Amid the ferment of the civil rights era, Dee Brown published his classic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in 1970, striking down myths of how the West was won while offering a more accurate account of American Indian victimization. In his stirring new book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” Ojibwe writer David Treuer rejects Brown and others as simplistic by failing to grasp how well Indian tribes have played the bad hand dealt them.
Treuer evokes, with simmering rage, the annihilation of Indian lives and worlds, but he also unearths a secret history of Indians flourishing in art, government, literature, science and technology.
He opens with the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, when 150 Lakota Sioux were slaughtered by U.S. troops; he sees this event as a fulcrum, with Indians’ defeat ensured after centuries-long warfare and yet survivors, mostly penned up on reservations, galvanized to forge a path back to freedom.
After an engaging overview, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” wisely bears down on recovery, as tribes grappled with bureaucratic oppression, rampant poverty and alcoholism and eventual political organization; the rise of Red Power culminated in a standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, a coda to the earlier bloodshed.
For decades Indians were forced to adapt to white expectations and cruelty but often triumphed on their own terms. Treuer’s cast is vivid, with cameos from the eloquent Chief Joseph and brilliant warrior Sitting Bull to less famous figures, such as Ira Hayes, who helped to hoist the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, and Dartmouth-educated fitness buff Chelsey Luger, who has harnessed social media to “re-indigenize” health through workouts in “Mother Earth gym.”
Treuer blends a scholar’s tenacity with vivid reportage and personal anecdotes, but beneath his compassionate storytelling a magma of anger flows, reminiscent of the fire found in historian Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 “Stamped From the Beginning,” about race in the U.S.
Treuer movingly probes the horrors of Indian boarding schools, for instance, a project dreamed up by well-meaning white progressives but destined to rip apart thousands of families, scores of children forever cut off from their parents. He notes: “Perhaps no other aspect of Indian education during the sixty years of the boarding school era is more tragic than the fact that the school grounds at Carlisle and Haskell and all the other schools included graveyards. At Haskell, a forlorn cemetery is tucked behind the power plant and marked by more than a hundred small white tombstones. … Indian children were six times as likely to die in childhood while at boarding schools than the rest of the children in America.”
“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” looks back unflinchingly at the suffering and self-reliance of Indians, sifting fresh insights from well-trod soil. Treuer concludes on an upbeat note, celebrating an emerging generation as it transforms Indian identity. Beautifully written and argued, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” dares to imagine, even in our own cynical time, the arc of history bending toward justice.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
By: David Treuer.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 512 pages, $28.
Events: Treuer will be at the Wordplay festival in Minneapolis on May 11-12, and at Common Good Books in St. Paul on May 14.