While Americans agonize over the contents of the Iraq Study Group and weigh the options of extricating its soldiers from the middle of a civil war, the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota will gather on a lonely hill overlooking the demolished village of Wounded Knee (Wounded Knee was destroyed during the occupation of the American Indian Movement in 1973 and was never rebuilt) to commemorate and grieve the massacre of their ancestors.
It was after a night so cold that the Lakota called it “The Moon of the Popping Trees” because as the winter winds whistled through the hills and gullies at Wounded Knee Creek on that morning of Dec. 29, 1890, one could hear the twigs snapping in the frigid air.
When a soldier of George Armstrong Custer’s former troop, the 7th Cavalry, tried to wrest a hidden rifle from a deaf Lakota warrior after all of the other weapons had already been confiscated from Sitanka’s (Big Foot) band of Lakota people, the deafening report of that single shot caused pandemonium among the soldiers and they opened up with their machine guns upon the unarmed men, women and children.
Thus began an action the government called a “battle” and the Lakota people called a “massacre.” The Lakota people say that only 50 people of the original 350 followers of Sitanka survived that morning of slaughter.
One of the survivors, a Lakota woman, was treated by the Indian physician Dr. Charles Eastman at a makeshift hospital set up in a church in the village of Pine Ridge. Before she died of her wounds she told about how she had concealed herself in a clump of bushes. As she hid there she saw two terrified little girls running past. She grabbed them and pulled them into the bushes. She put her hands over their mouths to keep them quiet but a mounted soldier spotted them. He fired a bullet into the head of one girl and then calmly reloaded his rifle and fired into the head of the other girl. He then fired into the body of the Lakota woman. She feigned death and although badly wounded, lived long enough to relate her terrible ordeal to Dr. Eastman. She said that as she lay there pretending to be dead, the soldier leaned down from his horse, used his rifle to lift up her dress in order to see her private parts, and then he snickered and rode off.
As the shooting subsided, units of the 7th Cavalry rode off toward White Clay Creek near Pine Ridge Village on a search-and- destroy mission. When they rode onto the grounds of Holy Rosary Indian Mission, my grandmother Sophie, a student at the mission school, and the other Lakota children were forced by the Jesuit priests to feed and water their horses. My grandmother never forgot that terrible day and she often talked about how the soldiers were laughing and bragging about their great victory. She recalled one soldier saying, “Remember the Little Big Horn.”
The Massacre at Wounded Knee was called the last great battle between the United States and the Indians. The true version of the events of that day were polished and sanitized for the consumption of most Americans. Twenty-three soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were awarded this nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for the murder of nearly 300 innocent and unarmed men, women and children. Although 25 soldiers died that day, historians believe that most of them died of friendly fire when they were caught in the crossfire of the machine guns. Many Lakota have tried in vain to have those medals revoked, without success.
Before they died, the Lakota warriors fought the soldiers with their bare hands as they shouted to the women and children, “Inyanka po, inyanka po! (Run, run).” The elderly men, unable to fight back, fell on their knees and sang their death songs. The screams and the cries of the women and children hung in the air like a heavy fog.
When I was a young boy I lived at Wounded Knee. Of course by then the name of the village had been changed to Brennan to honor a Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent, but all of the Lakota knew why the name was changed. Because although the government tried various ways to conceal the truth, the Lakota people never forgot and they always referred to the hallowed grounds as Wounded Knee and they continued to come to the mass grave to pray even though it was roundly discouraged by the government.
As a child I walked along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek and I often had an uneasy feeling; it was as if I could hear the cries of little children. Whenever I visited the trading post where my father worked I would listen to the elders as they sat on the benches in front of the store and spoke in whispered voices as they pointed at the hills and gullies. Never did I read about that horrible day in the history books used at the mission school I attended.
Two ironies still haunt me. Six days after the bloody massacre the editor of the Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Pioneer wrote in his editorial, “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilizations, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
The author of that editorial was L. Frank Baum, who later went on to write that famous children’s book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” In calling for genocide against my grandmother and the rest of the Lakota people, he placed the final punctuation upon a day that will forever live in infamy amongst the Lakota.
And finally, as the dead and dying lay in the makeshift hospital in the Episcopal Church in Pine Ridge Village, Dr. Eastman paused to read the sign above the entrance that read, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.”