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

Riverhead Books

Essay by Brian Tanguay

This past February marked the fiftieth anniversary of the armed standoff between the US Marshall Service, FBI, and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) at the village of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. During the 71-day siege, the federal government deployed armored personnel carriers, a .50 caliber machine gun, and agents who sporadically fired on the village with M16s. Violence was followed by demands, negotiations, and more violence when negotiations failed. The issues at the core of the standoff were the same ones that had existed for nearly a century: sovereignty, treaty obligations, and self-determination. 

In the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the American government and the Great Sioux Nation agreed that a massive swath of land west of the Missouri River, including the Black Hills which the Sioux considered sacred territory, would be for the absolute use and occupation of the Indians. But upon the discovery of gold in the Black Hills six years later, the U.S. began reneging on its promises, pressuring the Sioux to cede the Black Hills. Tension mounted as white prospectors and settlers flooded into the area. When the Indians refused to acquiesce, the U.S. confiscated the land under the auspices of the cavalry and the 1877 Dawes Act. 

Thirteen years later, over the course of a little more than an hour on a bitterly cold December day on Wounded Knee creek, a detachment of the Seventh Cavalry under the command of Major Samuel M. Whitside massacred more than 150 native men, women, children, and infants. While Hotchkiss cannons strafed the Indian encampment, soldiers on horseback chased down women (some of them pregnant) and children and killed them without mercy, leaving the bodies to freeze in a three-day blizzard. Bodies were discovered two miles from the encampment. When General Nelson A. Miles toured the scene days later, he couldn’t believe the merciless disregard for life; it was as if the soldiers had gone berserk. 

The Wounded Knee massacre and standoff mark distinct moments of American Indian history. An end perhaps, but also a beginning. As novelist and historian David Treuer writes in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, for many Americans the massacre signified the end of America’s “Indian problem,” and the closing of the frontier. The commonly held belief, repeated for decades in books, films and TV shows, was that the Indians had been vanquished by a combination of Manifest Destiny and a superior white race. In truth, the American government had encouraged white settlers to encroach on Native land, and funded the wholesale destruction of the buffalo herds. (By the late 1870s, it’s estimated that five thousand buffalo were slaughtered every day.) Without the buffalo, the Plains tribes couldn’t survive as they had for millenia. Meanwhile, the government had maneuvered to break up the massive Great Sioux Reservation into smaller, less contiguous tracts to prevent the Indians from gathering together and mounting collective opposition to their displacement and subordination. 

Resilience is a consistent theme in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Indians didn’t simply retreat to their reservations and accept their fate. Wherever they found themselves, they adapted to their circumstances but never ceased their struggle for recognition, sovereignty, and self-determination. Between the massacre at Wounded Knee and the standoff between AIM and federal agents seventy-four years later, Native Americans suffered and triumphed, fought with valor in America’s overseas wars, and saw their population rebound after years of decline. They also managed to keep their traditional cultures, religious practices and languages from being erased, even as thousands of Native Americans migrated to cities between 1945 and 1970. 

David Treuer was perfectly suited to write this brilliant book. Raised on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, he moves gracefully between historical analysis and individual stories, juxtaposing the effects of abrogated treaties, the contrivances and corruption of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the legacy of Indian boarding schools on people who in myriad ways refused to be erased or forgotten. He dispels popular assumptions about reservations and the inaccurate idea that many tribes have become wealthy through gaming; to be sure, some have prospered, but only when accompanied by accountable local administration. 

“This book is a counternarrative to the story that has been told about us,” Treuer writes in the Prologue, “but it is something more as well: it is an attempt to confront the ways we Indians ourselves understand our place in the world. Our self-regard — the vision and versions we hold of who we are and what we mean — matters greatly.”

This history also matters for anyone seeking to understand the history of the United States and the foundational stories Americans tell themselves. But this history is also relevant to the present as demonstrated in 2016 when for nearly ten months thousands of Native people from more than three hundred tribes protested construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation. The pipeline runs through land taken from the Standing Rock Sioux by Congress in 1958 and crosses beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Despite being menaced by private security forces with dogs and armored vehicles, assaulted with tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and pepper spray, the protestors remained peaceful and steadfast, but ultimately failed to stop the project. On May 3, 2021, the Biden administration announced that the pipeline would remain in operation, demonstrating, once again, how the government privileges enterprise over people.