Bury My Heart

Bury My Heart


My somewhat eclectic musical tastes stem from my teens.  My mother collected albums she picked up at yard sales, not particularly interested in the genres or artists.  These are the songs that I listen to and learned to play on guitar.   To be upfront, until about 20 years ago, the name Buffy Saint-Marie was just that, a name to me.  Even though I knew Donovan's version of Universal Soldier, I wasn't aware she had written it.  I knew Elvis' recording of Until it's Time for You to Go but, again had no idea Buffy Saint-Marie wrote and first recorded it. 

So, what brought this unique singer-songwriter to my attention was, of course, my go-to group, the Indigo Girls.  On their 1995 live album 1200 Curfews (my favorite live album ever) they included not one, but two performances of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (one live, one studio). 

They introduced the song as that of Buffy Saint-Marie.  It's also the first time I heard the names of Anna Mae (Pictou Aquash)  and Leonard Peltier or became aware of the AIM (American Indian Movement).

Two years before the release of 1200 Curfews, the Indigo Girls paired with the Native American Green Party environmental activist Winona LaDuke to help found Honor the Earth, a organization designed to help fund and  to raise awareness of indigenous American environmental concerns and justice within their communities.  Honor the Earth is still going strong today.

Although I'm no authority on Indians, neither am I a stranger to their history in North America.  But even with that being the case, the plight of the Indians in the 20th century has been a subject I've only glimpsed at and it's a very complex one veiled in deceits and agendas.  No surprise there. 

This little slice of chess.com is meant to be more about music than Indian issues, though, in this case the two threads are hard to unravel and separate.

Here is Buffy Sainte-Marie's version of Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee.

For clarification, the song doesn't talk about the 1890 massacre of the 250-300 Lakota mostly unarmed men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek, but rather the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973 that took place near the massacre site on the uranium rich land of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  This was a very confusing affair, much of which is still cloudy today, although the evidence of cover-up and maleficence is overwhelming   Much of what has been proffered as truth is distorted, fabricated, self-serving or unclear -- and this, in part, is the substance of the lyrics.  While directly referring to the Pine Ridge Incident, Sainte-Marie's sub-text is the systematic destruction of the Indian culture and the stripping of the Indian identify. "You can still be an Indian down at the Y of Saturday night."   What I find most appealing is the Buffy Sainte-Marie writes and sings without the justified rancor but instead with the more healing tone of understanding, truth-seeking and even a bit of humor.

Leonard Peltier, one of the heroes or villains (depending on whom and what you believe) in this story said the following in his pre-sentencing statement after his trial in 1977:

I do feel pity for your people that they must live under such an ugly system. Under your system, you are taught greed, racism, and corruption - and most serious of all, the destruction of Mother Earth. Under the Native American system, we are taught all people are Brothers and Sisters; to share the wealth with the poor and needy. But the most important of all is to respect and preserve the Earth, who we consider to be our Mother. We feed from her breast; our Mother gives us life from birth and when it's time to leave this world, who again takes us back into her womb. But the main thing we are taught is to preserve her for our children and our grandchildren, because they are the next who will live upon her.

or simply Honor the Earth.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
emphasizes uranium greed as the underlying issue and how the Pine Ridge tribal chairman had "transferred in secret" one-eighth of the sacred tribal land in the Black Hills, the very part containing the uranium deposits,  to the federal government in a sub rosa agreement. 

Buffy points to the "gold rush wars"   - meaning the escalation of the Great Sioux Wars following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 which resulted in Custer's well known defeat two years later.  The illegal appropriation of Indian land, usually for their untapped resources,  was a common theme of Sainte-Marie's protest songs as much as a common theme in the US government's dealings with Indians.  Buffy's real point seems to have been that the century between the two "Wounded Knee" incidents saw little of no change in the public's view and governmental treatment on the Indians.  

Buffy Sainte-Marie is an educated women with an undergraduate degree from the Univ. of Mass at Amherst in Oriental Philosophy and Education in 1963 (and an honorary PhD. in Fine Arts from there twenty years later). A strong supporter of Native American initiatives, she established Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education in 1969 and the Cradleboard Teaching Project (which, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, "facilitates communication among Indigenous and mainstream school children through the use of computer networking") in 1996.  Although she was born on the Cree Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, she was adopted as an infant and raised by an American family in New England.  After moving to New York City as a young adult, she gained a following in Greenwich Village. It was then she returned to the Piapot Reserve. where she was adopted by a Cree family (according to their traditions).  Although she got her musical start in America, Lyndon Johnson mounted a pressure campaign to eradicate her from American airwaves for her antiwar and pro-Indian activism. This censorship extended throughout the Nixon years, drastically reducing her exposure in the US.   

Buffy's 2015 song Uranium War seems a kind of companion piece for  Bury My Heart.

In 1965 she appeared on Pete Seeger's wonderful TV show, Rainbow Quest:

The final song on this clip is a duet of Buffy Sainte-Marie (on mouth bow) and Pete Seeger (on banjo) performing a remarkable mustn't-miss rendition of Get Along Home Cindy, Cindy.

One of the songs she performs on Seeger's show is her powerful My country 'Tis Of Thy People You're Dying.  A kind of musical Indian history lesson,  it's well worth its own place here:

Later she recorded the emotional Now That the Buffalo's Gone  which again is about broken promises and the stealing of birthrights. To illustrate the Indians' loss of culture and land, Now That the Buffalo's Gone used the construction of the Kinzua Dam in upstate Pennsylvania.  This dam ended up displacing 700 Senecas  from their homes in both PA and NY. Its construction was disputed mightily by the Senecas (who presented viable alternatives, all of which were rejected out of hand) whose treaty (usually the Pickering Treaty, the Calico Treaty the Treaty of Canandaigua), signed by Timothy Pickering in agency to George Washington in 1794,  guaranteed the Senecas could live there undisturbed in perpetuity: 

"The United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneka Nation ... in the free use and enjoyment thereof: but it shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States, who have the right to purchase."

I'll end this, not with Buffy Sainte-Marie, but with Johnny Cash who echoed this story with his rather passionate song,  As Long as the Grass Shall Grow:

Some Resources
The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash by Johanna Brand. 1993

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier by Peter Matthiessen. 1992

Occupation of Wounded Knee: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, 1974

Wounded Knee Massacre: Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate Ninety-Fourth Congress, Feb. 5 and 6, 1976

The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation Through Two Generations by Joy A. Bilharz.  2002

Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria,Jr. 1971





Buffy Uncensored



Caged Warrior: "Boulder Weekly" interviews Leonard Peltier

First Nations site index

The reality within today's American Indian culture