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CRITICAL MASS: Poetic history — The essential veracity of Dee Brown’s corrective history, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,’ turns 50

by Philip Martin | August 16, 2020 at 10:21 a.m.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Deering)

Telling the story of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," Dee Brown's poetic history of American westward expansion as told from the perspective of American Indians, requires going back before Brown was born in 1908, in a little sawmill town called Alberta, La., that no longer exists.

A convenient starting place may be 1875 when the Skidi (Wolf) band of the Pawnee were removed from Nebraska to the Oklahoma Territory. Thomas Yellow Horse (sometimes Yellowhorse) and his future wife, Clara, were among the children led by Chief Baptiste Bayhylle to the new reservation on what had been on Cherokee land, between the forks of the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers, south of the Osage Reservation in what today is Pawnee County.

We know little about Thomas and Clara, but like a lot of relocated Pawnee, they eventually established a family farm. By the 1890s, most Skidi dressed more like their white neighbors than their Pawnee ancestors. They spoke mostly English in their daily lives. They were assimilated into Euro-American ways.

Thomas and Clara had a son named Moses, born on Jan. 28, 1898. He attended the schools the Indian Agency prescribed in order to acculturate him into white society. He was a baseball player. Pitching for the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma in 1917, he won 17 games and lost none. By 1920, he was pitching professionally for the Arkansas Travelers

of the Southern Association who played at Kavanaugh Field in Little Rock.

Moses  J.  Yellow  Horse,  who pitched  for  the  Pittsburgh  Pi-rates in this 1921 or 1922 pho-to, was kind to a then-12-year-old Dee Brown.
(Courtesy  National  Baseball  Hall of Fame)
Moses J. Yellow Horse, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pi-rates in this 1921 or 1922 pho-to, was kind to a then-12-year-old Dee Brown. (Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame)

The 1920 Travelers were a very good Class A team managed by Kid Elberfeld, who had played shortstop in the major leagues for 14 years. Elberfeld told the newspapers that young Yellow Horse was a fine prospect who "threw as hard as Walter Johnson."

Managers exaggerate, but Yellow Horse had a great season for the Travs. Despite missing several weeks due to a bout with malaria, he won 20 games and lost five, and the Travs won the SA pennant. The next year he was in the big leagues, pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose catcher Babe Adams insisted Yellow Horse "had more gas than Texaco."

But Yellow Horse wouldn't last in the majors. A popular notion is that he fell under the spell of his hard-drinking (and light-hitting) teammate, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville, who, as Clayton Delaney did for Tom T. Hall, taught him how to drink booze. (Contemporary sportswriters wrote of alcoholism as the "inherent weakness" of the Indian.)

Maybe more to the point were the arm injuries he suffered. In any case, he pitched his last pro game on May 1, 1926, then spent 18 years wandering in the wilderness.

"From 1927 to 1945, Yellow Horse earned just enough to eat and drink," Ralph Berger writes for the Society for Baseball Research's website. "He was lost in his own tribe. His tribal brothers avoided him and talked about him in whispers."

In 1935, Chester Gould, creator of "Dick Tracy" and an old friend arranged to have his syndicate pay the old ballplayer a licensing fee for a character he introduced into the strip called Chief Yellowpony, who wore his hair in braids and spoke in "Hollywood Injun English" with lots of "how"s and "heap big"s.

Somehow, in 1945, Yellow Horse quit drinking. He found a job as a groundskeeper. Berger writes: "He retrieved his dignity ... He retrieved his status with his tribe and became an honored member."

Yellow Horse never married, never had children. He died in 1964, and his gravestone, in the North Indian Cemetery in Pawnee, makes the dubious claim he was the "first fullblood Indian" in Major League Baseball. (Most believe Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot from Maine, who broke in as an outfielder with the Cleveland Spiders in 1897, was the first Indian to play in the majors. The Spiders later became the Indians, in honor, the team says, of Sockalexis.)

But Yellow Horse might matter most because, 100 years ago, he was kind to a 12-year-old boy named Dorris Alexander "Dee" Brown.

Author  and  historian  Dee  Brown  poses  at  his  Little  Rock  home  July 21, 1998.(AP)
Author and historian Dee Brown poses at his Little Rock home July 21, 1998.(AP)

In his 1993 memoir "When the Century Was Young: A Writer's Notebook," Brown tells the story.

Brown's family had moved to Arkansas, first to Stephens then to Little Rock. He lived near Kavanaugh Field, where the minor league Travelers played. Since baseballs cost money, the team had a policy of allowing anyone who retrieved a ball hit out of the park during batting practice or a game free admission to the bleachers.

Since the park was relatively cozy, at least a handful of balls would be hit out before most games. So Brown and his friends (including future movie star Dick Powell) would often go to the park an hour or so before a game to join the throng of hopefuls beyond the outfield fence.

