Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Wasicu at Chankpe Opi: A White Man at Wounded Knee III


Here we are. Look around. If you stand on this promontory in the summer, the heat can be oppressive; but on a good day you might be surrounded by a couple dozen tourists. That’s all. Wounded Knee doesn’t exactly border the Black Hills, and it’s not on the way to Yellowstone. It’s not on the way to anything, really. Right now you’re in the heart of fly-over America, many millions of Americans never coming closer to this shallow valley than, say Chicago. Any time of year, the twisted vapor trails of jets on their way to LAX or LaGuardia float like ribbons in the genial sky.

In the late fall or muddy spring or cold mid-winter—like that December day in 1890—it’s likely you’ll stand very much alone at Wounded Knee. Cars and trucks navigate the reservation roads that cross almost directly at the point of battle, but for most of the year a visit here is unlike a visit to any other North American historic battlefield.

Gettysburg National Military Park offers an aging but impressive Cyclorama, a remarkable circular painting, 356 feet by 26 feet, that puts visitors at the heart of the battle. Little Big Horn’s visitor’s center sells helpful interpretive audio tapes to use as you tour several miles of battlefield from the air-conditioned comfort of your mini-van. But if you want to know what you can about Wounded Knee, the only storyteller there, all year round, is the wind.

Just imagine the encampment before you, and keep in mind the despair, the poverty, and the hopelessness of the dancers. “To live was now no more than to endure/The purposeless indignity of breath,” says John G. Neihardt in The Twilight of the Sioux. Millions of buffalo once roamed here, the staple of existence for thousands of nomadic Native people, the soul of their culture and faith. By 1890, they were gone.

In North Dakota’s horrible winter of 1996, while thousands of cattle died in the monstrous cold, it is reported that only one bison perished. Once the buffalo ruled here. In all the openness all around you, the Great Plains stretching out almost forever in every direction, try to imagine what it must have been like to stand on this promontory and look over herds so large you could see the mass ripple as they shifted slightly when detecting human scent, almost like watching wind on water. That’s what’s gone. To the Sioux, the hunt was a not only manhood’s proving ground, but a celebration for the family, often opened and closed with prayer. Few 19th century wasicu could understand that the disappearance of the buffalo seemed, to many Plains Indians, almost the death of god. I don’t believe I still can, try as I might.

But if I stand here on the promontory at Wounded Knee and remind all that is white within me of grinding poverty, the exhaustive dissolution of a way of life, and the seeming death of god, I can, perhaps, begin to understand the frantic hope inspired by the Ghost Dance.


Today, right behind you, you’ll see fenced-in enclosure where a granite monument, nine feet tall, lists the names of a few of those killed here. “Chief Big Foot,” it says, and then lists “Mr. Shading Bear, Long Bull, White American, Black Coyate, Ghost Horse, Living Bear, Afraid of Bear, Young Afraid of Bear, Yellow Robe, Wounded Hand, Red Eagle,” and just a few more. Estimates vary on the number of dead buried where you’re standing, but most think 150 or so frozen bodies were dumped into the mass grave beneath the cordon of cement. No ceremony—Native or white. Just a dump.

On the other side of the stone there’s an inscription, still visible seventy years after the marker was placed where you’re standing.

This monument is erected by surviving relatives and other Ogallala and Cheyenne River Sioux Indians in Memory of the Chief Big Foot Massacre Dec. 29, 1890.

Col. Forsyth in command of U. S. Troops. Big Foot was a great chief to the Sioux Indians. He 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.

As Harry W. Paige says in Land of the Spotted Eagle, this isn’t the grammar, the syntax, or mechanics of an Oxford don. What it is, he says, is “writing that weeps.”
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Tomorrow:  What really happened at Wounded Knee

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, I opened this to read the comment today and found the porn on your site. Glad you got it cleaned up.

J. C. Schaap said...

I don't know how that happened. it never happened before :(.