My copy of the powerful book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, sits beside me now, dog-eared to death, pages browned with time and coffee spills. Dates and names highlighted including such beautiful and poetic terms as Time of the Big Leaves, Yellow Leaves Moon, and Moon When the Chokecherries are Ripe. This American classic from 1970, subtitled "An Indian History of the American West, was described by the Washington Post, "not how the West was won, but how it was lost."
Such beauty aside, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. There are chapters I can’t bear to re-read, and many of today’s words have been hard to write. But since we at Sweethearts of the West, whether authors, readers, guests and commenters, love the American West, this book is not to be missed. The title comes from the last “Indian War” in December 1890, against Minneconjou (Sioux) chief Big Foot at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in The Moon When the Deer Shed. (This “battle” deserves its own blog post sometime.)
The TV and movie Westerns of my childhood often presented Indians as bloodcurdling enemies out to massacre innocent settlers. The occasional good “brave” was a mono-syllabic caricature, often a doofus. No American history class I’d ever taken explained the truth about “Manifest Destiny.” Maybe because we couldn’t handle it. Brown’s book documents America’s westward expansion through the eyes and words of the great chiefs, vividly explaining four hundred years of injustice, broken treaties, and betrayal.
I hope things are different in classrooms now. During my career teaching American Lit, I spent a whole unit on the history and plight of the Native Americans because no teacher or prof ever told me the complete truth about, say, Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868). His expeditions through the Rockies made him a national hero, and his first two wives were Indian. Yet in 1864, he relentlessly hunted down a group of Navajo. Not content with destroying their hogans (homes) and livestock, he chopped down their carefully tended grove of peach trees.
No one ever told me about the horrors of Sand Creek. Or of the Cavalry at Fort Robinson sending good-will blankets to the Oglala Sioux--—blankets infected with smallpox.
Or of Palo Duro Canyon, The Place of Chinaberry Trees. Only a few white men knew of this well-hidden canyon in the late summer of 1874. Without fear and stocked with food to last until spring, Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne sought sanctuary from the whites. Almost two thousand horses shared rich grass with the buffalo. On September 26, the Bluecoats descended upon them, the warriors holding off long enough for their women and children to escape. But by days’ end, General Ranald “Three Fingers” Mackenzie rounded up the tribes’ treasured horses and had more than a thousand shot to death. (In a subsequent book, I learned that the horse-loving Cavalry greatly resisted these orders, and that the slaughter of the terrified beasts took more than eight hours to complete.)
From the Nez Perce of the Pacific Northwest, I learned their poignant history in a personal way because my husband’s relatives hail from this area. I know Paty Jager hails from here, too and her expertise on the Nez Perce far exceeds mine. But of the many massacres and heart-rending betrayals in the book, the Nez Perce tragedy really speaks to me.
As with Squanto who helped the Pilgrims in 1620 and the Taino who treated Christopher Columbus like a god in 1492, the Nez Perce tribe met the white man in peace. In 1805, the tribe saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from starvation and dysentery, fed and welcomed them, and tended their horses for months while the party explored the Pacific shore. For the next seven decades of friendship, the Nez Perce proudly declared they had never shed white blood.
Their home turf was Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, the Valley of Winding Waters. By the 1870’s, simply put, settlers and gold-seekers wanted the valley. Negotiations failed. In May 1877, the young Nez Perce peace chief Heinmot Tooyalaket (1840-1904) chose to lead the tribe to refuge in Canada, the “Grandmother’s Land” (referring to Queen Victoria), following in the footsteps of Sitting Bull. The whites called this young chief, Joseph. By all accounts, he was a highly respected peace chief among Indians and whites alike.
The fleeing Nez Perce consisted of 800: 450 “noncombatants” and 250 warriors, and 2,000 horses. Outsmarting the U.S. Cavalry for 1,700 miles through the Bitterroot Mountains and Yellowstone country, the Nez Perce journey has been called the most brilliant retreat in American military history. Newspaper accounts of the day had Americans cheering them on.
However, the Nez Perce were severely weakened by the capture of many of their horses. In October, the weary Joseph and his band stopped to rest only 30 miles from their destination. By that time, U.S. reinforcements and sharpshooters had arrived. After five days in bitter snow, Joseph surrendered.
Then he delivered the most quoted of all the great chiefs’ speeches, of which I include a few lines.
“…I am tired of fighting… it is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. ..I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I will find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where he sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who translated Joseph’s heart-rending speech, resigned his commission not long after and became a powerful attorney who fought for the rights of the dispossessed.
When Joseph died September 21, 1905, exiled at the Colville Reservation in Washington State, his physician claimed “a broken heart” was the cause of death.
His name, Heinmot Tooyalaket, translates as Thunder Rolling in the Mountains.
Listen for him. Read this book. Try to keep your eyes dry and your heart from cracking while you read.
~by Tanya Hanson
My next book, Soul Food, # five in the Hearts Crossing Series, comes out May 4. To start the series and tempt you, I'm giving away a pdf copy today of book one, Hearts Crossing Ranch, to one commenter. Don't forget to leave your e-mail address.
Yes, it's all heart-wrenching and heart-breaking. I, too, know about the Palo Duro Canyon battle, and wrote a story about a young Comanche brave who escaped and made his way to Mexico. This is true, that some of them did meander their way that long distance to take up residence in Mexico. My story sits in my files--I don't know what to do with it.ReplyDelete
Anyway, bloodshed and killing on and from both sides. It's the way of the world in unsettled, wild open territory.
