David Treuer | an excerpt from The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present | Riverhead Books| January 2019 | 24 minutes (6,491 words)

What follows is the prologue to David Treuer’s new book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, in which he explains what drove him to write it. That book is the one referenced throughout.

This book tells the story of what Indians in the United States have been up to in the 128 years that have elapsed since the 1890 massacre of at least 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota: what we’ve done, what’s happened to us, what our lives have been like.* It is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death. That we even have lives — that Indians have been living in, have been shaped by, and in turn have shaped the modern world — is news to most people. The usual story told about us — or rather, about “the Indian” — is one of diminution and death, beginning in untrammeled freedom and communion with the earth and ending on reservations, which are seen as nothing more than basins of perpetual suffering. Wounded Knee has come to stand in for much of that history. In the American imagination and, as a result, in the written record, the massacre at Wounded Knee almost overnight assumed a significance far beyond the sheer number of lives lost. It became a touchstone of Indian suffering, a benchmark of American brutality, and a symbol of the end of Indian life, the end of the frontier, and the beginning of modern America. Wounded Knee, in other words, stands for an end, and a beginning.

What were the actual circumstances of this event that has taken on so much symbolic weight?

In 1890, the Lakota were trying to make the best of a bad situation. Ever since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the U.S. government had been trying to solve the “Indian problem” on the Plains with a three-pronged approach: negotiation and starvation in addition to open war. Open war on its own had not been going too well. Led by Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, American Horse, Ten Bears, and Sitting Bull, the Plains Indians had won such decisive victories that they had forced the government to the treaty table, not the other way around. This resulted in the second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 and secured a large homeland for the Lakota in southwestern South Dakota and northern Nebraska.

The massacre at Wounded Knee became… emblematic. It neatly symbolized the accepted version of reality — of an Indian past and an American present.

But the terms of the treaty were violated by the United States shortly thereafter, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. In response, the Lakota attempted to throw out the gold-seekers and enforce the terms of the treaty. This is what led, directly, to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out. During the final hours of the battle, the Lakota and Cheyenne dismounted, put away their guns, and killed the remaining cavalry with their war clubs and tomahawks in a ritual slaughter. Some Dakota women, armed with the jawbones of buffalo, were given the honor of dispatching the soldiers with a sharp blow behind the ear. After that rout, the U.S. government switched tactics. Instead of confronting the Indians head-on, it encouraged widespread encroachment by settlers (one sees the same tactics in play in the West Bank today), reneged on treaty promises of food and clothing, and funded the wholesale destruction of the once vast buffalo herds of the Plains. The hides and bones were shipped east, the hides for use in industrial machine belts, decoration, blankets, and clothing, the bones and skulls for fertilizer and china. It is estimated that by the late 1870s about five thousand bison were being killed per day.

Without the bison, the Lakota and other Plains tribes could not hope to survive, at least not as they had been surviving. The reservations might have been designed as prisons, but now they became places of refuge. With the vast buffalo herds no more, and hemmed in by a burgeoning white population of ranchers, hunters, railroad workers, prospectors, homesteaders, and soldiers, the Plains Indians did what many disenfranchised people have done when threatened on all sides: they turned to God. To a government that had long bemoaned the unwillingness of Indians to get with the program and assimilate, this might have been good news. The Indians, however, turned to God in the form of the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance religion initially manifested itself among the Paiute in Nevada, where it was promoted by an Indian named Jack Wilson, who later exclusively used his Paiute name, Wovoka. The dance, the story goes, came to Wilson in a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. In his vision he stood near God and looked down on Indian people in the afterlife while they hunted and played. God told Wilson that he had to return home and tell his people to live in harmony with one another, to not drink or steal, to work hard, and to make peace with white people. This was a pretty big leap beyond the divine directives any Indians had claimed to have received in the past. And there was a payoff: if Indians lived lives of peace and worked hard and danced the Ghost Dance, they would find peace on earth, and they would be reunited with the spirits of their ancestors in the afterlife.

As the religion spread from Nevada, it changed. By the time it reached the Lakota, it had taken on a more millennialist flavor: if they did the Ghost Dance the right way and lived by its precepts, the Lakota believed, not only would they find peace in this world and the next but all the white people would be washed away and the New World returned to its Edenic state. If Indians returned to their traditional ways of life and forms of religious observance, the belief went, the world would return to them.

