By Vince Czyz
In this remarkable and timely book, David Treuer is determined that Native American history not be seen as a “catalog of pain.”
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer Riverhead Books, 528 pages, $28.
If you thought “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was about as hateful as it gets when it comes to Anglo American and Native American relations, you never saw The Searchers, a 1959 Western starring John Wayne. In a scene dubbed “Finish the Job” on Youtube, Wayne and his riding buddies uncover the grave of a Comanche warrior. The Duke draws his revolver and shoots the corpse, explaining that, according to Comanche belief, the dead man can’t enter “the spirit land” without his eyes and is doomed “to wander forever between the winds.”
And of course this hostility toward Native Americans wasn’t unique to Hollywood. Frank L. Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, upon hearing of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 — the last atrocity visited upon Native Americans by the US Army — proposed a Final Solution: “Having wronged [Native Americans] for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
In 1971 Dee Brown published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a landmark in American studies that has never gone out of print and has been translated into at least 17 languages. Among other things, Brown showed that Indians are neither savages nor “creatures” to be exterminated, but human beings with complex cultures deeply rooted in an ancestral past. They were also fierce fighters, often more honest and honorable than their adversaries. Among numerous other examples to be found in his book, Brown recounts the experience of Major Edward Wynkoop, who, after conversations with two Cheyennes on a long march, reversed his thinking on Native Americans: “I felt myself in the presence of superior beings; and these were the representatives of the race that I heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty, without feeling or affection for friend or kindred.”
David Treuer, the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish father, read Bury my Heart as a student at Princeton, and one passage in particular stayed with him: “If the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation they may find it possible to truly understand the reasons why.” Treuer, a novelist who grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, saw Brown’s book as “the same old sad story of the ‘dead Indian.’ Our history . . . came down to a list of the tragedies we had somehow outlived without really living: without civilization, without culture.”
While Brown’s narrative sounds a final melancholic note with the Wounded Knee massacre, Treuer is determined that Native American history not be seen as a “catalog of pain.” The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, he insists, “is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death.” He also resists the notion that the reservations are merely “basins of perpetual suffering.” He sees Brown’s book as a tale of Native American “demise” and his own as a way of laying that narrative “to rest.”
I understand Treuer’s objections and agree a book like his is long overdue, but his reading of Bury My Heart is at the very least reductive if not largely a mischaracterization. Brown’s book, after all, was itself a counternarrative, rejecting the assumed superiority of European culture along with its disastrous and morally repugnant policy of Manifest Destiny.
There are times when Treuer himself knowingly undercuts his thesis. He himself, for example, grew up with the conviction that his reservation was “a place of abject suffering . . . where nothing happened and good ideas went to die.” He offers this bit of family history: a “brilliant uncle (the smartest man I ever knew, said my mother),” who “was perpetually stoned . . . eventually died of an overdose. Another uncle was shot twice in the chest after firing an arrow through the open window of a police cruiser. A cousin was hit by an RV, and another cousin was so thoroughly shot up by the cops that his body “leaked and sighed through the unstopped holes when I was asked to shift it in the coffin at his funeral. Our tribal chairman was investigated for robbing our casino at gunpoint before his election (he was never charged). The first Indian elected to the state legislature was charged with theft and fraud, and convicted.” The point Treuer is making is that even Native Americans can fall into the defeatist narrative he vehemently rejects.
By the end of the book, Treuer’s own narrative, of “Indian survival, resilience, adaptability, pride and place in modern life” is impossible to argue with, or close to it, but at times he pushes it so hard he risks being disingenuous. He cites the wisdom of the Osage, for example, who “retained land rights to mineral and underground wealth in the area under their reservation” in Oklahoma. Decades later the Osage were “fabulously wealthy because those allotments turned out to sit on top of the largest accessible oil reserves in the United States at the time.” True enough, but Treuer leaves out the ensuing “Reign of Terror,” which resulted in swindles, cons, theft, and the murders of dozens to hundreds of Osages (the count is unclear). It was the basis of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a National Book Award finalist. While the Reign of Terror doesn’t take away from the foresight of the Osage, it probably merits a mention in the interest of full disclosure.