Thanks for the reminder and the wonderful information you gave us.
I read that book years ago, and it remains with me today. Misunderstanding abide in all centuries, don't they? And so many don't seem to learn from them.ReplyDelete
Tanya. This is a hard post to read, but well done. This is one of my dad's favorite books, and one I've never read. You are right, it will be difficult to read it - I am sure my heart will break and tears will fall. I'll look for a copy soon.ReplyDelete
What an excellent post. Thank you for sharing the other side of the history. All I can think of is this is what happens when all that matters to you is your wants, your children, your dreams.ReplyDelete
I hope that we learn some day that all dreams bear equal importance.
I read that book years ago and loved it.ReplyDelete
What a powerful post. Thank you Tanya for the education.ReplyDelete
Tanya, That is a wonderful book to learn the truth as is Yellow Wolf: His Own Story by a Nez Perce warrior.ReplyDelete
My book that just released and I'll be talking about in May here, chronicles the flight the Nez Perce took to avoid being put on the reservation.
Not all Nez Perce lived in Wallowa Valley only the band of Chief Joseph, the Lake Nimiipuu, summered and wintered in the valley. The Nez Perce were spread across SE Washington, most of Idaho and NE Oregon.
Celia, dust that baby off and get it ready. Sounds absolutely like something I would love to read. Native American heroes are hotties, too. Thanks for posting today.ReplyDelete
Hi Lauri, congrats on your upcoming Harl. release! I know I'm in for another treat. And I so agree. We study history to learn from it, and so many don't Boo.ReplyDelete
Indeed, a book I can't ever part with..Thanks for stopping by today.
Hi Christine, it's a heartbreaker for sure. HBO made a movie about parts of it a while back and it was well done but a mini-series like that would take years to cover everything.ReplyDelete
Thanks for stopping by. Means a lot! xoxo
Hi Maria, thanks so much for the post. I so appreciate it. Enjoyed yesterday a bunch.ReplyDelete
Janie, yeah, I love it too in spite of the tears. It was a life-changing book for me. Should be required reading, that's for sure. I'm so glad you posted!ReplyDelete
Hi Kathy, thanks for stopping by. You sure saw the underbelly of humanity during your career. Things never change, huh. xoxoxReplyDelete
This was so sad, Tanya. When I was a Camp Fire leader for thirteen years, we did a lot of studying of the Indian culture and grew to appreciate their customs and loved hearing their myths and stories. They were a beautiful people who should have been respected not destroyed. Something that still hasn't been learned unfortunately.ReplyDelete
Hi Paty, thanks for the info. I knew the Nez Perce were spread out. Our folks came from Idaho. On our Teton wagon train, the wagon master told the story of their journey around the campfire at night.ReplyDelete
I will be first to get your new book. Chief Joseph has long lived in my heart.
Wonderful post, Tanya. Thank you for all the reminders of the heartbreak of Indian Nations and individual tribes.ReplyDelete
From my first writings my underlying themes have been how Manifest Destiny destroyed so many Native Americans and how badly Indians have been misrepresented.
There are 6 1/2 billion people on this planet; no two are exactly alike. There's good and bad in all of us. In the case of Indian cultures, there spirituality is unsurpassed.
Oddly, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has escaped my "reading radar." I'm ordering it today!
Oops! Their not there. LOLReplyDelete
Tanya, your post gave me goose bumps. As many of us on this site are, I am part Cherokee and have long sympathized with the sad plight of the American Indians. You would think those who had been displaced in the UK and Europe would have had more sympathy and reluctance to displace others, but they didn't seem to even see Native Americans as human. That is a tough book to read, but it should be included in all high school English classes!ReplyDelete
Hi Paisley, thanks for stopping by. When my daughter was a Girl Scout, I helped chaperone Day Camp one summer and the theme was Native American cultures. I remember learning a Navajo dance complete with shawl. It was great.ReplyDelete
I so agree with you. They were indeed the first environmentalists, taking only what they needed or using all they took.
Hi Joyce, it indeed a book of many tears and few triumphs. Oddly, many of the chiefs were highly admired by our own military. (although some were IMO sociopaths after extermination.)One of the generals chasing Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, considered him and Robert E. Lee America's two greatest generals. Just fighting for the "wrong" side.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the post!
Hi Caroline, you are so right. The natives were considered "savages." This attitude prevailed in Europe from the earliest explorers, because the "savages" didn't believe in the Christian god. Highly religious Queen Isabella herself (she sponsored Christopher Columbus' voyages) was thrilled when he said, the natives believed in a great spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit, she reckoned they'd be easy to convert. But the greed for gold and riches and land expansion took hold. And we all know the rest. Thanks for posting!ReplyDelete
Tanya - BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE was one of my mom's favorite books. She loved Chief Joseph! She gave it to me to read after her, and it was the first book that truly opened my mind and heart to the 'other' side of the story. And the eloquence of Chief Joseph's words about war, not knowing the fate of his people, and how the little children were freezing to death, is so powerful that I cannot comprehend anyone not being affected by it. It makes me cry still, just remembering his words. I think his speech, "I will fight no more...forever", and this book should be required reading in all middle schools. Thanks so much for posting this! ~ AshleyReplyDelete