Such a movement greatly alarmed the U.S. government, and it redoubled its ongoing efforts to break up the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservations, so that Indians would have a harder time gathering in large numbers. The government also continued its missionary efforts, pushed through the policy of allotment that sought to impose individual property ownership on the Lakota, and stepped up the removal of Indian children to boarding schools far from the reservation. The Ghost Dance religion was banned, despite the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution (Indians were thirty-four years away from citizenship, in any case), and government troop presence on the Pine Ridge Reservation was increased. A former Indian agent at Pine Ridge, Valentine McGillycuddy, spoke out against the military buildup with rare lucidity: “The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare their ascension robes for the second coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.”

Trouble came. Sitting Bull, the famous Hunkpapa Lakota chief who had led his people to victory against the U.S. military during the Indian Wars and who, with help, wiped out Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, had returned to Standing Rock after formally surrendering to government forces in 1881 and touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for most of the next decade. The Indian agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin, was afraid that Sitting Bull would use his considerable influence to promote the Ghost Dance, and therefore issued an order for his arrest on December 15, 1890. A scuffle ensued, and one of Sitting Bull’s followers shot an Indian police officer, Bull Head, as he was trying to force the chief onto his horse. Bull Head in turn shot Sitting Bull in the chest. Red Tomahawk, another police officer, raised his rifle and shot Sitting Bull through the head.

Afraid for his life and the life of his band, Spotted Elk (also known as Chief Big Foot) left Standing Rock Reservation with 350 followers around December 20, headed for the sanctuary of Pine Ridge at the invitation of Chief Red Cloud. It was thought that Red Cloud, one of the most experienced and able Lakota statesmen, could broker a peace. Before he could get there, on December 28, Spotted Elk and his band were intercepted by a detachment of the Seventh Cavalry under the leadership of Major Samuel M. Whitside and escorted five miles to a camping spot on Wounded Knee Creek. It was bitterly cold. Before dawn the next day, the rest of the Seventh showed up with Colonel James W. Forsyth and set up four rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons around the band. The soldiers searched the camp and rounded up thirty-eight weapons. When one of the young Lakota men got upset and exhorted his tribemates not to give up their guns so easily, a fight broke out.

Our history (and our continued existence) came down to a list of the tragedies we had somehow outlived.

What happened next is not clear. Some reported that the Indians opened fire on the government soldiers. Others said that a deaf elder didn’t understand the command to give up his rifle, and when a soldier grabbed it to take it away, it went off. Then five young warriors shrugged off their blankets and exposed concealed rifles. They shot at the soldiers. The soldiers opened fire on the entire camp with their rifles and the Hotchkiss guns. The Indian men put up a desperate resistance but were mowed down. The rain of fire from U.S. troops also claimed the lives of many of the soldiers, in one of the deadliest incidents of friendly fire in U.S. military history. The women and children took off running down the frozen creek bed; the soldiers broke formation and, mounted, chased them down and killed them. The fighting lasted an hour, and when it was over, more than 150 Lakota lay dead or dying in the snow. The actual number of dead is still in dispute, with some putting the number at more than three hundred. More than half were women and children. A survivor, the chief American Horse, testified later that “there was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce. . . . A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing [that] its mother was dead was still nursing. . . . The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through . . . and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys . . . came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”

General Nelson A. Miles, touring the scene of the carnage after a three-day blizzard that shrouded the dead in snow, was shocked by what he saw. “Helpless children and women with babes in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the original scene of encounter and cut down without mercy by the troopers. . . . Judging by the slaughter on the battlefield it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life?”

One of the most poignant stories to come out of Wounded Knee involves a Lakota child named Zintkala Nuni, or Lost Bird. Her mother had been among those shot as she attempted to run with her infant daughter down the frozen creek. It wasn’t until four days later that the child was discovered — frostbitten, starving, but alive — in her dead mother’s arms. She was passed among the occupying soldiers as a kind of living souvenir of the massacre until, a few weeks after the conflict, a general named Leonard Colby adopted her. Raised partly by his wife, she suffered horribly — she was sent from one isolated boarding school to another, was later impregnated (most likely by Colby), and still later was found working in Wild West shows and in vaudeville, before she died of influenza in 1920, in abject poverty.


