Decades later, the pain of Wounded Knee lingers

Massacre: A U.S. apology remains elusive 113 years after scores of unarmed Lakota -- many women and children -- died in a hail of gunfire.

December 28, 2003|By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji) | Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji),LAKOTA MEDIA INC.

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. -- On crystal-clear nights, when winter winds whistle through the hills and canyons around Wounded Knee Creek, the Lakota elders say it is so cold that one can hear the twigs snapping in the frigid air.

They called this time of the year "the Moon of the Popping Trees." It was on such a winter morning on Dec. 29, 1890, that the crack of a single rifle brought a day of infamy that still lives in the hearts and minds of the Lakota people.

After the rifle spoke there was a pause and then the rifles and Hotchkiss guns of the 7th Cavalry opened up on the men, women and children camped at Wounded Knee. What followed was utter chaos and madness. The thirst for the blood of the Lakota took away all common sense from the soldiers.

The unarmed Lakota fought back with bare hands. The warriors shouted to their wives, their elders and their children, "run for cover," Iynkapo! Iyankapo!

Elderly men and women, unable to fight back, stood defiantly and sang their death songs before falling to the hail of bullets. The number of Lakota people murdered that day is still unknown. The mass grave at Wounded Knee holds the bodies of 150 men, women and children. Many other victims died of their wounds and of exposure over the next several days.

The Lakota people say that only 50 people out of the original 350 followers of Sitanka (Big Foot) survived the massacre.

Five days after the slaughter of the innocents an editorial in the Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Pioneer reflected the popular opinion of the wasicu (white people) of that day. It read, "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 civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth."

Ten years after he wrote that editorial calling for genocide against the Lakota people, L. Frank Baum wrote that wonderful children's book, The Wizard of Oz.

The federal government tried to forever erase the memory of Wounded Knee. The village that sprang up on the site of the massacre was named Brennan after a Bureau of Indian Affairs official. But the Lakota people never forgot. Although the name "Brennan" appeared on the map, they still called it Wounded Knee. In the 1920s, Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve built the Wounded Knee Trading Post there to serve the Lakota people.

My father, Tim Giago Sr., worked as a clerk and butcher for the Gildersleeves in the 1930s and we lived in one of the cabins at Wounded Knee that was later destroyed in the occupation of 1973.

As a small boy, I recall the warm, summer evenings when the Lakota families sat outdoors and spoke softly, in reverent voices about that terrible day in 1890.

Much of what they said was written down by a young man named Hoksila Waste (pronounced Hokesheela Washtay) or Good Boy. His Christian name was Sid Byrd and he was a member of the Santee Sioux Tribe, a tribe that had been relocated and scattered around the state after the so-called Indian uprising in Minnesota.

Byrd wrote that it was the white man's fear of the spiritual revival going on among the Lakota in the form of the Ghost Dance that led to the assassination of Sitting Bull on Dec. 14, 1890, two weeks before the massacre. Fearing further attacks, Sitanka (Big Foot) and his band, a group that performed the very last Ghost Dance, went on a five-day march to reach the protection of Chief Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge Agency.

The weary band was overtaken and captured at Wounded Knee Creek (Canke Opi Wahkpala).

Byrd believed, as do all Lakota people, that Big Foot died as a martyr for embracing the Ghost Dance "as freely as other men embraced their religion."

Byrd wrote in his Lakota version of what happened that day, "Later, some of the bodies would be found four to five miles from the scene of the slaughter. Soldiers would whoop as they spotted a women fleeing into the woods and chase them on horseback. They made sport of it. I heard from the elders that the soldiers shouted, `Remember the Little Big Horn.'"

The 7th Cavalry, Custer's old command, spread out across the Pine Ridge Reservation hunting for survivors. They rode into the playgrounds of the Holy Rosary Indian Mission near Pine Ridge village. Prodded by the Jesuit priests, the children were forced to water and feed their horses. My grandmother, Sophie Abeyta, was one of those children. She later recalled that some of the soldiers, still bloody from the massacre, were laughing and joking about their "great victory."

On the 100th anniversary of that infamous day, three Lakota men organized a ride that followed the exact trail taken by Big Foot and his band. That ride has taken place every year since Dec. 29, 1990. At the end of the ride they hold a ceremony they call "wiping away the tears" that calls for peace and forgiveness.

Arvol Looking Horse, the Keeper of the Sacred Pipe of the Lakota, says a prayer every year on the hallowed grounds at Wounded Knee. He prays that the United States will someday apologize to the Lakota for the terrible deeds of the 7th Cavalry, and that the 23 soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for the slaughter will have those medals revoked.

What honor is there in the murder of innocent men, women and children? You tell me. And now, 113 years after the slaughter at Wounded Knee, America has not apologized and the Medal of Honor winners are still looked upon as heroes by the United States.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is editor and publisher of the weekly Lakota Journal. He is author of "The Aboriginal Sin" and "Notes from Indian Country" volumes I and II.

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