The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee:
Native America from 1890 to the Present
riverhead, 512 pages, $28.00
In 1862, after land-hungry invaders from the east had repeatedly violated their treaties with Native Americans, Dakota Indians rose up and “attacked and burned farms and killed settlers.” Many soldiers as well as civilians were killed, “hundreds in all,” before the Dakota and their allies were defeated. After they surrendered, thirty-eight of the Dakota were tried and condemned to death by hanging. In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer recounts one relic of those executions:
The corpses were buried in a mass grave in Mankato, Minnesota . . . , and many of the bodies were dug up and used to practice autopsies. William Mayo (one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic) acquired the body of Mahpiya Akan Nažin (Stands on Clouds), dissected it before an audience, boiled and cleaned the bones, shellacked them, and kept them on display in his office for many years afterward.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, reading scores of books about Indians and watching countless old Western movies and (especially) TV shows with my younger brother, unsavory episodes like this one were for the most part discreetly passed over. There were exceptions, of course, and plenty of scholars knew where the bodies were buried (or dug up), but the consensus version of American history prevailing in that era was too self-flattering to reckon with the truth.
In the decades since, the pendulum has swung. In some respects this has provided a much-needed corrective; in other ways, it has meant trading one set of faulty assumptions for another. Too often, portrayals of Native Americans depict them solely as victims or as absurdly idealized paragons (in tune with nature and so on). As David Treuer observes, such pieties don’t readily accommodate the actual lives of Indians today. “This book is written,” he tells us in the prologue, “out of the simple, fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed.” He reminds us that the
more than two hundred Lakota who survived Wounded Knee . . . lived on—to experience the pain of loss, yes, but much more as well. They survived to live and grow, to get married and have babies. They survived to hold on to their Lakota ways or to convert to Christianity and let those ways recede. They survived to settle on the reservation and, later, to move to cities. They survived to go to school and to college and to work. They survived to make mistakes and recover from them. They survived to make history, to make meaning, to make life.
The result is the best account I’ve seen of Native America at this moment—selective, highly so, as any such report must be, but vivid, pungent, agreeably opinionated, resisting received opinion on all sides. Treuer himself embodies the complexity of his subject. His father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor; his mother is Ojibwe. He is a novelist who also has a PhD in anthropology, and he has written a very good book titled Rez Life: An Indian Journey Through Reservation Life, which draws both on his narrative gifts and his training as a student of culture and cultures.
The subtitle of Treuer’s new book is a bit misleading, since the first part of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, “Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE to 1890,” takes us just short of page 100. This historical overview isn’t the strongest part of the book; it mostly consists of a series of sketches, by region (“The Southeast,” “The Northern Plains,” and so on), of the Indians whose widely various ways of life were shattered by the settlers' relentless advance. It’s necessarily superficial, but it does provide background that some readers will welcome.
The remaining six parts of Treuer’s narrative take the story from 1890 to the present. While they are chronologically arranged (Part 4, for instance, “Moving on Up—Termination and Relocation, 1945-1970,” covers a period that will be unfamiliar to many readers), Treuer will frequently fill in relevant historical background along the way, while at the same time drawing on personal experience: sharply rendered first-person recollections of a journey or conversation pop up throughout the book and give it a persuasive immediacy.
“No longer,” Treuer writes in Part 7 (covering the period from 2000 to 2018), “does being Indian mean being helplessly characterized as savage throwbacks living in squalor on the margins of society, suffering the abuses of a careless, unfeeling government. We seem to be everywhere, and doing everything.” May it be so.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.