Ultimately, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee crumbles under the weight of its own ambitions.
The trouble with many Native American histories, according to David Treuer, author of the new book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, is that they tend to present Native American life and culture as something that died out with the closing of the American West. Instead, Treuer argues, the horrific events that took place at Wounded Knee in 1890 did not signal the end of a millennia-long narrative, but rather served as an important demarcation point in the story of Native Peoples in terms of their place within American society. Where others portray the events as sounding the death knell of the Native American, Treuer attempts to refocus the conversation on the continuing history of his people (himself an Ojibwe from the Leech Lack Reservation in northern Minnesota).
In order to properly frame his subject, however, Treuer is forced to spend the first third of the book looking at the history of Native Peoples across the whole of what has become the United States from pre-history up through the events leading up to and surrounding the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. This makes for a somewhat misleading subtitle and thesis, as Treuer spends a significant amount of time exploring the histories of Native Peoples pre-contact and up through the atrocious treatment afforded them by the immigrants who subsequently claimed the majority of their land, killed the bulk of their populations and refused to so much as acknowledge them as citizens of the country in which they’d been living for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
It’s an absolutely sickening narrative that, while generally understood within a broader cultural and social sense, tends to get overlooked in favor of the equally heinous acts committed against African peoples and, in the 20th century, the Jews of Europe. The latter two seem more relatable in their lack of otherness—these two cultures still existing largely within the mainstream. Or perhaps it’s more the queasiness evoked by the nature of the atrocities and the manner in which they were carried out so deliberately and maliciously by the United States government and its people. Either way, the unbelievably cruel and calculated treatment of Native Peoples seems far too tough a pill for most to swallow and therefore it gets relegated to the annals of history rather than seen as the ongoing and far-reaching cultural genocide it has been and remains.
Treuer attempts to reconcile this aversion by not only providing context from a historical standpoint, cutting through the myth of the noble savage and the government’s horrific treatment of longstanding cultures, but also getting into the nitty-gritty details of just what was implemented in the form of not only myriad broken treaties but the practices of allotment and assimilation (the latter an egregious misnomer), native schools and the general practice of cultural suppression. The sheer lack of care for human life on display on such a massive scale is unconscionable, though it reflects the deep-seated institutionalized racism and culture of hate that exists to this day.
From a historical standpoint, then, it’s the years immediately following Wounded Knee that are the most illuminating. Treuer examines the governments’ treatment and classification of Native Peoples from their day-to-day on the reservations and allotment areas to their heroic efforts in service of the country that ignored their basic human rights. That they weren’t even granted citizenship until 1924(!) is simply mind-blowing. And even then, various states fought to suppress the inherent rights of Native Peoples afforded by the mantle of citizenship (Arizona and New Mexico, two states with some of the largest populations of Native Peoples in the nation, didn’t grant suffrage until 1948).
Ultimately, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee crumbles under the weight of its own ambitions, leaving little room for in-depth examinations of topics like AIM, tribal capitalism and the rise of the “Indian casino” and the continued civil rights efforts on the part of tribal leaders in the face of government oppression and suppression. To be sure, Treuer manages to touch on each and every relevant facet of 20th century history with regard to Native Peoples, but it’s more of a survey than what each truly deserves. One would hope Treuer continues his work within further books exploring what is an overwhelmingly rich historical and contemporary narrative that remains largely untold within a broader cultural context.