The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

This is one of those like, “real nonfiction” books that until not that long ago would have really intimidated me. But I am getting more and more into nonfiction and have also figured out the use of audiobooks, with the physical book on hand as reference, that really works for me as far as moving through them. So now I am able to start stretching my nonfiction wings. And thanks to @allisonreadsdc for this particular addition to my nonfiction TBR.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

“Our people spent the better part of the 1960s and 1970s figuring out how to be both Americans and Indians: how to move forward into the future in such a way as to not leave the past behind; to once and forever destroy the idea that to live one kind of life meant shedding the other one; and to find some productive balance between growth and violence, between destruction and regeneration.”

In this book, Treuer takes the widely accepted premise that Indian (using the same terminology here that he did throughout the book) culture truly “died out” in the 1890s, after the massacre at Wounded Knee, as posited by Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, and turns it on its head. Treuer actually “starts” this historical counter-narrative right after Wounded Knee, guiding the reader through the evolution of Native American life and culture from that moment through the present. He gives the reader a quick background of the origin stories of the Native peoples in general regions of North America and what is now the United States to get things started and to bring each narrative to the pivotal late 1890s years. Then, mixing historical research, journalism and interviews, and personal memoir (his own family’s experiences on an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota), he follows the myriad challenges to survival and lifestyle faced by these peoples at the colonizing hands of the US government and its (official) citizens.

To start, I have to say that the first section, in which Treuer sort of gives a quick regional summary of the Indigenous peoples in the (now) US from first arrival through late 1890s was…a lot. It was SO much history all at once. And while it was very well communicated and palatable, it was still a bit overwhelming to get it all so quickly (and definitely some of it blurred together). Overall, though, the general messages came through clearly, which I think is more the point of this book anyways, so there’s that. Also, as a sort of side note, some of it happened simultaneously (and just before and after) the Civil War and I feel like I thought this all happened before we (the US) were that established as a nation…but wow I was so off in my mental timeline. Anyways, through this section, Treuer adds so much nuance and complexity to the popular “colonizers meet indigenous peoples” stories, as well as a very clear iteration of all the nature and species that our (the US) “civilization” has destroyed over the years. 

Moving forwards into the bulk of this book… I knew, in a sort of general way, about the majority of the concepts and developments covered in this book, but the way Treuer wrote about them here really helped show the complexities with which they were intertwined with each other and in the ways they affected Indigenous life. The overall look at the absolute BS of the US government’s dealings with Indians, from start to…still today, is as reprehensible as always, from land theft, breaking treaties, mistreatment, massacres, forced migration, and more. In addition, I definitely learned more specific details about the way(s) certain realities came to be, especially in relation to land allotments, boarding schools and, in part, termination – as it was fascinating (and truly upsetting) to read how the paternalism of those trying to “help” the Indians, thinking they were truly allies, was so ineffective (at best) and actively harmful (at worst). (A note on termination and relocation away from reservations: this section was particularly helpful, as far as proving context, in light of my recent reading of Erdrich’s Aspen Words Lit Prize winner The Night Watchman, and one of the focal storylines there.) And then, of course, there’s the “we are going to try and pretend this is for anything other than our own gains but that’s so clearly what it is” – like the way (with the Dawes Act) the government stole Indian land to fund the theft of its children/boarding schools, along with the nepotism removing the “best” lands from allotment options, plus the western view/control of tribe enrollment for who even qualified for receipt of said allotments, and then the immediate tax collection of said land…just unbelievable (except for how often cycles like that got repeated at the expense of Indian lives/well-being that, of course, it is totally believable). 

Overall, Treuer’s examination of the “reasons for underperformance” – lack of access to education, lack of infrastructure, intergenerational sexual abuse, boarding schools, forced religious conversion, historical trauma, exploitation and loss of natural resources – is comprehensive in scope and background and still pointed in detail and example, laying the blame at the feet of those who most deserve it, while maintaining a healthy dose of reality/objectivity in regards to Native Americans’ own reactions and roles. It’s a narrow line to walk, though necessary for providing a full picture, and Treuer follows it with precision.  

