New Podcast Episode: Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Entering Pine Ridge Reservation via Bombing Range Rd (what a name!) from the Badlands, South Dakota.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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… Read the written version here

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Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse

Portrait of Crazy Horse, Tasunke Witko in Lakota, fresco on the interior wall of Wounded Knee museum, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Fort Robinson, Nebraska, July 26th, 2017

I wake up at Fort Robinson, just a little ways east of the village of Harrison in northwest Nebraska. I drove here last night from Wounded Knee, which takes about one hour and forty-five minutes. I camped out in the backseat of the car, where I continue to keep my sleeping bag, camp pad, and coats ready to make a cozy nest, in a parking lot behind one of the museum’s lodges. It’s a soft pinkish-blue morning, a little warm with a cool breeze blowing. It rained a little last night and everything feels fresh and clean, except me. I’ll soon find a place to wash my face, brush my teeth, and change into clean clothes. But right now, all I want to do is stretch my legs, drink my little thermos of coffee, and go out exploring in this calm and lovely early summer morning.

I drive the car around the fort, getting a good look at the layout and buildings until I see what I seek: a historical marker near apparent early fort buildings from the eighteenth century. I park. The grounds are lovely and well-maintained, and so are the buildings, from these rough log structures to the tidy clapboard ones painted white and green to the large lodges, halls, and offices of brick, adobe, and stone. This fort was in use more or less constantly, from its founding as Camp Robinson in 1874 as a military security outpost for the second Red Cloud Agency, to its reassignment as a training ground and quartermaster remount depot, breeding, training, and caring for up to 12,000 mules and horses at any given time prior to and for the duration of World War II. It was the regimental headquarters for the two African American black regiments in the then-segregated U.S. Army, first the Ninth Cavalry, then the Tenth, from 1887 to 1907. From 1885 to 1916, in fact, most of the troops stationed here were black.

Buffalo Soldiers historical monument at Fort Robinson, Nebraska

Crazy Horse was among the most revered war leaders of the Oglala Lakota and their allies in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. He had long been successful at resisting white settlers’ and the U.S. Army’s attempts to force him onto a reservation or to adopt their ways. He was one of the bold young warriors who led a contingent of soldiers into an ambush near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. This 1866 engagement, called the Fight of the Hundred in the Hand by the Lakota and the Fetterman Fight by the United States, was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army by Native Americans until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later. 81 U.S. troops from Fort Phil Kearny and a few civilians lost their lives here. This battle was the culmination of a series of skirmishes and raids on unwelcome white settlers and forts such as this one set up to protect them.

Fort Robinson historical sign and reconstructed buildings from the 1870’s

For a long time previously, white and Native American people traded with one another and enjoyed mostly good relations on the Great Plains. However, settlers began flooding in in ever great numbers, disrupting buffalo migrations, depleting game, clearing timber, and putting up fences. At a certain point, the white presence came to be seen as a menace to the way of life that Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those who followed them believed was divinely and wisely arranged. Why resort to grubbing in the soil and putting up fences when Wakan Tanka, the Creator or Great Spirit, had given the people such rich herds of game, which, together with the rich stands of timber and plentiful flowing water, provided all the nourishment, clothing, and shelter one could need, on vast swaths of beautiful land where the people could roam as freely as the animals? The Bozeman Trail, which cut across this good land, was a major route for these white settlers and for a time, they passed through it mostly unmolested. But when the trickle became a flood, the situation changed from a matter of hospitality and mutual benefit to one of survival. Would any reasonable person continue to welcome guests once they’ve begun to ransack their home, raid their fridge, take their most prized possessions to sell, and block their passage from room to room?

Reconstruction of the old guardhouse with marker for Crazy Horse’s death, Fort Robinson

Crazy Horse was having none of it. Like Sitting Bull, he distrusted white people and disdained their way of life. It seemed stunted to him, caged, lacking soul and nobility. Unlike Sitting Bull, he made no concessions to white ways until forced to do so for the survival of his band; even then, he did the absolute minimum necessary. We don’t know what he looked like since he refused to have his picture taken; he was unimpressed with most white-made goods and would accept no bribes; he absolutely refused to visit Washington, D.C. as his fellow great chiefs had done because, as he observed, the experience changed them. They were dazzled and bewitched by what they saw, so they lost their independent spirit, their sense of who they were.

