Wounded Knee, South Dakota, afternoon and evening of July 25th, 2017
From McLaughlin, Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota, I make the 5-hour drive south to my next destination in the Pine Ridge Reservation, just a little ways north of the Nebraska border. My drive takes me through Badlands National Park, though only for a short while. What I see of it is beautiful, and I certainly plan to return.
My destination is Wounded Knee, named for Wounded Knee Creek and the site of a conflict between the United States Army and the band of Chief Spotted Elk, or Big Foot, as the U.S. army dubbed him. This conflict was originally called the Battle of Wounded Knee in United States historical accounts but was generally redesignated the Massacre of Wounded Knee. As sympathy for the plight of defeated Native Americans grew and their side of the story became better known, it became clear that ‘massacre’ was a more fitting term for this affair than ‘battle,’ since the vast majority of those who were shot down here were noncombatants: women, children, infants, and the elderly.
When I arrive at the large red and white sign at the side of the road which marks the Wounded Knee Massacre site, I park at the little lot in front of it. I look a while at the structures and the lay of the land here for a while. I take some pictures and then begin to read the sign, front and back. I’m not yet finished when a young man approaches me, perhaps fifteen or so. He is lean, about my height, with hair pulled back and hanging long behind. He’s dressed simply in a plain t-shirt and jeans. His skin is a rich reddish-gold tan in the deep peach just-after-sunset light, his cheekbones high. ‘That sign is wrong’, he says. ‘They tell the story wrong.’
‘Hello! And thanks for the warning,’ I reply. ‘Who are ‘they?”
He tells me that the people who agree with the army’s side of things wrote the sign. I interject and tell him, yes, I see where they placed a wood block on each side to cover part of the title, painted with the replacement word ‘massacre’. But, he explains, they still didn’t really fix most of what’s wrong with it. Big Foot was not really the chief’s name, and …well, the whole thing is wrong. He tells me why. Then he points to the colorfully painted round building across the road.
‘Go to the museum, that’s our museum, where we tell the story’, he directs me. ‘I will,’ I say, ‘That’s where I’m headed next. But I do want to finish reading the whole sign and see what they said about it, and try to find out the real story if I can.’
I return to the back of the sign, read the rest carefully, then approach him again. ‘I know what they say here now, so I’ll go to the museum and read the story there.’ ‘Okay, he says, then hesitates a moment, then holds up some beaded necklaces in different bright colors, each with a circular pendant holder open in the center to display the gemstone or colorful glass bead within. ‘I make these’, he says.
I admire them, and he names their prices. ‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him. ‘I can check to see what I have, but I remember I don’t have much cash on me, not nearly enough to pay you fairly for all this work.’
‘I take contributions’, he says.
I go to the car and check, and it’s true. I only have a few dollars. I take most of this and bring it back to him. ‘Thanks for telling me the story, and I’ll go find out more.’ I cross the road…
In 1890, the Lakota people were not doing well. They had mostly been driven from their homelands, scattered and confined to reservations in unfamiliar and mostly inhospitable territories. U.S. government-issued rations, supplied by treaty agreement, were scarce, sometimes in punishment for real or perceived infractions, and more often because corrupt and underpaid government agents and dishonest contract suppliers skimmed liberally from the top. So, the Lakota often went hungry.
They were often disarmed too, so they could not always defend their holdings from white raiders or go on raids themselves when hunger or honor demanded it. The dispossessed men could sometimes get special dispensations from the army to get their guns back for hunting but the hunting was poor. The white settlers had also nearly wiped the American buffalo from the face of the earth, in part for their hides which made fashionable hats and other goods, and in part to remove the incentive for Great Plains Indians to want to remain to their traditional hunting grounds. Deer, elk, and other game were getting ever harder to find too, and their lean meat was not as nutritious.
