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Posted on May 25, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Overview

By Paul Glasser

"I shall not be here, I shall rise and pass, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee"

Based on the book of the same name, written by Dee Brown and first published in 1970, HBO’s new film “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” uses the infamous massacre that took place on December 29th, 1890, as a backdrop to explore the central issues of cultural identity and assimilation.

The protagonist, Charles Eastman (portrayed by Adam Beach) is a young, Dartmouth-educated, Sioux doctor, lauded for his assimilation into American society.  As the story progresses, Eastman attempts to discover his own identity and embarks on a quest that begins with the Battle of the Little Big Horn and ends at Wounded Knee. Eastman grew up as a young Sioux warrior but his father, who converts to Christianity, wants him to be integrated in white society.


Eastman struggles to form his own identity after being uprooted and immersed in an alien society. He wrestles with foreign school lessons but becomes a college-educated doctor and advocate for the Sioux.

Chief Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) refused
to submit to US Government policies

At the same time, the tribes of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull are pushed onto smaller and smaller reservations in an effort by the Federal Government to force the Sioux to adapt to the ways of the white man.  As a result, Government agents force the tribes to live in cabins, adopt farming techniques and wear western clothes.  This naturally causes resentment amongst the Sioux who find many of their age-old ways forbidden and treated with suspicion, not least of which is the Ghost Dance, a religious ceremony which encouraged harmonious co-existence with white Americans, but which was misunderstood by many to be a war dance.

The sharp contrast between the realm of Washington and the harsh plains of the Dakotas presents a striking visual image. The Sioux huddle in dilapidated shacks and endure blizzards and epidemics. But more than 1,500 miles away, Eastman and his mentor Sen. Henry Dawes (portrayed by Aidan Quinn), work in lavish offices.

Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) lobbied for
a more humane treatment of the Sioux

As dissatisfaction on the reservations grows, so does the internal conflict within Eastman.  When the tensions at Wounded Knee come to head, Eastman must reconcile his cultural traditions with the new life he has been forced to adopt.

Of course, the final, tragic end is inevitable, but the build up to the event is a fascinating journey, an insight into a culture which is still misunderstood by many to this very day.  Dee Brown’s original book has sold nearly five million copies and has been translated into seventeen languages, HBO’s film of this richly researched story endeavors to help set the record straight on one of American history’s darkest chapters.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by HBO is currently a featured advertisement on the Armchair General website.