The massacre was covered by more than twenty newspapers, and the responses it provoked represented the polarized attitudes toward the entire conflict between Indians and government. If white people were determined to take Indians’ land, opined a writer named Susette La Flesche in the Omaha World-Herald in 1891, “they can go about getting it in some other way than by forcing it from them by starving or provoking them to war and sacrificing the lives of innocent women and children, and through the sufferings of the wives and children of officers and soldiers.” General Nelson Miles relieved Colonel James Forsyth of his command and brought action against him in military court for the wanton bloodshed that had occurred under his leadership, provoking immediate opposition from Forsyth and his supporters. (Later in life General Miles would fight for compensation for the Lakota and raise money for survivors of the massacre.)

Some saw Wounded Knee from the opposite angle. “Why,” asked a reporter from the Deadwood, South Dakota, Times, “should we spare even a semblance of an Indian? Wipe them from the face of the earth.” Writing for the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Saturday Pioneer after the murder of Sitting Bull, L. Frank Baum—the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — said it would be better if all Indians died rather than live as “the miserable wretches they are.” Two weeks later, after the massacre, he hit the same note but held it longer: “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

The moment crystallized something more than sympathy for Indians and Indian causes on the one hand, and bitter and bloody American progress on the other. Rather, both sides joined in seeing the massacre as the end not just of the Indians who had died but of “the Indian,” period. There had been an Indian past, and overnight, there lay ahead only an American future.

We often, too often, agree with accounts of our own demise.

Frederick Jackson Turner elaborated on this idea in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (itself a celebration of the Indian past and the American future, as if the two eras existed on either side of an unbreachable wall). “The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society,” Turner wrote with a self-fulfilling certainty. “Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.” The country begins with Indians but ends with Americans; there is no sense that they can coexist.

Simon Pokagon — a Potawatomi leader who also spoke at the Columbian Exposition — echoed Turner’s frontier thesis:

We shall never be happy here any more; we gaze into the faces of our little ones, for smiles of infancy to please, and into the faces of our young men and maidens, for joys of youth to cheer advancing age, but alas! instead of smiles of joy we find but looks of sadness there. Then we fully realize in the anguish of our souls that their young and tender hearts, in keenest sympathy with ours, have drank [sic] in the sorrows we have felt, and their sad faces reflect it back to us again. No rainbow of promise spans the dark cloud of our afflictions; no cheering hopes are painted on our midnight sky. We only stand with folded arms and watch and wait to see the future deal with us no better than the past. No cheer of sympathy is given us; but in answer to our complaints we are told the triumphal march of the Eastern race westward is by the unalterable decree of nature, termed by them “the survival of the fittest.” And so we stand as upon the seashore, chained hand and foot, while the incoming tide of the great ocean of civilization rises slowly but surely to overwhelm us.

It is possible that Pokagon was being sarcastic or slyly using the idea of the disappearing Indian politically. But I am not sure.

On his deathbed in 1890, Blackfeet warrior and orator Crowfoot looked back on his life and that of his people and reached much the same conclusion: “What is life?” he mused. “It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” The frontier was closed, Indians were confined to reservations. The clash of civilizations seemed to have wound down. The meaning of America and the myths that informed it had been firmly established. Perhaps this is why the massacre at Wounded Knee became so emblematic. It neatly symbolized the accepted version of reality — of an Indian past and an American present, begun in barbarism but realized as a state of democratic idealism.

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This version of history remained largely unquestioned through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1950s. But in the 1960s — because of Vietnam and the fight for civil rights; because of an increased focus on the environment and the effects of industrialization and consumerism; because of the newly current idea that “the culture” wasn’t the only culture, and a counterculture could exist — the story of “the Indian” surfaced with new intensity in the American consciousness. This new awareness, focused on Wounded Knee and the challenge “the Indian” posed to the very idea of America, was epitomized by a highly influential book.

Published in 1970, eighty years after the massacre, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee appeared as scenes of Indian activism were playing out on TV screens across the country, and at a time when many Americans were looking for some other way of being. The book was an enormous success. To date it has sold more than four million copies, and has been published in seventeen languages. It has never gone out of print. The book made big claims about the importance of Indians, in and of ourselves and to the rest of America. The “greatest concentration of recorded experience and observation” of Indian lives and history, wrote Dee Brown in the opening pages, “came out of the thirty-year span between 1860 and 1890. . . . It was an incredible era of violence, greed, audacity, sentimentality, undirected exuberance, and an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it. During that time the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” Beneath the effort to point a finger back east, to speak truth to power, however, Brown’s narrative relied on — and revived — the same old sad story of the “dead Indian.” Our history (and our continued existence) came down to a list of the tragedies we had somehow outlived without really living: without civilization, without culture, without a set of selves. As for present-day Native life, Brown wrote only: “If the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reasons why.”

