For those, like me, who like to travel to feed the mind, body and the spirit, a trip to Wounded Knee will feed your spirit and mind, but it’s liable to break your heart. Reading about it is difficult enough, but standing in the presence of the mass grave where hundreds of frozen bodies – mostly of women and children – were arbitrarily tossed into a giant hole in the ground just five generations ago, is a sobering – make that disturbing. The experience of visiting to Wounded Knee was so unsettling that I almost wished I had never gone.
Almost, because while it’s painful to recall the unthinkable violence, it’s important to show up and stand in the presence of that memorial and make the silent statement that learning the truth matters.
Prior to that massacre, which many history books still refer to as a “battle,” our white ancestors spent 350 years taking away the American indigenous peoples’ land, killing their primary source of food, breaking treaties and promises, humiliating Indian leaders, and demonizing their culture – all for its own selfish gain. It’s imperative that we recall the truth and remember the lost ones who were mowed down with Hotchkiss mountain guns as they ran screaming for cover.
This site reminds the world that Wounded Knee was a massacre – not a battle regardless of what the white “victors” wrote about it. A reporter for the “The South Dakota Democrat” stated,
“The first gun had no sooner been fired than it was followed by hundreds of others and the battle was on. The fighting continued for about a half hour, and then was continued in skirmish for another hour. … 24 privates were killed and 33 wounded, three of whom have since died. There were about 130 Indians killed, about 100 of whom were bucks, and the remained squaws and children. One Indian scout was killed. All the wounded Indians were brought into the agency and are being cared for.”
Recapping the Wounded Knee massacre
In 1867 the US government signed a treaty stating that its citizens would stay out of the Oglala Sioux’s sacred lands known as “The Black Hills.” By 1870 the US broke that treaty because gold was discovered in that region. Skirmishes and fights broke out (these are included in what we call “The Indian Wars”) and eventually the Lakota were beaten off or starved out of their land and forced onto reservations. In 1889 a ritual known as “The Ghost Dance” became popular with the Lakota. It united them in one common prayer. They used this dance as a prayer ritual for regaining their lost way life, their land, their place of resurrection. It was a ritual of hope. But the US Federal Army didn’t understand the culture or the ritual. They saw the Ghost Dance as a prelude to battle and war.
On December 29, 1890 a large group of starving Lakotas led by Chief Big Foot set out for Pine Ridge in in hopes of finding food and supplies. Big Foot carried a white flag to show he was coming in peace. When they came into the freezing fields near Wounded Knee Creek, members of the US 7th Cavalry became fearful that there would be an uprising when several Lakotas started the Ghost Dance ritual. The troops began to confiscate the Lakota weapons, and in that process a small fight broke out between a soldier and a Lakota. The fight turned into a skirmish, a shot was fired and the army reacted with gunfire. The Lakota only had a few men with a few guns. The 7th Cavalry had lots of men and guns including a battery of four Hotchkiss mountain guns on a slight rise in the field aimed at the settlement. These guns could fire 68 rounds per minute with an accuracy range that was over a mile. When the guns started firing, chaos ensued. Women and children fled through the fields to avoid the gunfire, but they were open targets.
The result was 25 Federal troops killed and 39 wounded, 6 of whom would eventually die from the wounds. On the Lakota side about 300 were killed – 200 of those being women and children. Some of the wounded Lakota were carried off to a local Christian church where a make-shift hospital was set up. The Lakota bodies presumed to be dead were left where they lay in the field because a blizzard was coming. However, many on the field weren’t dead, and froze to death in the hours after the massacre. Three days those bodies were still in the fields. Many photos have circulated showing their stiff corpses. By day three more troops arrived to help handle the aftermath of the massacre which included cleaning up the field.
The frozen bodies were dumped into a mass grave that was dug out of the same rise in the field where the Hotchkiss guns had been mounted. Chief Big Foot’s body was scalped and the scalp sat on display at a Massachusetts museum for one hundred ten years until Big Foot’s family finally reclaimed it and buried this last bit of their ancestor’s remains near where he was born.
Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to 17 American members of the cavalry and 3 American members of the artillery for distinguished bravery in battle.
Soon after the Wounded Knee massacre, “The Saturday Pioneer” in Aberdeen South Dakota printed this:
“The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent …and the best safety of the frontier settlers will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians…The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past”
The editor of paper was L. Frank Baum, who was also the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which was published ten years later.
Today, this mass grave is enclosed by a simple chain link fence and has a tall marker commemorating those who died. The marker has the names of Lakota men who fought and are buried there. It is situated directly behind a little Christian church.
Wounded Knee Today – not always a friendly site
Dan and I visited the massacre site and memorial, which is a two-hour drive from the Black Hills and all many of the Lakota heritage sites in South Dakota. The monument is difficult to find and there are few signs. Once you do find the site, it is underwhelming. It’s nothing more than a hill with a chain link fence and a tall marker. But one must remember that the site is located on an active Indian reservation and this land is their land, not our land.
Within seconds of us pulling up to the marker (in the rain) a Lakota man approached us. He stood with us for the entire time we were on the site. He started telling the history and instructing us on manners of respect which included smoking a cigarette (which Dan provided) over the grave. This man’s presence was a little intrusive. We weren’t sure what he wanted, but he wouldn’t leave. We tipped him for his story and time and he accepted the cash. We felt a little exposed, but never unsafe.
We went into the visitor center across the street, but it was mostly empty. We returned to our cars in the pouring rain and just as we started to pull out another car pulled up to ours and a young Lakota girl jumped out and knocked on my car window. She was dripping wet – maybe about 18. She said she had dream catchers to sell and that they were home made by the people on the reservation and cost $5 cash. I happily took one. And I’m glad I did. I remember her every time I look at it.
So Why Should You Visit Wounded Knee?
I interviewed C.J. Clifford, the Wounded Knee Representative on the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, and asked him if the locals welcomed visitors. He replied that they definitely do. He recommended calling the Oglala Tribal office at 605.867.5821 because they can organize a tour given by one a local guide and the experience would be more meaningful. When I asked C.J. why people should visit Wounded Knee, he responded, “They should come and learn the truth of what really happened.”
The Wounded Knee story is relatively recent in our history, and there is something about standing on that site that connects us with the people that our white ancestors attempted to annihilate. Being present matters. Being interested and reaching out promotes peace between the two cultures.
Peace is a good thing.
I offer special thanks to C.J. Clifford who spent time with me on the telephone answering all my questions on the day of the 125th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It was a busy day for him. C.J.’s great grandfather was Black Elk, a famous holy man of the Oglala Lakota. He was a second cousin to Crazy Horse and was present at the Wounded Knee massacre. When Black Elk was asked recount his memory of the Wounded Knee massacre he gave enormous detail. At the end of his story he added a short comment:
I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.