Zintkala Nuni – or “Lost Bird” was one of the casualties of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, but not because she died in the fields with others from her tribe who were mowed down by gunfire from US Federal troops. Zintkala was in the fields that day and in the line of fire. But she didn’t die. She was about six months old, and was shielded from gunfire and kept warm for three days of freezing temperatures by her mother’s dead body. She had been wrapped tightly in a bundle on her mother’s back, snug in blankets and a fur cap. When her mother was killed, she evidently fell backward on the field and the blood dripping from her body froze and created a little sealed capsule around the little baby. When a faint cry was heard by those who were cleaning up the dead bodies in Wounded Knee three days after the massacre, little Lost Bird was discovered. For three days she rested beneath her dead mother. Her head was frozen and her little hands and feet were frostbitten, but she was alive and she recovered from the ordeal.
General Leonard Colby, commander of the Nebraska National Guard that had come to help with the “clean-up” of the Wounded Knee massacre, came forward and insisted on adopting the Lakota infant – who had been given the name Zintkala Nuni -Lakota for “Lost Bird.” There were protests from the Lakota community, but Colby persisted and eventually won after he claimed to be a Seneca Indian. He took the baby home to Nebraska, gave her the name Marguerite, but the child went by her Lakota name, Zintkala or Zintka. Colby finalized a legal adoption without even notifying his wife Clara who was in Washington, DC at the time.
General Colby and his wife Clara were a power couple in their day. He was an military hero from the Civil War and a lawyer, and she a writer and publisher of The Women’s Tribune, a suffragist newspaper. Clara was a well-known activist for women’s rights and an associate of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She lived in Washington DC for six months of the year. Colby wired Clara about the adoption, and she returned home to meet her new daughter. While most historians agree that Leonard Colby claimed the Lakota infant as a prize of war and later mistreated, abused and abandoned her, Clara Colby fell in love with Zintkala and spent a lifetime trying to help the child find happiness. It was a futile effort, because though she loved the child and educated her in fine boarding schools, Zintka never fit in. She was too much like a native to be accepted into the white community and too anglicized to be accepted into the Lakota community.
Two years after the adoption, Leonard Colby was named Assistant Attorney General of the United States and the couple left Nebraska and moved to Washington. Clara put Zintkala into the finest schools and lavished her with gifts, but as the child grew older she longed to find out more about her identity. Members of the community both adult and child, rejected Zintkala because she looked so different – and she was an “Indian” – a culture that was not embraced in the 1890s and early 20th century.
Leonard Colby was ambitious and was also an adulterer. When Clara discovered that Zintka’s nursemaid was pregnant with Colby’s child the couple separated. Leonard Colby abandoned Clara and Zintkala moving with his mistress back to Nebraska. For several years Clara tried to help Zintkala fit in, but at age sixteen she ran away and tried to find her way back to the Lakota people. Clara eventually sent her back to her father and shortly after entering Leonard Colby’s home Zintkala became pregnant. Many researchers have insinuated that Colby abused Zintkala and impregnated her. He sent Zintkala off to an austere reform school for wayward girls where she gave birth to a stillborn boy and was left to languish in that school for over a year after giving birth.
Zintkala eventually ran away and earned money the way many displaced native people did back in the early 20th century. She joined a vaudeville act that exploited her native culture putting it on display for the entertainment of others. She got married and for a time was happy until she discovered that her husband had given her syphilis – there was no cure at the time. Zintkala became so ill that she was bedridden for nearly a year. Clara took care of her.
Zintkala married again – this time to an actor who beat her. She had a child with this man and she and the child left soon after in order to escape the violence. She married a third time and had a second child, but her health was failing. The life of being a traveling entertainer took its toll and there was never enough money. Her husband was also ill. Clara tried to help but was also running low on funds. She sued Leonard Colby for back support payments because she was nearly destitute. She never got the payments. Leonard Colby had married the nursemaid he’d left Clara for, raised their child and went on to become a Nebraska state senator and judge. He was considered one of the wealthiest men in Nebraska.
When Zintkala was twenty-six years old, nearly blind and in poor health, her youngest child died. She gave up the other child – a boy – to a native woman who had the better means to support him. Shortly after that, her mother Clara died of pneumonia. The next year Zintka made one last visit to South Dakota to find relatives and connect with her people. She received a cool reception by the Lakota because culturally she was nothing like the native people. The visit left her unfulfilled and she and her husband – both sick and unable to continue the performing life went to live with his parents in California.
Eighteen months later, on Valentines Day, Zintkala died during the influenza epidemic. She was 29 years old. Her husband’s family buried her in California.
Years later a woman named Renee Sansom Flood was inspired to find out more when she came across the photograph (pictured above) of Leonard Colby holding little Lost Bird. The same photograph appeared in a South Dakota newspaper shortly after the massacre. The newspaper included what Colby had inscribed on the back of the photograph:
Zintka Lanuni – Lost Bird – an Indian baby girl found on the field of Wounded Knee by the side of her dead mother on the 4th day afte the battle, and adopted by me. She was given the Christian name of Marguerite Elizabeth, after the wives of the two Asay brothers, storekeepers at Pine Ridge who assisted in the procuring and care of the little one. She was frozen upon her head, hands and feet, but was entirely recovered. Big Foot’s band, which was slaughtered at Wounded Knee, was largely composed of the remnants of Sitting Bull’s band, of which latter the child was doubtless one, and if so is an Unk-papa Teton Sioux. The battle occurred Dec. 29 1890, about 15 miles eastward from Pindge Agency, S.D.
The photograph inspired Renee Sansome Flood to find out more. Eventually her research developed into a book that she wrote entitled, Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota. This book and other efforts by Ms. Flood raised awareness not only of the situation with Zintkala, but also with hundreds of native children who were adopted by white families in order to inculturate them into the white society. She inspired the Lakota people in 1991 to bring Zintkala’s remains home to Wounded Knee where her mother and relatives are buried. Now next to the mass grave at Wounded Knee, just outside the chain link fence is a marker with the name “Lost Bird.” Zintkala’s remains rest beneath it.
Near the end of her life, Clara Colby wrote of her daughter, “She has been sinned against in being taken from her proper surroundings.” Renee Sansome Flood’s book and the return of Lost Bird to Wounded Knee helped to inspire the formation of the Lost Bird Society, which helps native people who were adopted into different cultures find their roots.
The Indians burying that daughter by the massacre’s mass grave agreed. She would be at rest here, near her mother, relatives, the friends she would have had if all had been different. “Lost Bird has returned today to the same place she was taken from,” said Marie Not Help Him, great-granddaughter of Iron Hail, the last survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Custer died, and of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Lost Bird was put into the ground with an eagle plume attached to a cherry tree by her head. The trill for bravery rose in the air: Li-li-li-li-li! Then the Indians performed the ceremony of the Releasing of the Spirit for one who had a foot in two camps but never a place to stand.
The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the memorial marking the mass grave of the Lakota who perished there is a thin place. The spirit of the place is almost palpable. One can’t help but be moved by the imprint of human suffering that hangs about the place. But after reflecting on the sadness and the senselessness of the massacre, stepping outside the chain link fence and standing by the grave of Lost Bird brings on a totally different energy. There’s a sense of hope, of belonging, of closure.