Sunday, October 5, 2008
Hey Kemosabi, can I have a slice of that pie too?
Wounded Knee, South Dakota. I saw many things in South Dakota that were truly magnificent..the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, the eerie landscape of the Badlands and the mystical beauty of the Black hills. Nothing in this entire trip has affected me more however than my visit to Wounded Knee. It’s a place where you must turn and face the falsehoods of childhood lessons, where the terrible toll of bias and bigotry is still being played out. and lastly, where the rights and liberties spelled out in the American Constitution that “we hold to be self-evident” were systematically taken away from Native Americans.
Wounded Knee "Monument"
Wounded Knee is not an easy place to get to. Once there I drove around in circles for 20 minutes looking for a Memorial, a Monument, something that would mark the place that is so symbolic of the conquest of the West. What I found was a dilapidated hand-painted sign, a cemetery in ruin atop a charred hill and a “visitors center constructed of a few poles and pine boughs. As poor a monument as all of this was, there was an invaluable “richness” is the history of the area and the present day life of Native Americans provided by two volunteers at the visitor’s center, Mr. Elk and his wife Jerilynn. Mr. Elk proudly showed me his driver’s license, which indicates he is a full-blooded Lakota Sioux. He and his wife showed me hand-drawn maps of the area from the 1890’s,
positions of soldiers, artillery, and the Indians during the massacre. They told me stories of the survivors and their
Mr. Elk...100% Sioux
families, and finally they told me of the hardships of living on a reservation, their determination to keep their culture alive, and the continued bigotry that dogs their attempts to find employment.
Before coming to South Dakota, I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown and “Crazy Horse” by Marie Sandoz as well as a few others. These well -researched books stood in stark contrast to my lessons in school about the American Indians as well as the prevailing attitudes of the time. Remember playing Cowboys and Indians? The moral of that game was that the cowboys were good and killing the savage Indians was the right thing to do. All the great old western movies promoted the same sort of story. One of the few positive portrayals of an Indian was Tonto, as the Lone Rangers lackey. I was taught that Wounded Knee was a battle, but that was revisionist history, here is what really happened:
Chief Bigfoot of the Sioux finally gave up his long struggle to have his tribe live as free Indians, when the last of their lands was taken. The remains of his tribe, some 120 men and 230 women and children were starved and hungry from running and living in hiding to avoid being placed on a reservation. They were also cold, it was December, 1890 in South Dakota, and many did not even have blankets for cover. Chief Bigfoot decided to bring his tribe to Pine Crest (an Indian reservation) as a last resort as they would surly not survive the winter. Enroute to Pine Crest, on December 28th, four troops of cavalry approached the tribe. Big Foot immediately had the white flag run up over his wagon. Major Samuel Whiteside, Seventh U.S. Cavalry informed Big Foot he had orders for his arrest and that he would be taken to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot remarked that he was going in that direction, anyway as he was taking his people to Pine Ridge for safety. Big Foot’s tribe was marched into the Wounded Knee Creek cavalry station, and ordered to make camp in the center. Surrounding them were Whiteside’s Cavalry as well as two Hotchkiss guns placed on a rise overlooking the camp. Later that evening, the remainder of the Seventh Cavalry arrived to join Whiteside’s troops. Colonel James W. Forsyth, commanding Custer’s former regiment now took charge. Two more Hotchkiss guns were placed on the ridge. The guns were aimed at the Sioux encampment. The Hotchkiss was a rapid action weapon capable of hurling explosive charges for more than 2 miles. In the morning, after issuing hardtack rations to the Indians, Colonel Forsyth ordered the Indians to be disarmed. All weapons were stacked in the center of the camp. The cavalry was not satisfied with the number of weapons surrendered and so went from tepee to tepee in search of more weapons. They brought out bundles of axes and tent poles and hunting knives, these were stacked next to the surrendered weapons. Still not satisfied that they’d gotten all the weapons, the soldiers ordered the Indians to remove their blankets and submit to personal weapons search. Two rifles were found and when one of the Indians argued saying that he had paid great deal of money for the gun and it was his, the shooting started. As the Indians ran for cover, the Hotchkiss guns rained down on the Indian camp. The flying shrapnel shred tepees, men, women and children. Some of the Braves fought back with whatever they could pick up off the ground. They were no match for armed soldiers however. A number of women and children running for their lives headed for Wounded Knee Creek. They were shot in the back multiple times. When it was over, Chief Bigfoot along with nearly 300 of the original 350 men women and children were dead. The cavalry lost 25 soldiers, most struck by their own bullets or shrapnel from the Hotchkiss guns. Several soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their “heroic” deeds during the Battle of Wounded Knee. Lets face it; there was no battle, and certainly nothing heroic in the brutal massacre of these people. As for the Indians, their bodies were left on the field, frozen in grotesque shapes.
History shows that we made many treaties with the Indians, every one of them was broken, most before the ink dried. Our belief that there was not enough land to go around and a fear of what we did not know or understand led to the deliberate extermination of the Indians way of life. Everyone wanted a big slice of the American dream, and believed the only way to get their share was to take it from the Indians. There is precious little left of this once great culture. The land that comprises most of the Indian reservations is generally some of the most
Modest homes on S. Dakota Indian Reservation
useless, barren land in the US. Today, Indian reservations remain among the poorest counties in the lower 48 states. I’ve driven through quite a bit of North America during this trip, it’s a bountiful continent.
While I was standing at the very place where Big Foot and his people were massacred, I reached into my pocket and found the
small wooden Indian “dream box” I’d bought when visiting a reservation in Canada.
Big Foots Marker
I bent down and scooped up a small amount of earth from that place and put it in the box. I normally do not do things like this…but I was very moved by the scene and the history. I also wanted something to remind me of the terrible things we do and the human misery that occurs when we think there's not enough "pie" to go around. There always is you know...slice it fairly.