Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (Review)

Bremer Acosta
4 min readMar 9, 2019

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

Out of all the books I’ve read, this is the only one to give me nightmares.

Out of nightmares, I heard:

You lived for thousands of years, alive with flowing rivers and the annual hunt, eating from plants grown on rich soil and plucking fruits from trees. Respect for the spirit of the land lingers in your breath, in your ancestral bones. Your blood from the Great Spirit flows in you as it does in Eagle, Buffalo, and Elk. Blood as old as mountains and yellow plains, as timeless as the roots that meet below the trees.

You weave or ride horses or catch fish in the stream. You honor your ancestors through sacred rituals, dancing, telling stories near fires and smoke, laughing, holding the soft hands of children, calling out the name of your tribe, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Apache, Navajo, Sioux, Cherokee, Pawnee, and others, many others, brave in the nightly unknown. If joined together, strong with everything that is.

Then the strange men come. They wish to speak to you in words not of your tribe, but they are born of the earth, so surely they are one with all life. They stand as white men who have rowed to shore from lands beyond the vast sea. They carry metals and wish to own your lands and air, rivers and mountains. How can anyone own that which nourishes everyone?

They are at first like starving children, barely able to survive the winter, so you show them how to live. Many die. Many carry diseases that pass to your people. So many have come now. They want more and more. They steal some of your children away and ship them across that vast sea. When you complain or fight back, they starve you in your lands. They massacre your wives and mothers and children, burn your teepees and fields, chop down trees to build forts, run roads through your hunting grounds. Men dressed in blue coats slaughter entire tribes — that you have known through peace or battle — and take their lands too. When they promise you peace, after starving and killing you for years, you give up your land with treaties written in their words. If they want the yellow metal or a route through your land, they’ll break your treaty until you are desolate, wandering alone. The land they do give you is dry and corrupted. Nothing grows there. There are no buffalo, no fish, no horses. You starve and surrender more for your people, but they still take and take. If you join them and go to one of their forts for rations, you die through starvation, disease, or murder from one of their soldiers, trained to kill you, raised to kill you. Even raising an American flag given from the Great Father or handing special papers over from their laws will never stop the bluecoats from raising their guns against you.

Overtime, you have learned their tricks. You join with other tribes, forming alliances, cutting supply lines from the troops, maneuvering skillfully through the deep forests and mountains, attacking wagons on the road, and protesting in courts, but your sacred places and way of living disappear from you. Treaties signed after your victories in law and battle and negotiation, after only a few years of the white man’s greed and hatred and arrogance, turn into the failed promises for your people.

Your people still remember Sand Creek and other massacres, where women with unborn children had their bellies ripped open, where they scalped your people, where they cut out your genitals, where they burned your clothes, homes, and food, where their promises of friendship were only betrayals.

They forced you to trail through the snow, trembling and naked, seeing the heat rise from skinless buffalo scattered across the plains. They ordered your reservations on narrow and imprisoned rock.

There is no hunting, no farming, no living anymore. Warriors once proud now sit, broken-hearted, gazing at the railroad with their watery red eyes. Young people are born without knowledge of how the elders once lived. How they lived with freedom upon an undivided world. How they made their way with total movement before a cloudless blue sky.

But that was before. Before dreams were broken for what some people now call “progress.” You still fight to preserve your language, religion, and rituals, telling old stories round the fire, where smoke rises until it spills over the moon. You dance in tradition, voices strong and humming over silence, chanting, moving on, despite so much pain, so much sorrow. Many stories of your men and women and children, of entire peoples, are forever untold under the dirt. Their deaths are unnamed below the modernized highways, churches and stone buildings, where the ancient trees once hovered, where the clean water once rippled, where roots had run below the soil, interconnected as one.