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Dee Brown, 94; 'Wounded Knee' Author Altered Perceptions of Frontier History

December 14, 2002|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Dee Brown, who raised awareness of the historical mistreatment of Native Americans in his exhaustively researched 1970 book, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," died Thursday at his home in Little Rock, Ark. He was 94.

The cause was congenital heart failure.

Brown was a librarian by training and a historian and novelist by avocation who wrote or co-wrote more than 30 books about the American West in a six-decade career.

His best-selling "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" told the story of how the West was won from the viewpoint of the 19th century Native Americans who witnessed the last major battle between U.S. troops and Indian nations at Wounded Knee, S.D.

The book, which has sold more than 5 million copies and been translated into 15 languages, altered popular perceptions of frontier history.

It also helped to revise scholarly views of the subject, paving the way for so-called New Western historians who were more inclined to see oppression than triumph in the way the West was settled.

"All practicing historians who came of age from the mid-'70s on were very conscious of 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,' " said professor C. Fred Williams, an expert on the American West at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"The effect of 'Bury My Heart' was essentially to give voice to the American Indians. They were always an important part of the American West, usually as the indirect object. Dee Brown [made] them the direct object."

Brown wrote mostly nonfiction, covering such topics as the building of the railroads and women settlers of the Old West. He also wrote a dozen novels, among the most notable of which is "Creek Mary's Blood" (1980), a generational tale of an Indian family's westward journey.

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" was the culmination of a lifelong fascination with Western history that began when Brown was a boy growing up in Arkansas.

He moved from his birthplace of Alberta, La., to Ouachita County, Ark., after the death of his father when he was 5. His maternal grandmother, who cared for him while his mother worked as a store clerk, regaled him with tales of the Civil War and of her father's friend, Davy Crockett, the legendary frontiersman.

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'Aren't Real Indians'

Many of Brown's childhood friends were Native Americans, whose parents worked on oil rigs in the area. In a darkened theater, where he would often join his friends to see western movies, he had what he called his "first real revelation" about their history.

"My buddy said to me, 'You know, those aren't real Indians,' " referring to the characters on the screen. Brown started to read anything he could find about Native American tribes and wondered why they were so often portrayed as villains.

After attending Little Rock High School, Brown worked as a printer and reporter for the Harrison, Ark., Times. He later enrolled at Arkansas State Teachers College as a history major. A job in the college library helped offset his tuition costs.

During the Depression he worked, by his estimate, 50 different jobs before he landed an entry-level position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture library in Washington, D.C., in 1934. Within a few years, he became head librarian at a government library in Beltsville, Md. He was drafted into the Army in 1942 and spent most of World War II assigned to library work at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

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Focus on the West

After the war, Brown headed the agricultural library at the University of Illinois, where he earned a master's degree in library science and became a professor. He stayed for more than two decades, moving back to Arkansas when he retired in 1972.

Brown had been writing on the side since the 1930s, beginning with magazine stories. His first book, published in 1942, was a novel based on the life of Crockett, "Wave High the Banner." Over the next several decades, he would alternate between fiction and nonfiction, but never strayed from his abiding interest in the West.

He wrote more than a dozen books, including several for children, before tackling "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

"This is not a cheerful book," Brown wrote in the introduction to the 446-page tome, which took its name from the massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890. Four days after Christmas that year, troopers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry encountered a band of 300 Sioux and confiscated their weapons before slaughtering more than 150 of them, including women and children.

The book evolved from a notebook of speeches by American Indians of the 19th century that Brown had been compiling for years. He was so taken by the beauty of the Indian chiefs' words, which had been translated into English, that he spent hours tracking down the identities of the official interpreters.

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