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'The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee' review: David Treuer challenges assumptions about American Indians

Activists celebrate near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Activists celebrate near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota in 2016. A new book looks at American Indian life since 1890. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Jim Watson

THE HEARTBEAT OF WOUNDED KNEE: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer. Riverhead, 512 pp., $28.

Scholars dispute the origins of the bromide “history is written by the victors,” but it sticks around in the popular imagination, a truism about the spoils of war.

David Treuer, an anthropologist and an Ojibwe, wants readers to jettison musty assumptions about American Indians, particularly those clustered around the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He calls his new book “a counternarrative” to that potent specter of a final military defeat, the closing of the American frontier, the death knell of indigenous peoples.

The truth — as anyone knows who read “There There,” Tommy Orange’s sensational breakout narrative about urban Indians in Oakland, California — is much livelier. Twelve decades past Wounded Knee, native populations in the United States have increased by “a factor of a hundred” to 5.2 million, with a third being under the age of 18, younger than the country as a whole. (Some of this increase, Treuer allows, is an uptick in “pretendians” — false claims to the lineage.)

“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” is a rebuttal to Dee Brown’s weepy and widely influential 1970 book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Treuer argues it bequeathed a pernicious, lingering perception of Indians as “little ghosts in living color, stippling the landscape of the past and popping up in the present only to admonish contemporary Americans to behave.”

Instead, the author determines to write “adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death.” The son of an Ojibwe reservation judge and an immigrant teacher who “just barely survived the Holocaust,” Treuer touches on his own upbringing on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, where he and his kin gathered every Memorial Day to picnic on “sandwiches of canned ham mixed with Miracle Whip and relish on white dinner rolls.”

“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” has a lot to say about food, a feature in keeping with the work of the journalist and University of Michigan-educated anthropologist. The result is a highly readable “mélange of history, reportage, and memoir.” Treuer is frank about suffering in Indian Country but kicks hard against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

The first 100 pages reset much standard North American history; Part I is “Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE -1890.”

The author is crisp and withering on Christopher Columbus’ “tyranny and depravity,” a slaver and a plunderer whose mission came to "resemble the worst kind of marriage: he came for money and ended up in court.”

And he has little use for Jared Diamond’s controversial if tidy “Guns, Germs and Steel” explanation for European ascendancy — “European knives were no better at cutting. European axes were no better at felling.” Instead, Treuer attributes the decimation chiefly to what historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes as “the colonialist settler-state’s willingness to eliminate whole civilizations of people in order to possess their land.”

No section is more startling than the six succinct pages on the brutality visited on the original peoples in California, where the state’s first governor, Peter Burnett, led what he called “a war of extermination.”

The point of “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” is that Burnett and his ilk didn’t succeed.

Some 350 pages later, Treuer touches on the contemporary work of “water-protectors” standing up at Standing Rock, and he gestures to the November election of two Native women to Congress, strategies and tools unavailable to the Caribbean peoples Columbus raped, enslaved and killed.

Most of “Heartbeat,” however, rests in the territory of its subtitle, “Native America from 1890 to the Present.” It starts grimly: the United States withheld citizenship from Native peoples until 1924, systematically disputed Indian claims and seized the majority of reservation land.

Most hideously, generations of Native children were forced from their homes and shipped them off to boarding schools to be stripped of language and culture and re-educated as “white.”

But “Heartbeat” is no Trail of Tears. Treuer pays close attention to resistance and unintended consequences — how disparate Indian peoples forged political alliances in boarding school, learned skills and made their way, often through service in the military.

The book is not perfect — too repetitious — but it is a welcome compendium of Indian voices and insights that will be fresh for many readers. (Who knew that “BC” in Indian Country means “Before Casino”?)

Some 150 Lakota died violently at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890, but some 200 others lived. This is the urgent story of what happened next.

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