If they were lucky enough to catch a ball, they got in. If they did not, they could move over and watch the pitchers warming up in the bullpen through a wire mesh fence. They couldn't see the game from there, but they could hear the snap of leather. Sometimes the players would talk to them.

One day Yellow Horse, sitting alone in the bullpen, noticed Brown outside the fence. He walked over, and keeping "a solemn face," tossed a ball over for Brown to redeem for admission. He winked.

"That was not the only time," Brown wrote. "It became a daily ritual, between him and me and one or two other boys ... The Travs lost no money or baseballs. Yellow Horse delighted in our joy, and we delighted in his 'Indian' giveaways ...

"As a teenager nearly 70 years ago, I learned from Moses Yellowhorse that American Indians, even fierce-looking ones, could be kind and generous and good-humored -- and faithful friends," Brown wrote. "From that time, I scorned all the blood-and-thunder tales of frontier Indian savagery, and when I went to the Western movies on Saturday afternoon, I cheered the warriors who were always cast as villains."

It is a sweet story, and there is no reason to doubt its essential veracity. But a couple of minor issues speak to the nature of memory and history. In "When the Century Was Young" Brown remembers Yellow Horse as a slipping-down former major leaguer relegated to the bullpen for his wildness; he was actually a young prospect enjoying a stellar season. And Brown was not quite a teenager in 1920 -- the only year that Yellow Horse played for the Travelers.

Both these errors are embedded in the narrative. I found accounts asserting that the encounter happened in 1921. Brown's description of Yellow Horse as a former major leaguer routinely makes its way into accounts.

Granted, Brown was writing from memory, it was a lot harder to fact-check minor points in the early 1990s, and we can't be completely confident in the baseball records that are available. "When the Century Was Young" is a beautiful book, but probably should be taken more for poetry than history.

And there's this: A story in the Jan. 20, 1921, edition of the Arkansas Gazette declared the success of Yellow Horse in 1920 emboldened the Travelers to seek other Pawnee talent, leading to the signing of a catcher named Harry Coons, Yellow Horse's Indian school teammate.

Coons may have been with the Travelers for at least part of the 1921 season and given that he didn't succeed as a player, he may have spent time in the bullpen warming up relief pitchers -- a duty Brown ascribes to Yellow Horse in "When the Century Was Young."

Was it the summer of 1921 Brown was remembering? Did he conflate his memories of Yellow Horse -- who was a minor celebrity in the early '20s as (probably) the only full-blood Indian in the majors at the time -- with those of his associate Coons?

Then we discover that Brown's family probably didn't move to Little Rock until 1924, with Brown graduating from the old Little Rock High School in 1926, the year before brand-new Central High School opened.

Historians, detectives and journalists know how slippery memory can be. Bill Jones, a Little Rock writer and friend of Brown's during his last decades, alludes to the Rolling Stones, saying he learned to "trust the singer, not the song" when it came to the "essential, underlying truth" of Brown's stories.

Dee Brown autographs a copy of his book at a 1993 signing party.
(Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Dee Brown autographs a copy of his book at a 1993 signing party. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Mark Twain was alive when Dee Brown was born into an age of "steam locomotives, Civil War veteran reunions, Victorian attitudes, genuine patriotism, baseball players who loved the game as well as money ... frequent and sudden fatal diseases, depressing funerals held in family parlors ... religious revivals held under big tents ... Some of these things were splendid; others struck terror, especially in the hearts of the young."

Brown died in 2002, but still feels like a presence in Arkansas, just as "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" still feels vital, a book some readers carry as a mental or actual talisman. It can change the way you approach things and, 50 years on, it remains a staple on the lists of important works of the 20th century.

He was in his 60s, an established mid-list author who'd been publishing books on the West regularly since 1948.

Brown was working a day job as an agricultural librarian at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign when he published the book, which begins with the forced relocation of the Navajo in 1864 and ends with the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890. Brown cataloged the broken treaties, diplomatic treachery and flat-out bigotry that propelled Manifest Destiny. Its one-sidedness was the point.

"The arguments that Brown presents in 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' seeped so thoroughly into the popular consciousness that his work influenced generations of Americans, including Native scholars," says Gregory Smithers, history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of, among others, "Indigenous History from Origins to Removal" and "The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity."

"In much the same way that Alex Haley's writing influenced how Americans thought about African and African American history, Brown influenced popular thinking about the American West and Native American history. Of his generation, only Vine Deloria Jr., had the same type of cultural impact."

An immediate hit with the public and with the popular media, it sold exceedingly well, was translated into dozens of languages and redefined the life of its author, who returned to Little Rock in the mid-'70s, to write.

But it wasn't universally beloved.