If Treuer and I butted heads over our readings of Dee Brown’s book, it wasn’t many chapters before I recognized that Treuer has written a remarkable and timely book, a massive undertaking that departs from 10,000 BCE and brings us all the way up to the Dakota Pipeline protests of 2017. Part 1, which outlines Anglo-Indian relations up to 1890, reiterates much of the history Brown covered, although Treuer puts a new spin on it and busts a few popular misconceptions while he’s at it. Along the way he also often reproduces full documents, such as Chief Joseph’s Washington, DC speech — in contrast to the oft-cited “I will fight no more forever” sound bite attributed to Chief Joseph after the Nez Perce’s flight to Canada was thwarted by the US Army. Anyone who reads the DC speech can only be astonished at the eloquence of a man who not only uttered these pages of moving and profound words off the top of his head, but also pulled this off without formal education or the ability to read or write.
The rest of Treuer’s book is a mix of personal memoir, interviews with Native Americans, and Native American history post–Wounded Knee. Treuer taps family members, backwoods Indians who literally live off the land, others who are involved in government, and still others who are entrepreneurs or are making their marks as modern Americans in their own ways.
The section that picks up where Bury My Heart leaves off, which deals with the horrors of Indian boarding schools, is aptly named “Purgatory: 1890–1934.” Native Americans were taken from their families, stripped of traditional clothing, “stuffed into uniforms, and barbered to within an inch of their lives.” Punishment for speaking their mother tongues or observing customs was harsh. For at least one Native American, wearing red flannels, as he was forced to do, was itself the kind of torment once reserved for medieval monks doing penance.
Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian School, expressed the philosophy behind his school by updating “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Native American children were taken from the reservations, their families, and their tribes because, as John Macdonald put, if a child is educated on the reservation, “he is surrounded by savages and though he may learn to read and write . . . He is simply a savage who can read and write.” The students were often used as child labor, but most heartbreaking are the letters of parents whose children died and were buried miles from their homes and families.
Treuer also provides much-needed insight into AIM, the American Indian Movement of the ’70s, about which he is admirably objective, never shying from pointing out the penchant of the AIM leaders for violence and theater as well as for at times putting their own interests ahead of those of the movement.
Despite the impressive scholarship and archival research that Treuer, a PhD in anthropology, weaves into a compelling historical narrative, the real treasure of this book may be the personal experiences of the Native Americans whom he interviewed. My favorite involves Sam Cleveland, an MMA cage fighter who also happens to be Treuer’s cousin. (I went so far as to watch some of his fights on the Internet.) Cleveland’s story bookends “Fighting Life,” a section concerned primarily with Native Americans who fought in US wars.
Cleveland’s story goes far beyond his exploits in the cage. It reads more like a novella than a bite-size biography, and the cage — real though it was — becomes an apt symbol for his life and personal struggles. “I couldn’t change anything,” Cleveland admits to Treuer. “Nothing I could do could change anything about Nessa or my mom, who really fell apart. But I could fight.” (Vanessa, his sister, died in motor vehicle accident.) Professional scrapping is a hard way to make a living, but to Cleveland the hard work, sacrifice, and pain were worth it. “Getting buzzed up, getting wasted or high: there’s no thrill there. Not anymore. But fighting in the cage? Giving my friends and family something and someone to cheer for? There’s no better feeling.”
Treuer broadens Cleveland’s brawls beyond even the fighter’s personal struggles. When his cousin
stepped in the cage he was doing battle with a disease. The disease was the feeling of powerlessness that takes hold of even the most powerful Indian men. That disease is more potent than most people imagine: that feeling that we’ve lost, that we’ve always lost, that we’ve already lost — our land, our cultures, our communities, ourselves. This disease is the story told about us and the one we so often tell about ourselves. But it’s one we’ve managed to beat again and again — in our insistence on our own existence and our successful struggles to exist in our homelands on our own terms.
The last sentence of Cleveland’s story would have made a resonant ending to a very good book, but the actual ending — still a long way off –is even better. Over the course of 455 pages, Treuer proves beyond any doubt that Indians are not ghosts haunting the American consciousness; they are an elemental and dynamic force in this country. He proves the reservations “are much more than” a “kind of final resting place for Indian lives and cultures,” that they “have functioned as a home base, as a home, for Indians and have preserved — in ways both positive and negative — a kind of togetherness that has been vital to the continued existence of Native people.”
Treuer’s epilogue revisits the life of Black Elk, a Native American visionary and an eyewitness to Wounded Knee and Custer’s Last Stand as well as a bygone way of life on the Plains. Looking back “from this high hill of . . . old age,” Black Elk opines that it wasn’t just scores of Indians who died at Wounded Knee: “A people’s dream died there.” But Black Elk doesn’t get the last word; Treuer does. “It is up to us,” he writes, “to do the next thing: to dream a new one.”
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.