Brain Food: Explorations into the neural world of non-fiction – The Agony of Shame

BuryMyHeartBury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
I don’t know what prompted me to borrow the audiobook of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, but it has been one of the most difficult books I have listened to in a very long time. In case you are not aware of it, the book outlines the story of the demise of the Native American Indians in the nineteenth century. It is a story of total devastation, and the aspect that made me so angry and sad was that the devastation with systematic, deliberate and remorseless.

The book describes how when white settlers first arrived in the new colony of America, it was only through the curiosity and kindness of the native tribes that the settlers managed to survive their first few winters. That generosity was to reap terrible rewards. As more and more settlers arrived, bringing with them their prejudices and racism, their greed, their xenophobia, their religion and their sense of superiority, the demise of the Indian races became inevitable.

I think the thing that broke my heart listening to this book (and believe me, there were many moments I had tears in my eyes, or made exclamations of despair as I listened) was that the story of each and every tribe was so similar. Whites came, decided that the land the Indians had roamed, hunted and lived upon for generations would be beneficial to the settlers, so they lied, cheated, and killed their way into acquisition of the land, all the while blaming the Indians and seeing absolutely no fault in themselves for their actions. The number of treaties which were virtually forced on the Indians which had been translated incorrectly (usually deliberately) so that the Indians did not know what it was they were signing; the number of unprovoked, gruesome attacks on whole tribes, women and children included; the number of sickening cases of hypocrisy and unequal rules; the number of mentions of the terms ‘systematic extermination’, ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’, and ‘savages’, ‘bandits’ and ‘criminals’ was staggering. And throughout it all, the divide was clear. The Indians fought because they wanted to survive, to save their people from starving, to be able to live freely. The Whites fought because of greed. They wanted more gold, more land to cultivate and therefore make profit, more money. The determination on the part of the settlers to eradicate all aspects of Indian life and replace it with (what they insisted was superior) white culture was horrifying. Yes, I understand that I view this anachronistically, with all of the outrage of a person brought up to believe that all humans have a right to life, all humans have a right to choose how they live, all humans are equal and there is no such thing as one colour or race or religion being superior to any other. But I defy anyone white to read this book and not feel complete and lasting shame.

The tragedy was, I only just finished reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. Perhaps I just need to go and re-read The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Kenneally and Blood River by Tim Butcher, and then my total despair of the human race will be complete


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