Wounded Knee is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. The southern half of the Badlands National Park is part of the Pine Ridge reservation The reservation is known to the Lakota who live there as the Oglala Nation. Literature we picked up in Pine Ridge indicates that the Lakota Sioux are not interested in the government's offer of money for their lands stolen from them in the Black Hills Act of 1877 when Congress took the Black Hills that they had given to the Indians in the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. (The discovery of gold prompted this action.) In 1889, the government took another 9 million acres and divided the Indians onto six smaller rreservations.
Meanwhile, as the government was practicing its policy of reducing Indian lands and cutting promised rations, the Indians were becoming increasingly involved in the Ghost Dance first begun by Wovoka, a Paiute medicine man, who said that if the Indians sang and danced in a certain way, the buffalo and dead relative would return, and the white man would be sent away. As the Ghost Dance became more popular, the government officials began to be concerned about some kind of outbreak. Militia and army troops converge on the area, and in December 1890, the Home Guard, the local "cowboy militia" called by the governor, massacre two groups of Sioux. Seventy-five Ghost Dancers at the Stronghold in the Badlands are killed and scalped. Their Ghost Dance shirts are stolen and eventually sold to the Field Museum in Chicago. Later, several wagonloads of Sioux are killed on French Creek while visiting a white friend in Buffalo Gap.
On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was murdered by Indian police at the Standing Rock Agency. His death prompted Chief Big Foot to seek shelter for his band with Chief Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge agency. The army caught up with the group of 350 Indians and escorted them to Wounded Knee. It was bitter cold, a time known as the Moon of the Popping Trees. On the morning of December 29, the officers, who according to the Indians, spent the evening before drinking and celebrating the capture of Chief Big Foot, came to disarm the Indian band. In the midst of the search, a gun discharged and the army opened fire with the Hotchkiss cannons above the camp. About 300 members of the band including women and children were killed in the melee that follows. Some women were found two or three miles away, a sign that they were actually chased down by soldiers and killed. The cries of "Remember Little Bighorn" were heard across the massacre site.
After the massacre, a blizzard kept burial details from picking up the dead until January 3, 1891. The bodies were dumped unceremoniously into a mass grave on a hill overlooking the massacre site. Again, according to Indian accounts, at least one Indian was buried alive. The relics were stolen by the soldiers, but probably the most prized spoil was an Indian infant named Lost Bird, Zintkala Nuni, taken from her dead mother and given to an old Lakota woman. She was then taken by Bridagdier General Leonard Colby who called her a "living curio" of the massacre.
The massacre sign used to say "Battle of Wounded Knee" but battle has become massacre. An old gate curves above the entrance to the cemetery. The grave is surrounded by concrete and marked with a stone obelisk with the names of the Indians buried there. Some 150 are believed to be in the grave. That leaves another 200 unaccounted for, probably left frozen in the snow. The grave is surrounded by more contemporary ones. Many graves indicate that the deceased fought for the US Army in one of the World Wars. It is a clear irony that only thirty years after the army gunned down their people, these Indians were willing to volunteer to die for the country. A wooden church stands nearby.
While we were at the site, we bought dream catchers from the Elk family that has a small craft stand near the cemetery. Jeremy Elk, who made my dream catcher, also sold me a copy of the newspaper supplement that appeared on the 100th anniversary of the massacre. It would, he told me, tell the real story better than the government sign. Bob also bought a dream catcher.
As we drove back towards the Black Hills, we stopped at the Red Cloud School to view the Heritage Center that had contemporary Native American art as well as historical pieces including beadwork, painted parfleches, dolls, and pottery. The school is run by the Jesuits and Red Cloud is buried in their cemetery on the hill.
We drove through the town of Pine Ridge and stopped to take pictures of this sculpture at the high school. Despite the severe poverty and desperately high rate of alcoholism, there is also a sense of community pride. We found the reservation radio station and listened to music ranging from Native American flute to country and western. As we left the area, I listened to a discussion of creating a monument to the Native Americans at the Battle of Little Bighorn. I didn't understand very much, however, because they were speaking Lakota!
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