Bury My Heart Depicts the Death of a Thousand Cuts

By Kieran Mulvaney

Don’t expect stock western tropes in this heart-rending account of the 1890 massacre of the Sioux.


There is little of the traditional western in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. There are, for example, but two scenes of Indians swooping down on white soldiers — one, the Sioux and Cheyenne victory over Custer’s forces at Little Bighorn, viewed from a remote aerial distance in the movie’s opening moments; the other, in which U.S. forces repel the assault a few months later with heavy artillery and ruthless efficiency, seen more closely but just as briefly.

A third exchange of gunfire that provides the movie’s denouement is less a battle than a slaughter. It shocks because of its obscene one-sidedness, and because, by that stage, we have watched as, piece by piece, one side has been methodically stripped by the other of its very humanity. There is little of the traditional western in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee because it is not a western as we consider the genre at all but, in fact, a heart-rending study of the purposeful evisceration of a culture. The climactic spasm of violence is not so much a fight as the gratuitous kicking of a barely-twitching corpse.

When the movie based on the final two chapters of Dee Brown’s acclaimed 1970 non-fiction book of the same name — begins, eight years have passed since a treaty established The Great Sioux Reservation and promised peace and mutually-agreed territorial boundaries. But with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the most sacred part of the Sioux land, the United States government decides to alter the terms. The primary mover of goalposts is Senator Henry Dawes, played with a chilling mix of idealism and genocidal single-mindedness by Aidan Quinn, who seemingly believes that his ever-diminishing offers are in the Indians’ best interests. He does not, however, reveal to the Sioux councils led by Red Cloud what he openly advocates among his own kind: that his vision is not an accommodation with the Indians, but an assimilation of them tantamount to annihilation.

Resistance to Dawes’ plans is centered around Sitting Bull. As portrayed — for the second time in his career — by August Schellenberg, the Sioux chief is a study in dignity and strength, leavened with a helping of pride and a dash of arrogance. At one point, he is so enveloped in protecting his People in the abstract, he loses sight of the suffering of the people under his immediate care, until he is forced ultimately to concede the inevitable.

When Sitting Bull surrenders himself to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation — and the prominence of that particular location gives the movie an unexpected contemporary edge that only heightens its poignancy — he meets his ultimate nemesis, J.K. Simmons’ James McLaughlin, the agent in charge. In a heartbreaking irony, after years of defiance and battle, the great warrior must finally submit to a petty functionary.

The indignities heaped on Sitting Bull and his fellow Sioux mount. The plains nomads are confined to settlements and forced to sow seeds in infertile tracts of land. The great hunters must rely on McLaughlin occasionally deigning to allow them to kill a corralled cow. For the rest of their food, they must request rations, the doling out of which is recorded on cards they wear around their necks. Some seek solace in the miniscule alcohol content of cod liver oil; children die from measles, influenza, and whooping cough. Ultimately, defiance gives way to despair; the final act of brutality is a violent coda, but by then a proud people has already been defeated by neglect, oppression and humiliation.

“You whites have so many weapons,” reflects an aged Red Cloud. “We have always feared the guns the least.”