The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

David Treuer opens The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present with a brief overview of European colonization of the New World and its immediate catastrophic effects on indigenous populations. The Spanish, he notes, were particularly brutal, with settlements organized around “slavery, subjugation, and extermination.” Of the many indigenous uprisings against Spanish rule, the most successful was possibly the Pueblo revolt of 1680, in what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico. Treuer observes that today Native American artisans gather on weekends to sell their jewelry and crafts in Santa Fe’s plaza. “The Indians are still there,” he writes. “The Spanish are not.”

We are still here is the cry that resounds throughout this provocative, passionate book. Treuer, the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish father who the author says “just barely survived the Holocaust,” grew up on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the author of four novels, most recently Prudence, and two previous works of nonfiction, Rez Life and Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. His new book is his most ambitious: Treuer presents a compelling narrative to challenge a familiar version of Native American history. That history is usually told as a story of loss, but here it is recounted instead “as something much more, much greater and grander, than a catalog of pain.”

The dominant narrative, Treuer argues, was cemented with the 1890 massacre of 150 Lakota Sioux men, women, and children by U.S. forces at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, which became, in the author’s words, “a symbol of the end of Indian life, the end of the frontier, and the beginning of modern America.” (Treuer’s title deliberately evokes Dee Brown’s 1970 best-selling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which took the destruction of Native American culture for granted.) “This book is written out of the simple, fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed,” Treuer declares.

He supports that conviction with a wide-ranging history, blending in reporting and memoir too, exploring how in response to each of the government’s tortuous and calamitous policies toward Native Americans, tribes showed resourcefulness, adaptability, and endurance. Over the centuries, these policies have included warfare, treaty-making, removal, allotment (the late-19th-century practice of partitioning tribal lands into individual plots to “civilize” Native Americans through private-property ownership), and termination (a cluster of mid-20th-century laws intended to dismantle tribal sovereignty).

Treuer doesn’t downplay their disastrous consequences — the first and foremost being the massive population loss that resulted from disease and warfare. But he does look beneath the depredations for the stories that are less often told. For instance, he writes about the shameful period of compulsory, government-run boarding schools, during which, from the late 1870s to the late 1930s, Native American children were sent far from home to institutions where they were renamed, forbidden to speak indigenous languages, and required to cut their hair and wear uniforms. Treuer notes that “a byproduct of the shared experience and common language instilled, however brutally, by the boarding schools was the development of an intertribal sense of identity with shared historical experiences.” This identity led to the creation, upon the students’ return home, of “a social network that often extended well beyond the borders of their community or tribe or language group.” This network enabled tribes, even those who were historically enemies, to better organize as allies during the decades to come.

Treuer is even-handed when assessing more recent developments, including the legacy of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the advocacy group modeled on the Black Panthers, whose radical ethnic pride invigorated its rank-and-file members but whose most prominent actions, like the 71-day siege of the Pine Ridge reservation in 1973, were plagued by violence. He assesses the mixed blessing of casino gambling on reservations, noting that while it has enriched some American Indians, it has had little effect on the lives of most. He finds hope in the recent months-long protests of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, “the largest gathering of Indians in the United States since the same tribes (Lake, Cheyenne, and Arapaho) formed the tribal armies that defeated the U.S Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.”

Despite the protestors’ ultimate failure, Treuer contends that the tribes are newly educated and activated and will, as a result, be better prepared to fight the next fight. Earlier in the book, he says that the traditional story of Native Americans sees history as “something that happened to Indians, not something they made.” He warns that positioning the failed Standing Rock protests within that same narrative, as just one more indignity inflicted on Native Americans by the government, “absolves all of us—Indians and all other Americans—of the greatest sin of all: that we made the government that is doing this to us.” Treuer urges Native Americans to stay connected to the past—not just its tragedies but its rich and resilient cultural inheritance. But he also urges an active role in shaping the future. The historic wins of Native American candidates in November’s midterm elections suggest that it’s a message whose time has come.