According to his friend Bill Jones, Dee Brown always disliked this cover image — the man depicted was from a tribe that was not present at Wounded Knee in 1892. Still, it’s been used on many editions  of  the  book,  including  the  first  and  this  one,  the  30th  anniversary edition. 
(Democrat-Gazette file photo)
According to his friend Bill Jones, Dee Brown always disliked this cover image — the man depicted was from a tribe that was not present at Wounded Knee in 1892. Still, it’s been used on many editions of the book, including the first and this one, the 30th anniversary edition. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

"Brown's work wasn't without controversy," Smithers says. "At least one academic historian accused him of plagiarism. Such accusations brought into question the reliability of both his research and his arguments. However, I will say that when you present readers with a major rethinking of American history (something critics often lampoon as "revisionist" history -- a silly accusation given all history is revisionist), you're bound to earn some enemies."

A certain petty hostility did seem to creep into some reviews. In The American Historical Review, for instance, Francis Paul Prucha wrote that, absent its popularity, the book would "ordinarily not be noticed by scholarly journals."

"The book contains a great many errors of fact; some of them are minor, but they add up to considerable misinformation given to the reader. It is to be regretted that this sort of 'Indian history of the American west' gains such popularity. "

Brown had suffered the enmity of academics before. Reviewing his 1966 book "1876: The Year of the Century" in the Journal of American History, Indiana University professor Edwin Cady wrote: "The difficulties attendant on his methods are those endemic to 'popular history.' Temptations to facile irony and other razzmatazz rob his style of precision. His perspective is largely interior and intimate, therefore his canvas is very broad, he resorts to poster strokes and colors, and one is comfortable with his history in a ratio inverse to one's independent knowledge of the materials."

Despite the academic sniffing the book persisted, with most readers blissfully unaware of any attendant controversies. A more recent analog to the reception of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" might be Ken Burns' documentaries, which rarely break new ground but present generally accepted history in highly accessible ways.

Brown wasn't telling scholars anything they didn't know and wasn't laying out the facts in a disinterested manner; he was casting federal Indian policy as genocidal. If his methods of historical investigation were imperfect, his passion was evident.

And contagious.

"'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' joined other mostly scholarly works in reassessing the tropes of American exceptionalism and the 'winning of the West,'" Smithers says. "Brown does this by trying to get readers to consider the violence and warfare in the American West from the perspectives of Native people. He's not always successful -- some of his prose slides into romantic portrayals of Indigenous life and culture -- but the incredible popularity of his book got people reading and thinking about Native American history in ways that most Americans hadn't done before."

George Sabo III, director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, says the book, as a "popular history," was "intended to reach non-specialist, general audiences." These works typically don't offer overtly critical analysis of source materials, lack the sort of source citations that are common in scholarly works and selectively emphasize "one or more themes or perspectives around which the author builds the narrative."

"Along those lines," he says. "'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' can be compared to Barbara Tuchman's 'A Distant Mirror,' which likewise examines a series of 14th-century events that engage readers the turmoil of life in Europe during late medieval times.

"For an example from the other end of the spectrum of historical writing, one might compare Dee Brown's book to Heather Cox Richardson's 'Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre' ... [which] examines the Wounded Knee tragedy in a wider context of contemporaneous economic, social, and political events in 19th-century America. Yet it remains accessible to a wide range of readers. The two books convey very different perspectives, reflective in part of the eras during which they were written, but both succeed in elevating understanding."

I read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" in the '70s, when I was in high school, and it -- along with Arthur Penn's film "Little Big Man" -- probably did more to shape my views on American genocide than anything else. It made me sympathetic to the plight of the American Indian, a culture I perceived as ruined and subjugated. I felt shame and sadness and a little bit proud to be part of an enlightened minority who could see past Hollywood's depictions of Indians and understand how noble and proud they once were.

Which is another problem, articulated by novelist and historian David Treuer in his 2019 book "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present," which he calls "a self-consciously styled and themed follow-up and counter-narrative" to Brown's book.

"It pains me to think about Wounded Knee," Treuer writes. "It also pains me, for different reasons, to read about it in books like Dee Brown's. What hurts is not just that 150 people were cruelly and viciously killed. It is that their sense of life -- and our sense of their lives -- died with them. We know next to nothing about them. Who among them was funny? Who kicked his dog? Were they unfaithful, or vain or fond of sweets?

"The tiny, fretful, intricate details are what make us who we are. And they are lost again and again when we paint over them with the tragedy of 'the Indian.' In this sense, the victims of Wounded Knee died twice -- once at the end of a gun, and again at the end of a pen ... This disease is the story told about us and the one we so often tell about ourselves."

Dee Brown was a fantastic storyteller, a lovely writer, an intelligent man capable of empathy and insight. But we can wonder whether he ever knew Moses Yellow Horse.


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