Red Cloud at Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson

Perhaps this touched a nerve: Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, two chiefs who had once been among the greatest warrior defenders of the Lakota ways but who had adopted many white ways, grew jealous of the power and influence Crazy Horse enjoyed because of his steadfast independence. They remained great leaders of their people and had come to believe that the best way to preserve the lives of their people while preserving as much of their culture as they could was to work with the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it was a hard decision to make, and I’m sure they did so with a great degree of ambivalence. So, Crazy Horse’s recalcitrance must have been that much harder to take. They treated him with suspicion and took the U.S. Army’s side against him. Even his great friend who had fought at his side at the Little Bighorn, Little Big Man, had switched loyalties. He had visited Washington, too. He was one of those that assisted in the attempt to confine Crazy Horse the day he was killed.

Crazy Horse wasn’t only an independent spirit when it came to white ways. He was very unusual within Oglala Lakota society. He was a reserved man in a gregarious culture; he dressed simply at all times, when warbonnets, elaborate jewelry, and other showy regalia were the usual garb of warriors in battle; he didn’t scalp the enemies he killed; he didn’t take a wife until he was in his thirties when most of his fellows had started a family by age twenty; though he fought bravely and ferociously, he was also methodical in battle, planning his moves carefully and stopping to shoot accurately when a whirlwind, showy style of fighting was more customary; he spoke little of his own exploits when tales of personal heroism were the usual topic of conversation after a good fight. But his fame grew because the daring and magnificence of his exploits made him an irresistible topic of conversation for others.

The Fetterman fight and the Battle of the Little Bighorn were spectacular victories for Crazy Horse and his warriors, but he would never again enjoy that level of success in battle against the white invaders. His last fight with the U.S. Army was at the Battle of Wolf Mountains, which began when the soldiers attacked his band in the dead of winter.  Much of the fighting, in fact, occurred during a blizzard. The army decided to end the fighting, once and for all, to make an additional show of invincible strength by showing that they were willing and able to pursue the war even in the most extreme weather. The fighting was fierce and, though there was no decisive winner, the Lakota and Cheyenne’s losses were heavy. The camp, too, was suffering greatly from hunger and the intense cold. Crazy Horse was defeated, finally, not in battle, but by observing the suffering of his people. He, like so many great chiefs before him, surrendered so that his people, if they could not enjoy liberty, could at least survive.

Stones placed in formation near the Crazy Horse Monument and guardhouse. It appears to be an unfinished memorial: when doing research for this piece, I found an article from 2015 which discussed plans for a new memorial for Crazy Horse and his entire band, 899 lovers of freedom who were forced to surrender here in 1877. The outer stones to mark four cardinal directions are in place, though they are not the massive ones described in the article, and the central stone has another smaller one beside it for offerings. The concrete walkways and large plaques containing the names of the people are not in place. Perhaps this simplified version was put in place as the often long, tedious, sometimes indefinite fundraising efforts for the more elaborate one continue.

Crazy Horse led his people to the Red Cloud Agency next to Fort Robinson and surrendered there on May 5th, 1877. For the next few months, rumor, gossip, accusations, negotiations, and whispers of plot and conspiracy whirled while Crazy Horse retreated ever further into himself. He was a man of action, not words, and he was impatient with all this hubbub. He had lost his only child, his beloved daughter They Are Afraid Of Her, about four years before, and her mother, his wife Black Shawl, was suffering from tuberculosis. He wanted nothing to be left alone as much as possible so long as he could not fight nor be free. But the rumors that Crazy Horse was plotting to assassinate General George Crook and start another war intensified, and Crook was determined to have him arrested, even assassinated if need be. Later inquiries showed that the rumors were unfounded, that there was no evidence that Crazy Horse planned to do otherwise than keep his word not to fight the whites anymore. Jealousy, infighting, betrayal, and poor translations, both accidental and deliberate, all contributed to the drama.