Boredom, disillusionment, depression, and disease were also rampant. The traditional ways of life that gave it meaning were gone and the men, especially, had little to do and little reason to want to do it. Much of the reservation lands were not very good for farming even when some of the Lakota decided to take up this culturally undesirable occupation (it was traditionally acceptable for women but not for men), and bad land apportionment policies caused many Native American-owned ranches to fail. Children who were sent to white schools by their parents, or taken from their parents when they were unwilling, were shorn of their hair, traditionally worn long, and whipped when they dared speak a word of their native language or engage in any traditional ways. The unfamiliar terrain, often assigned as reservations precisely because their poor soil and malarial conditions made them undesirable to white settlers, helped contribute to the depression and disease that regularly wiped out large portions of Native American populations, who were already vulnerable to the diseases introduced by white people to which they had little or no immunity.
And when Native Americans of the Great Plains and throughout America, as individuals or groups, dared leave their poor circumstances in the reservations and strike out for a better life for themselves and their families, just as the white settlers had done when heading west, they were branded ‘hostiles’ and hunted down like criminals.
In 1890, the Minneconjou Lakota chief Spotted Elk welcomed two distressed Hunkpapa Lakota men into his camp in the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock. They bore the sad tidings of the killing of his half-brother, Sitting Bull, and some of his followers who adhered to the Ghost Dance movement. About forty more of Sitting Bull’s band were set to flee Standing Rock, fearing they’d be next. White authorities thought that because the Ghost Dance cult believed sacred garments called Ghost Shirts could turn away bullets, this implied that their wearers secretly plotted war against the whites, though the Ghost Dance cult actually, explicitly preached non-violence. Like Sitting Bull, Spotted Elk was initially drawn to the Ghost Dance movement but later rejected its truth and utility, though they both tolerated adherence in the cult by others. After all, it revived a spirit of hope and purpose in its adherents, and it preached peace. But this made both Lakota leaders objects of suspicion by the white authorities, who apparently believed that once a Ghost Dancer, always a Ghost Dancer.
In solidarity and a spirit of brotherly hospitality, Spotted Elk invited the beleaguered and bereft Hunkpapas of the slain Sitting Bull’s band to take shelter with his own. Spotted Elk had become a trusted negotiator by white and Native American authorities by this time. He was an uncle of the great warrior Crazy Horse, Oglala hero of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and an ally of the rebellious tribes in the Great Sioux Wars of the 1870’s, but had remained a peaceful moderate in dealing with white demands for many years since then, settling down and farming on the reservation. By the time of Sitting Bull’s death in the spring of 1890, however, White and Native Americans alike had begun to view the sixty-five-year-old Spotted Elk as, at best, out of touch and somewhat irrelevant, and at worst, a secret Ghost Dance anti-white conspirator.
When white authorities heard that the Ghost Dancing Hunkpapas were with Spotted Elk, they believed their suspicions of impending rebellion were confirmed. They wanted Spotted Elk arrested too, along with the Hunkpapa refugees. But the peaceful Spotted Elk, who didn’t want to betray these men, couldn’t convince the young men of his band to give up the Hunkpapas anyway. When he heard that troops were on their way, Spotted Elk decided it was useless to try to give in to these unreasonable demands and expose himself to unreasonable arrest. He decided to lead his band south to Pine Ridge instead, in answer to a request by Chief Red Cloud to mediate some difficulties there. Before he left, however, he fell terribly ill with pneumonia. He made this trek south with his people carried in a litter, coughing up blood and growing every weaker along the way. It was dead winter, late December, and they struggled through the snow, wind, and bitter cold.
Though the local army authority didn’t believe Spotted Elk and his people were a threat, they were ordered to intercept and detain them. U.S. Army troops caught up with Spotted Elk and his people not far from Wounded Knee Creek, where they proceeded on to camp and arrange for talks. But the talks did not go well. They began with the order from faraway higher-ups to disarm the band. Spotted Elk refused. The band needed to be able to protect themselves out here away from the Pine Ridge agency, and they needed to hunt and provide their families with food in these hard times.
