I recently read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown’s 1970 bestselling book about America’s westward expansion and the resulting near annihilation of Native Americans, ending with the slaughter of nearly 300 members of the Lakota tribe at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.
It is a heartbreaking book, filled with broken promises by politicians and governments and painful accounts of the killings of Native American men, women, and children. Few White men come off well in Brown’s account, even those I was taught to admire in history class when I was young.
I love American history and go through dozens of books a year. So why did it take this long for me to find this treasure? I don’t know but I wish I had read it before I reached my sixth decade.
I finally found it because I attended a webinar sponsored by the PR Museum about the role of Native Americans in public relations. The session motivated me to learn more and led me to “Wounded Knee” and “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” by David Treuer. The second book flips “Wounded Knee” on its head by describing the lesser-known story of the resilience of Native American culture since the Wounded Knee killings.
Remarkably, misguided politicians and school officials are today banning books that make students feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish,” three emotions I felt deeply as a White man while reading “Wounded Knee.” Should that mean the book should be kept from students or anyone else? No, quite the opposite.
I have not found “Wounded Knee” on any current list of banned books but in 1974, a Wisconsin school district banned it because, as a district official said at the time, “If there’s a possibility something’s controversial, then why not eliminate it?”
Here’s why. Many of the books being banned are the very ones that should inform how we treat each other as American citizens, including the descendants of those who were belittled and bludgeoned in pursuit of Manifest Destiny.
As someone who has spent his life in communications, I look for lessons on that subject in books. In “Wounded Knee” we learn that disinformation and propaganda were used with as much devastating effect 150 years ago as they are today. Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perces lamented, “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told.”
Native Americans also realized that they had lost the war for truth. After 144 of his people were massacred by American and Mexican civilians and Native American mercenaries from the Tucson area, Chief Eskiminzin of the Aravaipa Apaches said:
“These Tucson people write for the papers and tell their own story. The Apaches have no one to tell their story.”
We have their stories today. It is not enough to protect them; we must shine a spotlight on works that complete the American story.
Last year President Biden made the second Monday in October a national holiday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to honor Native Americans and celebrate their histories and cultures. I hope schools and libraries will promote these two books as part of their recognition of the holiday, particularly in communities where history is being whitewashed. Let’s bury ignorance with knowledge and wisdom.
Page member Erin Streeter not only is CCO for the National Association of Manufacturers, b…