I remember, vividly, reading that passage while in college in 1991, and I was doubly dismayed by Brown’s telling. I was far from home, on a distant coast. I was homesick — for the northwoods, for my reservation, for the only place on earth I truly loved. I was only just beginning to understand what it was I was missing, and it wasn’t squalor and hopelessness and poverty. This book is, in part, an attempt to communicate what it was that I loved. I was also dismayed because I felt so insignificant in the face of the authority and power with which Brown explained us Indians to the world. He had hundreds of years of history behind him, the most powerful and lucid cultural myths of America as evidence, and a command of English I could only dream of. All I had was the small hot point of hope that I mattered, that where I was from mattered, and that someday I would be able to explain — to myself and to others — why.

I came to conceive of a book that would dismantle the tale of our demise by way of a new story.

This book is a counternarrative to the story that has been told about us, 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. We carry within us stories of our origins, and ideas about what our families, clans, and communities mean. Sadly, these narratives do not always, or even mostly, stand in opposition to the ways in which we are read by outsiders. We often, too often, agree with accounts of our own demise: for many years — too many years — I understood my reservation, Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, only as a place of abject suffering, a “nowhere place” where nothing happened and good ideas went to die. I saw it as in America but not of America. I saw myself and my tribe as a ruined people whose greatness lay behind us.

The evidence seemed to be all around me. A brilliant uncle (the smartest man I ever knew, said my mother) was perpetually stoned, and eventually died of an overdose. Another uncle was shot twice in the chest after firing an arrow through the open window of a police cruiser. A cousin was hit by an RV, and another cousin was so thoroughly shot up by the cops that his body leaked and sighed through the unstopped holes when I was asked to shift it in the coffin at his funeral. Our tribal chairman was investigated for robbing our casino at gunpoint before his election (he was never charged). The first Indian elected to the state legislature was charged with theft and fraud, and convicted. All this misbehavior, all this loss, all this drama was refracted by the attitudes I heard expressed around me. On a field trip to the state capitol during a protest, my high school band teacher muttered to the class that all Indians were on welfare and we should go back to Canada where we came from. A high school friend told me that her parents, who owned property in a nearby town, wouldn’t rent to Indians because we were dirty and dangerous. I protested weakly that I wasn’t dirty, I wasn’t dangerous. Oh, well, you’re not really Indian, she said. To be “really” Indian, evidently, was to be those things. My best friend’s mother told him that the only reason I’d gotten into Princeton and he hadn’t was that I was Indian. And when I was young and desperate to matter, desperate at least to be related to someone who mattered, I asked my mother if there was anyone famous in our family. Infamous, maybe, she said. But famous? She laughed. We’ve got bootleggers and safecrackers and convicts in our family, but no one famous for anything good.

By the time I graduated from high school I was ready to leave the reservation and never come back. In my mind, nothing good came from or of my Indian life, and I was exhausted by all its drama and trauma. I was tired of the poverty and the dusty roads that no one saw fit to pave. I was sick of the late-night calls and the trips to the hospital to witness the damage we were doing to ourselves. I looked ahead to the green, leafy excellence of Princeton, to a future as a composer and Olympic fencer. Nothing was clearer to me than the conviction that my past lay behind me, on the reservation, and the future awaited me beyond our borders, in America. So I left.

As soon as I was gone, I missed it. I missed what I hadn’t known was my Indian life, our collective Indian life. I missed the Mississippi, which flows through my reservation as a tiny thing, little more than a stream I could walk across. I missed the ways the pine scratched the window screens at night. I missed my uncle Davey’s antics, and I missed his love and I missed how he loved me: completely, without judgment, without measure, without censure. I missed the Memorial Day gatherings at the Bena cemetery with my aunt and uncles and cousins, the sandwiches of canned ham mixed with Miracle Whip and relish on white dinner rolls. The yearning for home was rooted in nostalgia, but I was also trying to grow beyond it, toward a place approaching true knowledge.

