One of the most popular and influential books on the history of Native Americans is Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Published in 1970, it focuses on the end of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century.
I read it on a road trip to the Standing Rock Reservation in November 2016. At the same time, David Treuer was writing his reply to Brown’s book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present.”
He was irritated by Brown’s book not because it is false, but because there is more to Native American life than the losses, lies, attacks on culture, and oppressions that Brown depicts. Life has gone on, populations have rebounded and Native Americans have responded to adversity with gritty adaptability.
Treuer is an Ojibwe from Minnesota who grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation, the son of an Indian woman and a Jewish father. His book is a mix of history, memoir and journalism.
The history comes first. He opens with a broad and concise summary of the indigenous peoples of this country, their ways of life before, during, and after their contact with white America. This section is valuable in setting the stage for what follows.
Subsequently, he chronicles the abuses and indignities of the establishment of reservations. In particular, he shows how the federal government systematically tried to destroy native cultures by taking children away to boarding schools, by breaking up tribal holdings into individual plots, by negotiating continual concessions allowing for the exploitation of their natural resources.
Once he gets past 1890 he starts tilling ground Brown left untouched. By 1900, Native American populations reached their lowest, but then began to recover. He goes into details of legislation that was occasionally well intended and had mixed success.
Over time, the Indians (Treuer doesn’t shy away from that word, as white academics and journalists often do) started to develop a sense of common purpose. People from various tribes got to know each other. The boarding schools, for all their failings, helped people bridge cultural divides.
The two World Wars had a big impact on Native American life. There was a popular song of 1919, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)? It applied also to Native Americans who served, integrated into white units.
By the 1930s, tribal governments were set up. These were often corrupt and ineffective but were a stumbling start to democracy and self-determination.
Eventually the federal government stopped actively persecuting Native Americans. Richard Nixon was the first pro-Native American president in our history. Congress began passing laws that recognized tribal sovereignty, and court rulings followed.
The 1970s and the rise of the American Indian Movement are chronicled in some detail. Like the similarly radical Black Panthers, they did some good locally but were hurt by publicity-hungry leadership and a penchant for violence. Nevertheless, indigenous peoples began to identify, not only Kiowa and Crow and Lakota, but as one dispersed people.
Native Americans often divide recent history into BC and AC (before casinos and after casinos). Court cases and respect for tribal sovereignty have led some tribes to prosper.
The Internet and social media have been powerful forces, Treuer reports. The final chapters include accounts of his own experiences with contemporary people.
He is not blind to the many problems that remain, but like the people whose lives he reports on, he is stubbornly determined to tell the successes along with the failures.
Native Americans are not a vanishing people. David Treuer is helping us see that.