A final, but major, point I want to recognize is that I absolutely loved the way Treuer focused on what it meant to be Indian in a present-day sense, the look at what it means to remain in touch with culture and tradition while modernizing with the world, and whether having one necessarily precludes the other. Are those concepts mutually exclusive? To this end, I learned so much about current day reservation life, particularly about making a living and finances on reservations, from the sort of odd-jobs (leeching and pinecone gathering and rice growing and fireworks) to the greater enterprises (gambling/casinos) that vary from reservation/tribe/individual to reservation/tribe/individual. This musing on the combination of the traditional and modern meanings of “Indian” was so interesting. And Treuer’s point, that Native Americans finally have the emotional and economic space in their lives for many to be able to legitimately ponder what “being Indian” means, is powerful.

The most impactful aspect of this nonfiction is the reframing, not just of the idea that “Indian culture” is a relic of the past (that present day Indigenous peoples do not “count” because of the changes they’ve undergone), but also the perspective that all Indian movements and land/tribe changes were due to colonizers, which totally removes the agency and fluidity and agreements/conflicts of the people themselves, which were many and deserve recognition as players/parts of the history. There was a clear and profound connection between Treuer and his subject matter, which he dealt with in a fascinating mix of the professional and the personal, a sweeping recent history told through personal experiences that made the global feel individual, that I found incredibly compelling. I highly, highly recommend this book – I looked forward to picking it back up to listen to every time I had a free moment. 

MANY passages to highlight coming out of this book. Here’s a (not very short) selection:

“The meaning of America and the myths that informed it had been firmly established. Perhaps this is why the massacre at Wounded Knee became so emblematic. It neatly symbolized the accepted version of reality – of an Indian past and an American present, begun in barbarism but realized as a state of democratic idealism.”

“As we will see, the rhetoric of ownership (Who can own the land? Who can own the air?) was meant to question the assumed rights of the invaders rather than the inherent rights of the dispossessed.”

“America did not conquer the West through superior technology, nor did it demonstrate the advantages of democracy. America ‘won’ the West by blood, brutality, and terror.”

“To be a person was to be a certain kind of person: an American (or Canadian) who owned property and was culturally white. Indian went to school to be not-Indian.”

“Indians fought the government plan after plan, policy after policy, legislative act after legislative act, and they continued to fight. And they fought using their own governments, their own sensibilities, origin stories, legends, language, and creativity. And they fought to remain Indian just as much as they fought for and in order to be Americans, but Americans on their own terms.”

“Federal policy isn’t abstract unless you’re rich. If you’re not, it is something that affects your life and your blood and your bones.”

“Indians were depicted as sharing a problem with many other Americans: more than 19 percent of the population lived below poverty level. Lack of access to day care, employment, job training, adequate housing, and schools was not just an Indian problem: it was an American problem.” (in the 1960s, finally)

“The received notion – reinforced at every turn in editorials and investigative pieces and popular culture – is that reservations are where Indians go to suffer and die. They are seen by many Indians as well as non-Indians not as expressions of tribal survival, however twisted or flawed, but as little more than prisons or concentration camps, expressions of the perversion of American democratic ideals into greed – greed rapacious enough to take Indian land and decimate Indian populations but not quite harsh enough to annihilate outright.”

“…bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place.”

“…the aura of dignity conferred by seeing oneself as belonging to a sovereign people, as having rights that adhered to and derived not from the largesse of the government but from continuation of their cultures, community, and polity.”

“Whether we are urban or reservation, our story – the story of “the Indian” – has been a story of loss: loss of land, loss of culture, loss of a way of life. Yes, Indians remain – we remain across the country, as modern Americans and modern Indians. But inwardly we wonder: How much of our culture actually remains? How authentic, really, are we? At what point do we cease being Indians and become simply people descended from Indians?”

3 thoughts on “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

  1. I’m not a huge reader of non-fiction and though fascinated by the whole topic I’m not too sure I’d be totally overwhelmed by the depth of information. Definitely a book I’ll keep a note of though as as I said the subject has always fascinated me ever since we covered some of it in my school days O Level history course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really engagingly written and communicated, so it’s not that bad to get through even though it is quite a bit of info. But definitely I’d recommend waiting until you feel like you’re in the right mood/head space before trying. Smart.


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