The protracted and repeated bargaining and forced attempts to convince Spotted Elk’s men to give up their weapons became more and more contentious. It was just too humiliating for a man to be forced to give up his most expensive and prized possession, his main tool and weapon with which he could vanquish his enemies, protect his life and those of his people, and provide for his family and friends. Sometimes the Minneconjou would make a show of giving up weapons by turning in their old and broken ones, sometimes the soldiers would simply raid the tents and take the hidden weapons, pushing past the enraged and resisting women as they did so. This whole business of forcibly and unnecessarily disarming the band was not a policy that the local military authorities thought wise or necessary. But the orders came in insistingly, so they obeyed. Francis Craft, the Jesuit priest who lived with the Lakota people and spoke their language, assisted with these sticky negotiations. It’s a map from his papers, by the way, that I used as an aid in seeking the site of Sitting Bull’s death.
On December 29th, 1890, the Minneconjou men were called out to be thoroughly searched and all their firearms confiscated once and for all. When a rather clueless soldier tried to grab and wrest a gun from the hands of a deaf and perhaps mentally troubled man, a shot went off. It was all over then. The shots kept firing, and the killing began. And went on, and on. Both sides shot some from their own number in the crossfire. And both sides fought at first, but when it became clear that the badly outnumbered Minneconjou were losing, the killing kept going, segueing from combat to simple extermination. Soldiers, in a cold relentless sort of frenzy, began methodically picking off the fleeing Minneconjou one by one, aiming, shooting to kill all those the Hotchkiss guns didn’t get.
When the firing finally stopped, about two dozen soldiers were killed and about forty wounded. But despite the much lower number recorded on that old sign, between 250 and 300 of Spotted Elk’s people were killed, more than two-thirds of them women, children, and other noncombants. Spotted Elk was among them.
I enter the museum, and find myself in an open, roughly circular room. There’s a long folding table with a guestbook, a little cashbox, and some papers. Behind it stands a young woman in a long dark colored dress without sleeves, her long hair loosely pulled back. She’s rather petite, slim, with a round face and flushed cheeks. I greet her. She seems remote, almost out of it, and answers me in a voice so quiet I don’t catch all of what she says. She does indicate that should I look around, so I do. There’s a pair of child’s sparkly blue costume fairy wings in the center of the floor, and a few other toys. I find that the displays mostly consist of text and images painted on the wall and printed on large sheets, some framed, that sit atop more folding tables that line the room. They don’t refer much to the first clash at Wounded Knee, but to the second in the 1970’s, in the midst of the American Indian Movement. That’s a long and important story of its own, too much to get into for this piece. The displays also tell stories of other important moments in the struggle for Native American rights.
Here’s something of some of these stories, as this museum tells them:
I leave the museum and am just about to walk up the hill when two very small children ran up to me. A little girl, perhaps three, hugs my legs, and her wide grin displays her tiny upper teeth. She has wispy pigtails and wears a pink play dress. She evidently wants to play but doesn’t speak. Her little companion, a ruddy-faced toddler in a blue t-shirt and diaper, chases after her, his tough little feet undeterred by the gravel. Once she hops and then runs away, looking back in invitation for a good chase, he grabs my legs in turn and looks up. His short hair sticks out all around his head. They are impish and adorable. I’ve always particularly liked bold and precocious children. Not bratty, mind you, but outgoing. I greet them and smile, and since the little girl doesn’t answer what I say to her, just continues to invite me to play with gestures and body language, I’m not sure if she understands me. The lady from the museum calls to the children, and after a few moments of stalling, they run inside.
I continue up the hill to the burial ground, the cemetery gate composed of an unpretentious arch of metal across two pillars of brick painted red and white. It’s surmounted by a simple cross. There are many gravestones and a handsome engraved marble monument that was erected in 1903. I’m about to take my camera out to take pictures for this piece when I see there are other visitors here standing over grave sites, some speaking to each other softly, some silent, two evidently praying. It doesn’t seem respectful, somehow, to take pictures while these people are having this solemn moment here, so I refrain. I’m certain to find some photos published in a public forum later for reference since this is an important historical site.
