Manifest Destiny, How the West Was Won… or Ethnic Cleansing, 19th century style. Take your pick and look into the dark souls of our forebears.
It wasn’t just that the slaughter was called a battle and that nearly 300 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly died that horrific day in late December 1890. This inhumane and vicious act did more than kill a large number of people. Its terrible swift sword killed something even greater. It marked the end of a culture. It swept away an entire way of life. A proud history was now gone, forever vanished from the Earth.
It also left an indelible stain on us as a people.
As I read the account this morning in The Writer’s Almanac, I was sickened and repulsed to come face to face again with this piece of our violent history.
I have since gone back to leaf through my dusty old copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Wounded Knee is a spot in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred land to the Sioux.
As The Writer’s Almanac sets up the scene, the tribes had signed a treaty with our government in 1867 that “guaranteed” them the rights to the land in perpetuity. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.
When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1870, though, the treaty was quickly broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, necessities which never came.
These native Americans were inspired by a medicine man from the Paiute tribe in Nevada who had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the land, return the buffalo, and cause the white man to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. The ceremony was called the Ghost Dance, which spread through the various tribes across The Plains.
The dance was a rallying call for the Indians, but also a death knell since it frightened the white Indian agents who considered it a dangerous battle cry. It was winter, 40 degrees below zero and pneumonia and hunger stalked the tribes. First to die was Sitting Bull, killed in an attempt to arrest him. Next was Big Foot, brother to Sitting Bull.
Although Big Foot was sick, a peaceful man and flying a white flag, the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted his band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The Indians complied peacefully. The next morning, though, a scuffle broke out when federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons. The federal soldiers then opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot.
Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.
Last year I saw someone wearing a T-shirt with an Indian’s face on it bearing the caption,
“Fighting terrorism since 1492.”
One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Remembering Wounded Knee, he said:
“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…the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Dee Brown’s book ends:
“The wagonloads of wounded Sioux (four men and forty-seven women and children) reached Pine Ridge after dark. Because all available barracks were filled with soldiers, they were left lying in the open wagons in the bitter cold while an inept Army officer searched for shelter. Finally the Episcopal mission was opened, the benches taken out, and hay scattered over the rough flooring.
“It was the fourth day after Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into the candlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hanging from the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung a crudely lettered banner:
“Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men”