BOOK REVIEW: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee


The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer (Native American History, 2019).

This book is Treuer’s response to the shortsighted and ultimately dead-wrong notion that the horrific 1890 massacre (or “battle”) of Wounded Knee was somehow the last word on the subject of the Native Americans. Back then, centuries of disease, war and dispossession had indeed put America’s various indigenous peoples into serious decline. By the turn of the century, fewer than 250,000 identifying as American Indian could be found. So maybe back then, the idea of the “vanishing Indian” seemed to make some sort of brutal sense.

And yet, in the 120-plus years since that last large-scale warlike confrontation between Indians and the US military, the decline in native populations has been reversed. Today, there are a couple million recognized tribal members, plus even more people of mixed ancestry.

And of course, the story of the modern Native peoples is about far more than mere numbers. The survival and at least partial rebirth of distinct Native cultures, as well as their regaining political rights and the parts they’ve played (and continue to play) in the broader American nation are too often overlooked.

Treuer (an Ojibwe originally from the Leech Lake Reservation of northern Minnesota) puts matters effecting the indigenous past, present and in the near-future into proper context with the overall American story. He does this with an unusual (and unusually insightful) book that blends history (both before, during and after the various Indian wars), social and political commentary, reportage from all over North America and personal memoir/family history.

The author is fair-minded in detailing the sprawling saga of Indian losses and (importantly) Indian survival. He is critical of all those (white, Indian or whatever) who did harm (frequently with seeming good-if-wrongheaded intentions); he also gives credit to those who have truly helped Native peoples. Further, he makes it plain that the progress American Indians have made in recent decades have been and remain largely due to their own efforts.

The portrait the author paints is hopeful, yet sober. And his book features clear yet active and compelling prose. Above all, this book is a welcome antidote to both the gloom and doom romanticism common to previous histories focused on America’s indigenous populations on one hand and the lame notion that the American Indian has in someway vanished into the wider American nation.



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