The burial ground is located on the very hill that the Hotchkiss guns were placed to mow the Oglalas down in their village, sparing no-one. But it wasn’t just the distant artillery that lacked discretion in whom it killed. Oglala survivors told of soldiers who deliberately shot women, children, and infants at point-blank range. Many of the soldiers believed that this indiscriminate killing was justified as a pre-emptive strike, and besides, just as Native Americans were not legal citizens or even persons under U.S. law, so were they considered on a moral basis. They were thought by many as a sort of species of sub-human, in a similar sense that Africans and their descendants were. They were just human enough to accept favors from and treat kindly when it was more expedient to do so, and just human enough to have sex with, at least with the women, with their consent if you could get it but if not, no matter. But they were not quite human enough to deserve representation in court, not human enough to judge each Native American as a moral individual deserving the benefit of the doubt or of the right to enjoy liberty in their own way.
There were, to be sure, some soldiers who did not get caught up in the rush to violence. Some believed and went on to report that the Lakota were being treated unfairly and in fact, this affair was little short of mass murder, a wholly unnecessary result of bad policy ordered by ill-informed and bigoted higher-ups who didn’t know or care much what was happening on the ground.
General L. W. Colby was one of those who believed that Wounded Knee was a murderous debacle. A few soldiers had rescued and shielded some of the Lakota, especially women and children. A few survivors were rescued from the frozen battlefield later, including a few infants pulled from the arms of their dead or dying mothers. One of these, Zintkala Nuni, or, Lost Bird, was adopted by Colby. Perhaps he saw this adoption as an opportunity to undo a tiny bit of the wrong done. He also seemed to perceive himself as a sort of white knight to this tiny damsel in distress.
Unfortunately, Colby’s dismay at what happened to the Lakotas at Wounded Knee didn’t translate into his being a very good caretaker to this one particular Lakota. He abandoned Lost Bird and her adoptive mother when she was still a child. She was put in white schools but never accepted by her white peers, yet she was forbidden by her doting but unwise adoptive mother to associate with children of her own or of other races either. She wanted Lost Bird to serve as an example of her brand of progressivism, to show that Native Americans could be as perfectly civilized as anyone else if you just assimilate them properly. But Lost Bird never adjusted well to white culture in general and struggled to get by as an adult, mostly working as a traveling performer. She had many troubled relationships, some of which were abusive, and Colby had her institutionalized in a harsh reformatory when she became pregnant at seventeen. She contracted syphilis from her first husband and suffered from it the rest of her life. Already weakened by this disease, Lost Bird died at only age 29 in an influenza epidemic in 1920. Her body was reclaimed by her people and reburied here at Wounded Knee in the burial ground on the hill.
Sources and inspiration:
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970
Burgoyne, Mindie. ‘Lost Bird – the Sad Story of a Baby Taken from Wounded Knee.’ Dec 31, 2015, Travel Hag blog
Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984
Cozzens, Peter. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Knopf, 2016
Harrison, Eric. ‘A Girl Called ‘Lost Bird’ Is Finally at Rest: History: Lakota Infant Survived Wounded Knee Killing and Was Adopted by Whites. Now She is Buried Among Her People.’ Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1991
Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Lawrence, Melanie. ‘Chronicle of a Lakota Girl Raised White / Baby Found at Wounded Knee Grew Up to Face an Identity Crisis.’ SF Gate, July 23, 1995
‘Lost Bird Story: Summary.’ South Dakota Pulic Television website
Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931
Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932
Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010
‘Spotted Elk‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark Nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places. Prepared by Richard E. Jensen / Eli Paul, Research Department of the Nebraska Historical Society, Dec 6, 1990