Book Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

While at the library one day, I found myself perusing titles on the Peak Picks shelf. The selections are comprised of brand-new bestsellers that people can take out for two weeks at a time with no reservations and no extensions. A woman standing next to me recommended a book, and I told her I’d already read it; then I recommended this book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, which I was then reading. She was skeptical, pointing out that Native American histories were hard to get through because they were such horror stories. I told her that the author here was trying to do something different. Instead of dredging through the gruesome deep past, as Dee Brown does in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David Treuer emphasizes the resurgence from near extinction and slow struggle of Native Americans to obtain their human rights and rights as Americans, overcome poverty and lack of education, and revitalize their identities and cultures.

Although the author has a positive vision for this book, he still chronicles a lot of misery. He starts with a brief overview of the various tribes around the United States before and after the coming of the Europeans. This leads up to the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre and other similar events. Afterwards, there is the story of how Native Americans attempted to hang onto their lands and lives despite a multitude of laws, regulations, and illegal encroachments that threatened to deprive them of both. Despite the zeal of so-called reformers who thought they were acting in the best interest of Indians but never bothered to ask the Indians what they thought would be best, Native Americans kept losing their land to white settlers and their children to mission and government schools.

It took decades of effort to right these wrongs – or at least make progress towards righting them. Various laws were passed that gave Indians more autonomy. A high percentage of Native American enlistment in the First and Second World Wars offered young men who had spent their entire lives on reservations a look at the outside world. Later, Indian militancy arose with the Red Power movement. A Supreme Court ruling in 1976 enabled many tribes to set up casinos on their reservations, which continues to offer a lucrative source of income.

This book greatly benefits from the fact that its author was born to an Ojibwe mother and raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. As a result, instead of the outsider-looking-in perspective of many books on Native Americans, Treuer gives readers an insider’s viewpoint. Interestingly, his father was an Austrian Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who worked with a community action program on the reservation to help the residents obtain needs such as school lunches, elder assistance, community centers, job training, and credit unions. His mother, formerly a nurse, earned a law degree and became a lawyer on the reservation.

I meet Native American writers from time to time here in Seattle through the Clarion West writer’s workshop, but my most intimate contact with a Native American was with my friend Russell Bates, a Kiowa writer about whom I recently composed a blog post. Russ would tell fascinating stories about his youth, and he even took me on a visit once to his hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma, where I met his parents and others in his family. They were amazingly hospitable people.

Back to the book. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is well-written, interesting, and informative. It has strength in it, and vision, and hope that Native Americans will be able to continue to thrive despite archaic obstacles that yet hinder their progress.

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