Comment by Brigitte Pitzl

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

“The Permanent Indian Frontier”

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells American history from a Native perspective. Dee Brown puts the experiences of Native Americans in the foreground and describes their suffering as well as their triumphs. The establishment of the Indian frontier is one aspect that is presented in the book and is essential for an understanding of the history and culture of the American West.

In 1829 Andrew Jackson became President of the United States and finally decided that Native Americans and whites could not live together in peace. In 1834, he urged Congress to pass An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes and to Preserve Peace on the Frontiers. The idea was that all the land part of the United States, west of the Mississippi and not within Missouri, Louisiana or Arkansas, would become Native American territory:

No white persons would be permitted to trade in the Indian country without a license. No white traders of bad character would be permitted to reside in Indian country. No white persons would be permitted to settle in the Indian country. The military force of the United States would be employed in the apprehension of any white person who was found in violation of provisions of the act.(6)

It did not take long, however, until this so-called “permanent Indian frontier” underwent first changes. Even before the new laws could be put into effect, the territories of Wisconsin and Iowa were established, and the frontier was moved from the Mississippi River to the 95th meridian. In order to maintain law and order, that is, to prevent Natives and unauthorized whites from crossing the border, a couple of military posts soon emerged in the region: from Fort Snelling on the Mississippi River to Fort Atkinson and Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri, Fort Gibson and Fort Smith on the Arkansas River, Fort Towson on the Red River, and Fort Jesup in Louisiana.

What followed was the removal of the eastern, southern and northern tribes to the West. In 1838, for example, most of the Cherokees (some of them had fled to the Smokey Mountains) were put into camps because gold was found in their territory, and later, in winter, were forced to move to the Native territory in the West. During their march, which they called the “trail of tears”, every fourth Cherokee died either from cold, hunger, or disease. Those who survived arrived as refugees, just like the Shawnees, Hurons or Miamis from the North, or the Creeks and Seminoles from the South, in an environment that was not only completely new to them, but also already the home of the Plains Indians.

Now, in the majority of works on American history the interesting question who those Plains Indians actually were is unfortunately not taken into account, and here one of the strengths of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is apparent. Instead of just delivering a series of historical facts, the book actually introduces the Native population to the reader, and thus encourages him or her to share a Native perspective.

The biggest western tribe were the Sioux, or Dakota, and their several subdivisions. The Santee Sioux lived in the woodlands of Minnesota and the Teton Sioux farther west on the Great Plains. While the woodland Santee had capitulated to the white settlers, the Oglala Tetons, with leaders like Red Cloud and later on Crazy Horse, were determined to defend their territory, just like the Hunkpapas, who belonged to the Teton Sioux and had a leader who became famous: Tatanka Yotanka, the Sitting Bull.

The Cheyennes had acquired horses like the Teton Sioux and had moved westward from the woodlands of Minnesota; their Northern division shared the Powder River and the Bighorn country with the Sioux, while the Southern Cheyennes had moved to Colorado and Kansas. Among their leaders were Dull Knife, Black Kettle, Tall Bull and Roman Nose.

The Kiowas, who had been forced to move south of the Kansas-Nebraska buffalo ranges, had, by 1860, become allies of the Comanches, who had originally inhabited this territory. Their leaders were, for example, Lone Wolf and Kicking Bird.

The Apaches lived in the Southwest, and even though they were probably not more than six thousand people, they were determined to defend their land. They had fought the Spaniards for 250 years, and leaders like Victorio, Delshay and Nana encouraged their people not to capitulate to the English-speaking settlers, either.

The Navahos, on the contrary, although related to the Apaches, led more or less peaceful lives, raised sheep and goats, and cultivated grain and fruit. In 1859, however, a couple of wild Navahos, who had continued to live as nomads, initiated a raid against some white settlers. As a result, the U.S.Army destroyed the fields and shot the livestock of Manuelito’s Navaho band, which, in turn, led to a war.

The tribes of the far West were usually too small to offer resistance. There were, for example, the Modocs from northern California and southern Oregon, and northwest of them the Nez Perces, whose leader, Heinmot Tooyalaket, later on became famous as Chief Joseph. He tried to keep alive the freedom and independence his people was used to, with the result that by 1885 “only 287 captive Nez Perces were still alive, most of them too young to remember their previous life of freedom, or too old and sick and broken in spirit to threaten the mighty power of the United States.” (p.330)

After the Mexican War, in 1847, the USA received New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and California, and when gold was discovered in California in 1848, masses of whites started to cross the frontier and invade Native territory:

To justify these breaches of the “permanent Indian frontier,” the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny, a term which lifted land hunger to a lofty plane. The Europeans and their descendants were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race and therefore responsible for the Indians – along with their lands, their forests, and their mineral wealth. only the New Englanders, who had destroyed or driven out all their Indians, spoke against Manifest Destiny.(p.8)


In 1850 California and eight years later Minnesota became states of the Union, and the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were established. Not surprisingly, it had not taken very long until white settlers dominated what had once been declared Indian territory.

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The American Indian and the Problem of History

"Surmounting Every Barrier," yet "Trampling on People" - Real Roads, Rail Roads, and Visions of the West

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