Buried at Wounded Knee

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“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 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.”
Black Elk (Oglala Sioux) in Black Elk Speaks

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Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said, “I will stand in peace till my last day comes.” He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

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Like most Americans, I had only a superficial knowledge of the history at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation. Last week, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This unnecessary, brutal massacre of over 150 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is regrettable history that all descendents of immigrant Americans need to experience personally to understand what our expansion into the New World cost the people already here. As Black Elk says, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee.