My Heart is Still Buried at Wounded Knee: Understanding American Indian Sovereignty in the United States and Native American Rights

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

“After nightfall the survivors crawled out of the holes. It was bitter cold, and blood had frozen over their wounds, but they dared not make fires. The only thought in their minds was to flee eastward toward the Smoky Hill and try to join their warriors. “It was a terrible march,” George Bent remembered, “most of us being on foot, without food, ill-clad, and encumbered with the women and children.” For fifty miles they endured icy winds, hunger, and pain of wounds, but at last they reached the hunting camp. “As we rode into that camp there was a terrible scene. Everyone was crying, even the warriors, and the women and children screaming and wailing. Nearly everyone present had lost some relatives or friends, and many of them in their grief were gashing themselves with their knives until the blood flowed in stream (p. 66).”

“In 1860 there were probably 300,000 Indians in the United States and Territories, most of them living west of the Mississippi. According to varying estimates, their numbers had been reduced by one-half to two-thirds since the arrival of the first settlers in Virginia and New England.”
(P. 9)

“The Navajos had the fortitude to bear freezing weather, hunger, dysentery, jeers of the soldiers, and the hard three-hundred-mile journey, but they could not bear the homesickness, the loss of their land. They wept, and 197 of them died before they reached their cruel destination.” (P. 28)

-By Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

My Introduction to Native American History and Culture
One of my first serious introductions to true Native American history and culture was in high school when I read the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. It is a non-fiction book by American writer Dee Brown that covers the history of First Nations in the American West in the late nineteenth century. “The book expresses details of the history of American expansionism from a point of view that is critical of its effects on” Native people in the US. The author describes American Indians’ “displacement through forced relocations and years of warfare waged by the United States federal government. In the text we see the federal government systematically attempting to destroy “the culture, religion, and way of life of Native American peoples.”

The book is titled after The Wounded Knee Massacre, which is thought to be the deadliest mass shooting in American history. On December 29, 1890, nearly three hundred Lakota people were shot and killed by soldiers of the United States Army at Wounded Knee. The massacre was a part of the Pine Ridge Campaign, “on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, following a botched attempt to disarm the Lakota camp.”

Other representations of Native Americans in my young life were the films the Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves. The book and the films I consumed shaped my view of Native American culture, as an Ohioan who did not grow up around Native Americans. Later in life I briefly met a young woman in the airport who I thought was Hispanic, who identified as a Navajo Indian. It was at that moment that I realized that I clearly had misconceptions about who Native Americans are in modern times. I came to the realization that their culture is not only relegated to the past, like those stereotypical representations depicted in westerns, but they are contemporary people, alive and well. And even though I have Native American ancestry, I had not often thought of American Indians in any contemporary way. To add further debt to this topic we are publishing a revised version of a 2019 article on Native American sovereignty. 

Originally published August 2, 2019 as “American Indian Sovereignty in the United States: Understanding Native American Rights and Responsibilities.”

Often when Native Americans and their culture are depicted in popular media, literature or textbooks they are portrayed as a people group that was prevalent in the past. The narrative is portrayed as if they died off with history. The prevalence of Western films and television shows depicting cowboys and Indians is largely responsible for much of the mythology surrounding Native Americans. They are depicted as savages who are uncivilized and subhuman. Many people do not understand that Native Americans are alive and well today.

Spokane woman posed in ceremonial dress, Washington, ca. 1897.

This article demonstrates the unique self-governmental aspect of Native tribes as sovereign nations. This can help US citizens understand the role of Native Americans today and their rights, as they are residents of the United States. This understanding of Native Americans is also helpful in social studies classrooms. Understanding the complexity of Native American culture and governance can help us get a deeper understanding of the United States and the idea of cultural pluralism and how their ideas about government coexists with the democratic process.

Native Americans are a “culture of tribal governance.” In this way “American Indians and Alaska Natives are members of the original Indigenous peoples of North America. Tribal nations have been recognized as sovereign since their first interaction with European settlers. The United States continues to recognize this unique political status and relationship.”

There are a number of tribes within North and South America. These people groups were on the continents long before European settlement. Thus, when studying American history and government it is important that students learn about various native groups. “There are 573 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States. Approximately 229 of these ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nations are located in Alaska; the other federally recognized tribes are located in 35 other states. Additionally, there are state recognized tribes located throughout the United States recognized by their respective state governments.” American Indians are members of the state they are located as well as the United States. In this way, “Tribal members are citizens of three sovereigns: their tribe, the United States, and the state in which they reside.” The website Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction is a website that outlines the details about Native American self-governance within the United States.

As we celebrate Native American Heritage month and strive toward making the United States of America a more inclusive place, perhaps there is no better place to start than understanding the nature, history and culture of First Nations. Many adults have failed to learn and understand the background and culture of American Indians. Our youth do not have to follow our path of not knowing. And although it is never too late to learn as adults, children in school can start early, engaging in a robust school curriculum about Native Americans.

Native Americans in the United States
Native Americans: The History Channel
Native American: Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the United States
Native Languages of the Americas: List of Native American Indian Tribes and Languages
List of federally recognized tribes in the United States
Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction

1 Comment

  1. There is great importance in accurate portrayals of Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty. Promoting inclusive education and appreciation of Native American heritage is crucial for fostering respect and reconciliation in our society, just as Dr. Childs states in this article. Teaching children about such history while their minds are still developing allows them to better understand America’s history and be able to approach indigenous history with respect and greater understanding.

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