With The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee David Treuer achieves what he set out to do – he presents Native American history in a new light, advancing it beyond the narrative that seemed to have ended in defeat at the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. He supplants the myth of The Vanishing Race.
He also reconciles some of my pained passion for Native American history, though that was certainly not his intent. Lesson after lesson on the plight of the American Indian have assailed me for the past fifty years. Dakota White my attempt at expressing my own ‘white man’s guilt’ reiterated the view of Native history that Treuer has realigned.
He speaks of those compassionate do-gooders who look kindly on Natives but see them as a poor defeated people, people still suffering the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ That has been me and I’ve always known it was not enough. My good intentions have been paternalistic. My 2010 mission to bring books to the Pine Ridge Reservation is a good example. We hauled 18,000 books cross-country, delivered them to a government agent and left.
Sure I’ve absorbed more Native history than most, but short of trying to enlighten people around me, I have not known what to do with the information. I’ve lectured my own family about the possibility that some of our own ancestors may have participated in the massacre of the Pequot in Massachusetts in 1637, and that the other side of our family who homesteaded land in South Dakota in 1895 did so at the expense of the Lakota. I now recognize the blank stares. They didn’t know what to do with that information any more than I did. Like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown, 1970) and The Vanishing Race (Dixon, 1913) the only response is sadness and regret.
From the glorification of Columbus to the heroics of the U.S. Cavalry saving brave pioneers, U.S. history has been whitewashed. We have, and still do, resist the truth. We embrace the noble ideals of democracy and religious freedom, wave it like an enormous flag that obfuscates the inherent flaws of the American dream. We’re too quick to say we’ve remedied ‘our problems’. We freed the slaves, gave women the right to vote and have been taking care of American Indians. We even legalized gay marriage. Aren’t we great? Why must we beg forgiveness for our ancestors’ crimes? Don’t speak ill of the dead. But, whitewashing doesn’t save the broken down fence we’ve built between ourselves and the truth, it just makes it white.
David Treuer delivers the truth and provides hope. Speaking to his fellow Natives, he says, “If we insist on raging against our dependency on the United States and modernity itself, we miss something vital: as much as our past was shaped by the whims and violence of an evolving America, America, in turn, has been shaped by us.”
Reading the first half of Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, I sank once again into a sorrowful state, a ‘look what we’ve done’ feeling. But, I did delight in Treuer’s accomplishment. His summary of Native history, from early indigenous cultures up to Wounded Knee – ‘Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE – 1890’ – is second to none (that I have ever read). It reminded me of the impressive ‘Outline of History’ that H.G. Wells took forty years to write.
His encompassing tribal histories — the Seminoles, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek in the Southwest, to the Algonquin and Iroguois Nations spanning from the east coast to the Great Lakes and beyond, to the Shawnee of the Ohio Valley, the massive Plains Tribes, the Southwest Diné, Navajo and Pueblo of the Southwest, the dozens of fishing tribes of the Pacific Northwest, to the California ‘Mission’ Tribes – documents the plurality of Native cultures, at least five hundred tribes totally at least five million people living here when whites invaded, when Columbus ‘discovered America.’
And Treuer does a masterful job of chronicling post-Wounded Knee history as well. The chapter names speak for themselves: ‘Purgatory: 1891 – 1934’ • ‘Fighting Life: 1914 – 1945’ • ‘Moving On Up: Termination and Relocation: 1945 – 1970’ • ‘Becoming Indian: 1970 – 1990’ • ‘Boom City – Tribal Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century’ • ‘Digital Indians: 1990 – 2018’
But, he accomplishes the latter, not with the voice of a learned historian, which he obviously is, but with the individual stories – stories of modern Indians narrating their struggle and underscoring their success, their strength, their survival, alongside triumphant tribal stories. The stories, the glimpses of modern day Native life, countermand the official story of U.S. government Indian policies and their bleak statistics.
We know that the Treaty Period was a series of lies, tricks and broken promises by the U.S. government. The size of the ‘The Great Sioux Reservation’, for example, established by the Laramie Treaty of 1868, was equivalent to the entire state of Wyoming – until 1889 when it was dramatically reduced. But, alongside that massive betrayal, is the lesser known reality of Southwest tribes during the same time period. “Village structure (as well as ceremonial and political) structures persisted for the Pueblos. The Diné were back in the homelands, much the poorer but still in possession of the land within the four scared mountains.” The hard-fighting Apache still had some of their homelands in Arizona and New Mexico. Many tribes survived and eventually began to thrive again.
When the government tried to dictate an Allotment system, parceling land out to individual Indians as an attempt to break-up reservations, some did succumb to what was basically more white theft of Native lands, but tribes like the Menominee of Wisconsin were able to hang onto the lands that had been theirs for more than a millennia. Many of the Ojibwe were able to hang onto their rich timber and lakefront lands as well. Dozens of tribal governments fought back and won.
Indian Boarding Schools, part of the Assimilation policy, wrenched children from the families in an attempt to decimate tribal language and culture. But, while they caused great harm, hardship, and loss of life, they did not succeed entirely in ‘beating the Indian out of the child.’ The past few decades have seen a tremendous resurgence and revival of tribal traditions, language and culture.
The policy for Termination of tribes, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, which tried to end Tribal sovereignty backfired. Native determination to preserve tribal identity – and to define their own sense of ‘what it is to be Indian’ – turned into political activism. The occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in 1971, of Wounded Knee in 1973 were all part of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which had even greater success in grassroots community organizing on reservations. That activism, self-determination, tribal as well as Native American unity, continued to grow right up to and through the D.A.P.L. stand-off at Standing Rock in 2016.
David Treuer is a proud Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. A successful writer of both fiction and nonfiction, he is too humble to promote himself as a great example of Native American success. Though he has succeeded in the world at large while nurturing his own tribal roots, he prefers the stories of his friends, like Bobby Matthews. A fellow Ojibwe, Bobby is a masterful entrepreneur. Working from pre-dawn to dusk and often into the night, he harvest pine cones, cranberry bark, collects and sells leaches (for fish bait), hunts, traps and fishes. He has found a way to be a successful self-made Indian in the modern age, all by using tribal knowledge and the resources of his tribal land on Leach Lake.
Treuer boasts as well of Sarah who found strength and renewal in distance running, Chelsey who took control of her life by embracing a fitness routine and starting the Well for Culture organization that that is “part indigenous knowledge clearinghouse, part lifestyle and fitness resource, part political exhortation for Indians to think about their health.” He boasts of Sean the Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, who has achieved culinary fame in and around Minneapolis as the Sioux Chef, committed to indigenous foods. Treuer is proud of these men and women, who like him, have thrived as American Indians in the modern era, as well he should be. They are all people who have won, overcoming the odds that were stacked against them, defying the myth of a defeated people.
He writes: “As I’ve tried to show in the preceding pages, Indians lived on, as more than ghosts, as more than relics of a once happy people. We lived on increasingly invested in and changed by – and in turn doing our best to change – the American character.”
Thank you, David Treuer, for setting the record straight.