soule afterwards told me that such was the fact...I saw a little girl about five years of age who had been hid in the sand; two soldiers discovered her, drew their pistols and shot her, and then pulled her out of the sand by the arm."

Small things amongst huge horrors also become significant. The Navahos of Canyon de Chelly were "especially proud of their peach orchards, carefully tended since the days of the Spaniards." When Kit Carson ordered the invasion of the canyon, arrest of the Navahos and destruction of their possessions, this included the destruction of their peach orchards; "more than five thousand trees. The Navahos could forgive the Rope Thrower for fighting them as a soldier, for making prisoners of them, even for destroying their food supplies, but the one act they never forgave him for was cutting down their beloved peach trees."

Perhaps most heart-breaking is the way the Indians trust the white men over and over again, and every single time they are killed or cheated for it.

It's an awful, fascinating, angering read. It's a book you feel you 'should' read - these are often the toughest. It's taken me a few months, and sometimes I needed a break. But if you can take it on, even as something you gradually work through, I think you will be sadder and richer for it.

I don't want to release this book into the wild, but I do want to release it to someone. I'll register it on Bookcrossing, and if you'd like it, send me an email at and I'll post it to you.


Anonymous said...


It's a book taht I read as a bored fifteen year old, 'borrowed' from my American neighbour's kitchen bench. At the time I was living in Karratha and saw the way Aboriginal people lived (and were viewed) in Roebourne, just up the road. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is one of those books in which history talks back to us. It probably started to change my thinking about the situation for Aboriginal people in Australia, though I might not have thought so at the time. I liked your 'reading'of the book. It brings it all back.


Anna said...

The parallels with treatment of and regard for Aboriginal people didn't escape me either (I grew up in a country town with an Aboriginal mission just out of town too...) Cheers Mike

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read that article. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.