As kids do when they leave home, I began to see my parents more clearly. I saw how my mother, born into the meanest of circumstances, had gone to nursing school and then to law school and then — quietly, without self-promotion — had returned to the reservation to practice law a block from the high school that had not thought much of the wiry Indian girl she had been. She represented all sorts of Indians for all sorts of reasons: divorce, DUI, theft. Indians had been appearing in court for centuries, but for most of my mother’s clients it was the first time they had shown up in court with an Indian lawyer by their side, arguing for dignity, for fairness, for justice.

I saw, too, how my father — who was Jewish and had just barely survived the Holocaust — had adopted the reservation as his home and had adopted our causes as his own. I asked him about that. I asked him how he had come to feel so comfortable on the reservation. I was a refugee, I was an outsider. I was told throughout my life I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t belong. When I came here I felt at home. I felt like people understood me. He taught high school on the reservation and then worked for the tribe, and when I was in high school he worked at Red Lake Reservation, where he had helped get the high school bonded and built in a way that made the tribe proud of their own accomplishments. I learned about my parents from unlikely sources. One summer, when I picked up a woman I was dating from her aunt’s house on the reservation, she told me her aunt wanted me to say hi to my father for her. Evidently, on Saturday afternoons back in the 1950s, my father would drive to the small village where she lived and pick up all the Indian kids hanging out there and drop them off in Bemidji, where there was more for them to do, then pick them up later when he was done in town and drive them home. He was the only white man who even thought about us, and went out of his way to give us something to do, something to look forward to, the aunt said.

Indians are not little ghosts in living color, stippling the landscape of the past and popping up in the present only to admonish contemporary Americans to behave.

I also started — in my own haphazard way — to think about our collective Indian past and present, and how the story of it was told. I decided on anthropology as my undergraduate major, a choice complicated by the way the discipline had created itself partly in relation to, and often at the expense of, indigenous people around the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, anthropology was reckoning with its colonial past, interrogating itself and its past practices, and that reflexive and self-appraising turn felt right to me. Anthropology was also a great place to have arguments, and for better or worse, I loved having arguments. (One of my professors noted that in America you have arguments with other people but in Britain you could make an argument by yourself; I quipped that in anthropology you could do both.)

Around that time, I launched my life as a fiction writer. In that, too, I was oppositional: I abhorred the publishing industry’s pressure to make multicultural fiction engage in cultural show-and-tell. As a result, I wrote novels where the characters never, ever talked about their spirituality or culture; where nary a feather was to be found. Instead I tried (and often failed) to create complex, fully realized characters. Characters who, in Philip Larkin’s phrase, had been pushed “to the side of their own lives” and had decided to push back. I went on to get my PhD in anthropology and to publish a few novels and, eventually, to write a nonfiction book about reservation life, a hybrid like me: part history, part reportage, part memoir.

Through it all, I came to see, we Indians often get ourselves wrong. My lack of regard for my own origins and those of my community began to trouble me, and troubles me still. If I could not see myself and my homelands differently from how many non-Indians do — more expansively, more intimately, more deeply — then how could I hope that the future of my people, in the broadest sense, would be any different from the story we kept being told, and kept telling ourselves? One of the mantras of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was “The personal is political.” This is undoubtedly true. But the political is also personal. Many of us have lived bitter and difficult lives, and we have brought the ghost of our modern afterlife inside ourselves, where it sits judging us, shaping us, putting its fingers over our eyes so that all we can see, all we can feel, is that we were once great people but are great no more, and that we are no longer capable of greatness. We may feel that Dee Brown was right: what we have now is not a civilization, not a culture, not even real selves, but rather a collection of conditions — poverty, squalor, hopelessness — and that these are the conditions in which we live, and the state of our spirit.

This, too, is a narrative that must be laid to rest. I came to conceive of a book that would dismantle the tale of our demise by way of a new story. This book would focus on the untold story of the past 128 years, making visible the broader and deeper currents of Indian life that have too long been obscured. It would explore the opposite thesis of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: The year 1890 was not the end of us, our cultures, our civilizations. It was a cruel, low, painful point, yes — maybe even the lowest point since Europeans arrived in the New World — but a low point from which much of modern Indian and American life has emerged.

