Staying Native

A commemoration of the Wounded Knee massacre, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2016
Matt Black/Magnum Photos
A commemoration of the Wounded Knee massacre, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2016

In 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson, a member of that era’s East Coast liberal elite, shook up her world with her book A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes. Much of it is about massacres of Indians. As Bishop H.B. Whipple wrote in the introduction, “We have not a hundred miles between the Atlantic and Pacific which has not been the scene of an Indian massacre.” Jackson revived memories of horrors that had been almost forgotten and are barely remembered today—the killing of peaceful Moravian Indians at what is now Gnadenhutten, Ohio, or the wiping out of a small tribe of Christian Conestoga Indians in Pennsylvania just after the French and Indian War. She had a feeling for the details that could make a reader weep.

The book devoted its central chapters to each of seven major tribes: the Delaware, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Sioux, Ponca, Winnebago, and Cherokee. Her point was to show that the government had dishonored itself with its cruel treatment of them, and that white people in general had not behaved toward Indians in a Christian way. When she wrote, the worst and most famous modern Indian massacre was still almost ten years off. On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered as many as three hundred Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Sioux men, women, and children in South Dakota, at Wounded Knee Creek.

David Treuer’s new book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, uses that as a starting point. Jackson saw Indians as noble, helpless, and pitiful. Treuer, who is the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, instead celebrates Indians’ strength—how they’ve survived and prevailed. He grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota, and he writes with hard-won authority. In a sense, his book can serve as a broad sequel to Jackson’s, outlining the history of Indian policy in America from then to now. His story is of a different kind of struggle. Whereas Indian history in the nineteenth century was bloody, “during the twentieth century the warfare waged between Indians and whites was of a quieter kind—instead of guns the combatants carried petitions; instead of scalps, people held aloft legal briefs.”

That quote is actually from Treuer’s previous book of nonfiction, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life (2012), which is a memoir focused more on his own family and other Indians in Minnesota. The two books sometimes cover the same ground and could be considered companions to each other. Stories told briefly in one book are sometimes told more fully in the other.

The history of Indian policy teems with…

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