The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee | David Treuer

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


Delve into the compelling pages of ‘The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present’ by David Treuer, which offers an insight into how Native Americans defied the narrative that their culture and traditions were extinguished after the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. This book summary explores key themes such as the creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and its negative impact on Native American communities, the valiant service of Native Americans in World War I and II, and the rise of reservation casinos. All the while, it highlights the resilience of enduring Indigenous cultures and stories, proving that history did not end after Wounded Knee.

Massacre at Wounded Knee

More than a century ago, a group of Lakota people led by Spotted Elk migrated from Standing Rock Indian Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation amid increasing tensions with the US police. However, on December 28, 1890, they were intercepted by the US Army and directed to camp at Wounded Knee Creek, where they were met with hostility. The army installed cannons around the Lakota, searched for weapons, and a skirmish broke out when a young Lakota man resisted. The ensuing fight left 150 Native Americans dead, and the event became symbolic of the “end” of Native American history and culture in the US public’s mind. Although, in reality, Native Americans and their culture have persisted despite the US government’s attempts to extinguish them.

The Dark History of Native American Boarding Schools

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’s policies on Native American boarding schools had a long-term strategy that aimed to erase the unique tribal culture of Native Americans and control future generations of Native Americans.

In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was established by the US government. Its primary task was to be the trustee of yearly compensation promised to hundreds of Native American tribes through the peace treaties signed with the government. These treaties defined their territories’ borders and protected their interests. However, the BIA had policies that were detrimental to the Native American tribes’ welfare, with the worst being Native American boarding schools.

With the backing of the 1891 law, which enabled government officials to remove Native American children forcibly from their reservations, the BIA began taking away children as young as four from their families. The children were placed in Western educational institutions, where the aim was to erase everything about their unique tribal culture. The boarding school system was a long-term strategy to control future generations of Native Americans. The BIA executed this under the pretense of rescuing them from the poverty of reservations.

The government ran nearly 100 boarding schools, modeled after the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1879, it aimed to assimilate Native American children by enforcing Western ways of seeing, thinking, and acting. Children were forced to wear Western clothing and cut their hair short, and they were forbidden from speaking their native language. Students got disciplined for failing to comply with various rules and faced beatings or being forced to wash their mouths with soap.

Carlisle set a shameful precedent for later boarding schools, such as suppressing traditional Native American gender roles. Despite women holding important positions of authority in some Indigenous American cultures, Carlisle believed that their “proper” place was in the home and kitchen. Female students were only taught sewing, cooking, and cleaning. However, by the late 1930s, compulsory boarding school programs were suspended.

The boarding schools had brought together children from different and often hostile tribes, leading to the emergence of a pan-Indian identity. This identity had a significant role in the later struggles for Native American rights.

Land Theft and Economic Strain on Native Americans

The Dawes Act of 1887 eliminated reservations in favor of more individualistic approaches to land and assets. The government distributed allotments to Native Americans, but the system was rigged with corruption, favoring those who aligned with the government’s policies. The result was the loss of Native American-owned land, homes, and possessions. Poverty increased, and tribes’ social structure were damaged. However, the Indian Reorganization Act stopped such allotments and restored over 2 million acres of land to tribal ownership, although the damage had already been done.

Native Americans in War

Native Americans made significant contributions to war efforts in the 20th century, enlisting in Canadian and US militaries and working as code talkers in World War I. By 1944, over 33 percent of Native American men participated in World War II. Despite their heroism, they faced racism and discrimination upon their return home.

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