Left: Adjutant’s office, where Crazy Horse died, to the left of the guardhouse where he was stabbed; all of these buildings are reconstructions based on written records, photographs, and archaeological evidence. So you can see the actual distance between the adjutant’s office from which Crazy Horse walked to the guardhouse. Right: interior of the adjutant’s office with informational sign

The rumors got so bad that Crazy Horse feared that he would be executed or, worse, arrested and removed to some distant land of the whites away from his people, so on September 4th, 1877, he wrapped up his sick wife, and he and a few friends fled to his old friend Spotted Tail’s agency about forty miles east. He sought protection and advice as to what the whites were thinking, and he didn’t think this would betray his promise, of surrender. After all, he was going to an agency. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee was ordered to retrieve Crazy Horse, and he escorted him back to Fort Robinson the next morning. They went first to the adjutant’s office.

Stone monument, dedicated in 1934, near the site where Crazy Horse was bayoneted. I placed this little spray of sage here, picked in Deep Ravine at the Little Bighorn Battlefield from which Crazy Horse led his charge to split Custer’s forces. This maneuver was key to the successful outcome of the at battle. You can see that the morning breeze is about to waft the sprig away

Crazy Horse understood that he was to have a chance to talk things over with U.S. Army officials and clear things up. Lee was pretty sure of his innocence regarding all those rumors of plots, conspiracies, and warmongering, and promised Crazy Horse an interview with the white authorities which he didn’t have the authority to arrange. Lee hoped he could persuade the higher-ups to talk to Crazy Horse before deciding his fate, but it was not to be. Unequivocal orders came down for Crazy Horse’s immediate arrest instead. When Crazy Horse was led from the adjutant’s office into the guardhouse, he showed no sign of resistance, walking hand in hand with the captain. But when he stepped in the door, he saw the bars of the prison, and he realized this was a trap: there would be no talks, only imprisonment and then, who knows? So Crazy Horse pushed himself out the door, and as soldiers and his old friend Little Big Man tried to restrain him, he pulled out his knife and slashed Little Big Man’s arm. Another soldier near the guardhouse lowered his bayonet at the ready, and when the opportunity came, he lunged and stabbed. The blade pierced Crazy Horse’ side and into his kidney, and he fell.

After some controversy over what to do (put Crazy Horse in prison as he was, now in his death struggle? Leave him lying where he was as his friends began to hear the news and gather in anger?), he was carried back to the adjutant’s office on the red blanket he had been wearing. He refused the white man’s cot offered to him and asked to be placed on the floor instead. Crazy Horse was given morphine to ease his intense pain and he died, after lingering for long and painful hours, in the presence of his father and stepfather. He spoke forgiving words for most involved with his death except Little Big Man, who had, it seemed, not only betrayed Crazy Horse but all of his people.

Working model at the Visitor Center for the Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota. When asked once where his lands were now that the Lakota were being driven out, Crazy Horse answered, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.

Crazy Horse has become one of the most widely revered Native Americans in history, if not the most. Many recognize similarities in the life and death story of Jesus Christ to that of Crazy Horse: each was called by the supernatural to be a deliverer of his people, each beheld visions and went out to the wilderness to seek them; each was warned by the supernatural of the nature and manner of death but boldly continued his mission nonetheless; each refused to be tempted away from his purpose by a vision of earthly reward and the sight of a glorious city; each was a loner and dreamer but also a charismatic leader; each called on his people to eschew a life of promised ease and comfort to follow him on a harder road; each preferred simplicity in dress and humility in comportment; each died, falsely accused and betrayed by a friend, with a stab wound in his side. These themes resonate in our American culture generally, in which Christianity plays such a significant formative role. There are so many great Native Americans that we remember and admire but perhaps Crazy Horse remains preeminent in our collective memory for these perceived Christlike qualities. In a strictly historical sense, these similarities are exaggerated and perhaps unwarranted, but in a cultural and spiritual sense, they stand out to us because of their resonance with our most cherished beliefs and values. Native American communities too, many of whom have adopted Christianity and especially those doctrines which echo their traditional faith, perceive Crazy Horse as everything from a stalwart warrior to a messianic figure, a great symbol of hope, deliverance, traditional virtue, and spiritual renewal for their beleaguered peoples.