To tell that story, I embarked on three journeys. I traveled back into the written record — back into our prehistory and up through the early days of colonial enterprise in North America and beyond, retracing and aiming to set straight the paths made crooked by Dee Brown and Simon Pokagon and L. Frank Baum and others, and also bringing in the efforts of other diligent, lesser-known chroniclers. I also spent the better part of four years traveling the country — Montana, Washington state, New Mexico, Arizona, California, New York, Florida, and everywhere in between. And as I traveled to Indian homelands across the country, researching and writing about our long history, I listened to Indian people telling me what they and their people had experienced, what they had done, what their lives meant to them. I did my best to pair their beautiful lives and beautiful struggles with the recorded past, to link them to the chain of cause and effect, action and response, thought and deed, that is our collective living history. Last, I also continued my inward journey, and included it here. I could not in good conscience ask other Indian people to expose themselves in service to my project, to trust me, if I didn’t take the same risks. I can’t shake the knowledge — and this is perhaps the only place where my anthropological training and my culture actually meet and agree — that it is impossible to separate the teller from the telling: that whatever I say about Indian lives is a way of saying something about myself, and therefore that both I and the project would be best served if I looked back and in, even if I didn’t like what I saw.

This book is a result of those journeys. As such, it is not a catalog of broken treaties and massacres and names and dates, of moments when things might have turned out differently. There are, of course, treaties and battles and names and dates; this book is a history, after all. But facts assume a different place in this narrative from that in previous histories, because the project of this book is to do more than bend the broad lines of narrative true. It also tries to trace the stories of ordinary Indian people whose lives remind us of the richness and diversity of Indian life today and whose words show us the complexity with which we Indians understand our own past, present, and future. So this book is a work of history, but it also includes journalism and reportage, and the deeply personal and deeply felt stories of Indians across the country, mine among them.

In the telling, I have done my best to bring Indian life into contact with the larger themes and trends in American life. It is impossible to understand the removal of Indians from the American Southeast in the early nineteenth century without seeing it in the context of the shifting balance of power between the federal government and the states, for example. The federal policy of termination and relocation does not come into focus unless it is understood in relation to the African American Great Migration and how the American city and suburb supplanted the farm in the mid–twentieth century. Similarly, American Indian activism took place against a backdrop of larger activisms that were blooming around the country at the same time. Throughout — in the history, in the reportage, and in my own stories and those of my family — I have tried to show the ways in which Indian fates have been tied to that of the country in which we find ourselves, and the ways that the fate of America has been and forever will be tied to ours.


This book is written out of the simple, fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed. It is written with the understanding that our present tense is evolving as rapidly and creatively as everyone else’s. In a sense, it is a selfish project. I want — I need — to see Indian life as more than a legacy of loss and pain, because I want to pass on to my beautiful children a rich heritage and an embracing vision of who we were and who we are. But I have not allowed myself to conjure alternative (hopeful but false) realities out of the desire to make up for a traumatic past or to imagine a better future. Looking at what actually was and is, beyond the blinders that the “dead Indian” narrative has imposed, means reckoning with relentless attacks on our sovereignty and the suffering it has created. But it also brings into view the ingenious and resourceful counterattacks we have mounted over the decades, in resistance to the lives the state would have us live. It has allowed me to trace the many varied paths Indians have forged where old ones have been closed off or obscured.

As Karl Marx wrote at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” This book is about the history we’ve made and the tools with which we’ve made it. Indians are not little ghosts in living color, stippling the landscape of the past and popping up in the present only to admonish contemporary Americans to behave.

To treat the lives lost on that cold South Dakota day in 1890 as merely symbolic is to disrespect those lives. It is also to disrespect the more than two hundred Lakota who survived Wounded Knee and lived on — to experience the pain of loss, yes, but much else 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. This book is about them. And it is about the Indians of other communities and tribes around the country, who survived their own holocausts and went on to make their own lives and their own histories, and in so doing, to make and remake the story of the country itself.

*Throughout this book, I use the word “Indian” to refer to indigenous people within the United States. I also use “indigenous,” “Native,” and “American Indian.” These terms have come in and out of favor over the years, and different tribes, not to mention different people, have different preferences. The Red Lake Nation refers to itself as the “Home of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians,” for example. Many Native people prefer to describe themselves in their Native languages: Piikuni for Blackfeet, Ojibwe for Chippewa, and so on. My own choices of usage are governed by a desire for economy, speed, flow, and verisimilitude. A good rule of thumb for outsiders: Ask the Native people you’re talking to what they prefer.

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David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. The author of four previous novels, most recently Prudence, and two books of nonfiction, he has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Slate, and The Washington Post, among others. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

THE HEARTBEAT OF WOUNDED KNEE by DAVID TREUR, to be published by RIVERHEAD, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by David Treur.

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