Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
by Dee Brown
I wish there was a more even-handed account of the United States’ mistreatment of Native Americans than Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but for teaching purposes this book is perfect.
Part of the reason I assign this book, of course, is that I want my students to be aware of the crimes that were committed against Native Americans. I’ve found that many of my students need to be shaken out of their knee-jerk assumption that in the good old days America was a Christian nation that could do no wrong. To assume this, especially about the nineteenth century, is to completely blind yourself to the atrocities of slavery and tribal “relocation.” Aligning Christianity with the United States government invariably gives Christianity a black eye. In American history, many individual Christians, like David Brainerd, responded in a Christ-like way to Native Americans—but that can’t be said, in general, for our government or our frontiersmen. Students need to get angry about the injustices perpetrated in order to fully appreciate the fidelity and courage of men who really did follow Christ at a time when conventional wisdom said that Native Americans weren’t fully human.
Unfortunately, this particular book stacks the deck a bit and becomes strident. As if it weren’t damning enough to simply recount the crimes committed against Native Americans, Dee Brown takes such a partisan position that it is clear he downplays some of the truth about Native American crimes against American settlers. Still worse, he succumbs to the temptation to preach, when the bare facts preach volumes about the injustices done. In sum, Brown shows himself to be a bad rhetorician.
And this is the second sense in which Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is helpful for instructing students. Not only do my students come to grips with the fact that the people of the United States committed crimes against another people group, but they also learn how clumsy rhetoric can actually undermine your argument. Students who formerly “didn’t understand why it mattered” if your essay was elegant or if your speech was poised suddenly see that a strong case can be weakened by an inept delivery. Should I be upset about the injustices foisted on Native Americans? Absolutely. Does Brown evoke that response? Not well. In fact, there’s a part of me that resists his conclusions simply because he has stacked the deck to move me in that direction.
In short, this is not a great book—or even a particularly good book—but it’s great for killing two important birds with one stone.
by Jeff Baldwin