Crazy Horse Memorial in progress, Black Hills, South Dakota

One last thing: three days ago, I climbed Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Sylvan Lake is nearby, and I had stopped there at a lakeside hotel to seek recommendations for the best hike to the top. One of the routes departs from the short of Sylvan Lake, but not the longer, more scenic one which I had chosen. As a teen, Crazy Horse went to Sylvan Lake with his father on a vision quest, one of the most important in his life, in which he was instructed how to paint his body with hailstones and his face with lightning for battle; to dress simply and wear his hair flowing down; to take no scalps; and generally to live a life of bravery and modest virtue. I wanted to find the exact place he went, but it would take a level of meticulous research and mapping that I had run out of time to do before I left. When I return to the Black Hills, I will make a point of seeking out that place.

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Sources and inspiration:

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Buecker, Thomas R. ‘Final Days of Crazy Horse,’ Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield website

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

Crazy Horse.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Fort Robinson and Red Cloud Agency National Historic Landmark Nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Prepared by Steven Lissandrello and Sarah J. Pearce, Historic Sites Survey, National Park Service / Rocky Mountain Region National Park Service, Sep 27, 1976/Jul 20, 1983

Fort Robinson History‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

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

Pearson, Jeffey V. ‘Nelson A. Miles, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of Wolf Mountains‘. From Montana, The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Winter 2001), 53-67; presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Rose, Christina. ‘Native History: Crazy Horse Fights Final Battle,’ Indian Country Today, Jan 8, 2014

Rose, Christina. ‘New Fort Robinson Memorial Will Honor Crazy Horse and His Band,’ Indian Country Today, Jul 27, 2015

Schubert, Frank “Mickey”. ‘Fort Robinson, Nebraska (1874-1916)‘ Black Past website

Sites and Structures Maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website

Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Entering Pine Ridge Reservation via Bombing Range Rd (what a name!) from the Badlands, South Dakota.

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.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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.

Pine Ridge Reservation as I arrive on a soft summer evening

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…

Wounded Knee historical sign, front side, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, 2017 Amy Cools

Wounded Knee historical sign, front side, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. You can click on the image and it will open it in a new tab, where you can click again on the image to zoom in for ease of reading

Wounded Knee historical sign, back side

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.

Wounded Knee massacre site. There are few and simple structures here. The site is privately owned, and negotiations to sell it to an organization that is both willing and has the resources to maintain it has been long and contentious. So, its fate as a preserved and protected national historic landmark is still uncertain.

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.

Spotted Elk, or Big Foot as he was known to the U.S. army, as a younger man. He was the Minneconjou Lakota chief who died with so many of his people at Wounded Knee in 1890

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.

Wounded Knee massacre site

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.

“Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, captured at the battle of Wounded Knee, S.D.” Here he lies frozen on the snow-covered battlefield where he died, 1890; this photo is in the National Archives collection at Washington, DC. The title of the photo is misleading in two ways: first, his people called him Spotted Elk, and he only later became known as Big Foot, an insulting nickname for him coined by a U.S. soldier; and second, he was not captured, he approached to the army on his own accord to discuss terms. He had been lying down, but his frozen body was propped up this way by the photographer. Many of the bodies on this sub-zero battlefield were similarly bent, distorted, gesturing in strange ways from rigor mortis combined with freezing

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:

American Indian Movement display at Wounded Knee Museum

American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee 1970’s conflict display at Wounded Knee Museum

Much needed addition to the Battle of the Little Bighorn Monument display at Wounded Knee Museum

Display about the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 which recognized that the Sioux, or Lakota, were the rightful owners of the Black Hills, Wounded Knee Museum. This treaty went right out the window, like all the others, once gold was discovered in the Black Hills

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.

Wounded Knee Massacre Burial Site from Wiki Loves Monuments 2012, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. I approach this rise from the other side, where the Oglala-run museum is. You can click on the photo above to find several more photos of this burial ground at the Find A Grave website. Note the white flag in Robert Schaller’s photo memorializing Spotted Elk’s surrender flag that did nothing to save his life or the lives of his people.

US Attorney General Eric Holder laying a wreath at the site of the Wounded Knee Memorial, photo from the US Department of Justice. The memorial was erected here in 1903.

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.

Portrait of General L. W. Colby of Nebraska State Troops Holding Baby Girl, Zintkala Nuni (Lost Bird), Found On Wounded Knee Battlefield, South Dakota, 1890, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

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.

Zintkala Nuni, or Lost Bird, as an actress portraying Pocahontas at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition

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.

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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