It’s been several months since I read this classic book by Dee Brown, and so this won’t be much of a fresh review. But my recollection of the book is still clear–a testament to the book. Brown’s not an academic historian, but he has written an useful chapter about a piece of Native American history, and he did it from the perspective on the Native Americans.
The book is written facing east and that’s probably the most important distinction to note. In his introduction, Brown notes that Americans “have always looked westward when reading about this period.” It’s true. Think about how you learned about American history–conquering but noble Americans exploring new lands, manifest destiny, and so on. But millions of Native Americans experienced something far different, and that’s what Dee Brown seeks to illuminate here.
Yet this perspective is what makes the book incredibly difficult to read. Geographies are described not as they are now–we read about Indian nations and not, say, Kansas, or Utah. So it’s difficult to get a frame of reference. The Native Americans all have names that, after so many chapters, are somewhat indistinguishable. Because it is told from the perspective of the Indians, it’s disjointed–each tribe was usually unaware of what was going on with the others. So it reads as chapter after chapter of disconnected stories of massacres of the Indians.
At first, the book is eye-opening and compelling. Very quickly, we see the duplicity of the Americans who betrayed, tricked, and lied to the Indians. It’s horrible. And then it happens again. And again. And again. Each chapter is like reading the same story. Americans say one thing and then indiscriminately kill the Indians. About halfway through the book, I became numb to the story, and it lost some of the desired effect.
It shouldn’t. But it did. I got lost in the names and the battles that all seemed to be the same. It was frustrating to see the Indians betrayed over and over again. And ultimately, you know that each story–and the broader story for Native Americans–is going to end badly.
Then again, I think this was Dee Brown’s point. The crimes committed against the Indians were atrocities, and he wanted to hammer it home, over and over, that we were aggressors and the Indians were trusting at first, and threatened and cornered later. Their aggressions against Americans seem deserved in this context.
This is how history works, isn’t it? Winners get to write history is the age-old adage. And its true. Howard Zinn wrote his “People’s History” with the same goal as Brown–to offer a new perspective on history, from the perspective of the losers, the conquered, and the minorities. So Brown’s book is an important contribution to history, especially for those who want a better look at all sides of the story.
I’m not saying this book will change your life, but it will certainly open your eyes a bit to a form of storytelling and a history that’s rare these days.
Thanks for reading.