Book Review: "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee" by David Treuer

I've recently read the book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer. This book was a gift to me from a family friend who heard that I like reading about American history and other nonfiction topics, and when that person gave me this book, we further discussed the historical injustices inflicted by white Americans upon Native Americans, the deep connections that Native American religions & spirituality have with land & nature, and the way that Native Americans see themselves as truly indigenous as opposed to being traveling groups of humans like any other group passing through a given land. In that conversation, I also noted that reading this book would be professionally useful to me given that my professional interest in transportation equity would intersect with how Native Americans have been at the forefront of many recent social & environmental justice movements and how Native cultures & issues are much more visible in the Southwest than in the Northeast (due to the history of forced removal). It was with these conversations in mind that I read this book.

This book is a combination of historical accounts, contemporary interviews, and observations by the author. The author is a Native American (from the Ojibwe tribe) who grew up on a reservation, and his stated goal in writing this book was to create a more complete picture of how Native Americans have continued to live (especially but not exclusively under adverse conditions) in every part of the US since the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, as he felt that too many people (both people sympathetic to Native Americans and those wishing to exterminate them) wrongly framed that massacre as the final death of Native American culture, life, and identity.

Coming into reading this book, I already knew a bit about how some Native people and tribes owned black slaves, the complex loyalties that Native tribes had for or against the US government at different points (especially in the Revolutionary War as well as the Civil War), Indian boarding schools, Native land management practices, the complex results of trade between Native tribes & European settlers, how Native tribal raids were often ceremonial instead of being true acts of war, and how some tribes have gotten guaranteed income from their casinos. However, I learned more about seminal battles & massacres, notable successes in Native governance in the 19th & 20th centuries, land allotments, termination of tribal governments, the way that some Native tribes became much more mobile & spread much more after the introduction of horses, the way that agriculture (especially of corn) spread throughout the Americas, the Native conception of the geography of the Americas (especially centering the Great Lakes, with river networks to the north and south leading away), how varying numbers of Native Americans remained in every part of the US even after forced removal, the Indian Rights movements of the 19th & 20th centuries, and how Native American cultures & identities were mixed & reformed many times in the crucible of shared suffering. It was also interesting to see the author directly compare the situation in Palestine to European settlement of the Americas, implicitly compare white American settlement of Native lands in the 19th & 20th centuries to rich white gentrification of urban neighborhoods which previously mostly had poor people of color, and explain that the fact that some but not all companies that helped white Americans move west in the 19th century had smallpox vaccine mandates for their [white American] employees so those companies that didn't have such mandates could be directly linked to the spread of smallpox in Native tribes (which bears striking parallels to current debates in the US regarding mandates for vaccines against this coronavirus).

Initially, I was a little put off by the meandering nature of the narrative, but I came to appreciate it more as the book progressed. Also, based on my expectations of this book, I wanted to see more of the promised discussion of Native American religions that arose from the crucible of oppression as well as from the broader 1960s American counterculture, as I figured there would be parallels with how Hinduism in North India had to reinvent itself in the crucibles of Mughal conquest and then British colonialism and later found common cause with American & British hippies. I was thus initially disappointed to not see so much discussion of those issues, but as I read further, I thought it was nice to read about what contemporary Native American individuals are actually doing in & for their communities instead of feeling beaten over the head with arcane mysticism. Similarly, I was initially disappointed by the lack of further discussion after the initial mention of how Native Americans see themselves as part of a people truly indigenous to North America, but as I read further, I thought it was nice to read about Native American individuals' & communities' actual modern subsistence practices & knowledge of the land instead of feeling beaten over the head by mysticism of a connection to the land that cannot be explained to people who aren't Native Americans.

I really appreciated that the author, in his desire to make Native Americans feel empowered to tell their own people's story in a way that doesn't necessarily end in 1890 as a tragedy, doesn't shy away from hard truths, like Native Americans owning black slaves, Native Americans helping European and later white American settles massacre other Native Americans, and more recently Native tribal officials not doing their duties by not meeting with executives of the Dakota Access Pipeline soon enough. The author of course doesn't deny the history of oppression and genocide, but he strikes a good balance between acknowledging genocide and acknowledging Native Americans' own agency in their own history as a way of showing that with empowerment comes responsibility. I also appreciated that the author didn't frame Native religions, land practices, or their lack of written records in mystical ways that ultimately fail to connect with people who aren't Native Americans. This is really an anti-cynical, forward-looking, optimistic book that I believe can be a light for all Americans in these bitterly divided & troubled times, so I recommend this book to anyone, especially in the US; I don't claim that this is the best book ever, but I do believe that reading it carefully can slowly plant seeds of cautious optimism about the US in a reader's mind. Furthermore, from my own perspective, while I don't claim that this book is a comprehensive overview of Native American history & culture, I can use it as a starting point to better frame my view of Native Americans, and I can feel a little less intimidated to read more deeply about Native American history, culture, and activism.