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.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wounded Knee--125 years ago

Dr. Charles Eastman, a Yankton Sioux medical doctor who practiced medicine at the Pine Ridge reservation, visited the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre three days after it was over. Suspicions arose that there still might have been survivors.
On the third day [the snowstorm] cleared, and the ground was covered with an inch or two of fresh snow. We had feared that some of the Indian wounded might have been left on the field, and a number of us volunteered to go and see. I was placed in charge of the expedition of about a hundred civilians, ten or fifteen of whom were white men. We were supplied with wagons in which to convey any whom we might find still alive. Of course, a photographer and several reporters were of the party.  
I counted eighty bodies of men who had been in the council and who were almost as helpless as the women and babies when the deadly fire began, for nearly all their guns had been taken from them. 
Dr. Charles Eastman
Fully three miles from the scene of the massacre, we found the body of a woman completely covered with a blanket of snow, and from this point on we found them scattered along as they had been relentlessly hunted down and slaughtered while fleeing for their lives. Some of our people discovered relatives or friends among the dead, and there was much wailing and mourning. 
It took all of my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle, and of the excitement and grief of my Indian companions, nearly every one of whom was crying aloud or singing his death song. The white men became very nervous, but I set them to examining and uncovering every body to see if one were living. Although they had been lying untended in the snow and cold for two days and  nights, a number had survived. 
Luther Standing Bear
Among them I found a baby of about a year old warmly wrapped and entirely unhurt.. . .Under a wagon I discovered an old woman, totally blind and entirely helpless. A few had managed to crawl away to some place of shelter, and we found in a log store nearby several who were badly hurt and others who had died after reaching there.
Luther Standing Bear, a schoolteacher at the Rosebud reservation, could not help but rethink his personal commitment to change and accommodation to the ways of white people. 
When I heard of this, it made my blood boil. I was ready myself to go and fight then. There I was, doing my best to teach my people to follow in the white men's road--even trying to get them to believe in their religion--and this was my reward for it all! The very people I was following--and gett my people to follow--had no respect for motherhood, old age, or babyhood. Where was all their civilized training?
Beneath an ordinary hill on the open plains of southwest South Dakota, all kinds of Sioux men and omen and children lay dead, exactly 125 years ago this morning. A snowstorm kept most away, in fact. Eastman and his company of first responders didn't go out on rescue operations for three whole days. 

But a photographer went with, so you don't have to imagine what they discovered. Those photographs exist. 

Among the dead lay the people's leader, Big Foot, who had been sick with pneumonia before the massacre, but on that morning was killed by the Seventh Calvary. He is very dead in this picture, his body frozen.

On Monday, December 28, we stopped by the South Dakota Cultural Center in Pierre, a place I've visited many times, the kind of museum that tells the important stories of its people very, very well, beginning with a wonderful exhibit of Native artifacts, a glimmering storefront of incredible Lakota beadwork.

The real museum docent you meet the moment you walk into the exhibits is a great, furry-coated beast so very central to the Lakota people and to state history.

as well as a full-sized model teepee.

Because we were there the day before the 125th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, I looked for some kind of exhibit, and found it--at long last--in a corner of the museum that was particularly poorly lit. This is the Cultural Center's Wounded Knee exhibit.

Note the splash of light on the glass to the right. The only way I could make the exposure was to engage the flash because it was dark in that corner, very dark. The picture taped to the wall at far right, on top, is a closeup of that same shot of Big Foot's body. But this is it--six pictures taped on a cracked wall in a dark corner of the Cultural Center.

The question I asked myself is a question for which I have no answer--is the fact that the story is told so incidentally and stuck in a back corner a good thing or bad thing? Does remembering what happened at Wounded Knee make us all essentially victims of our own sordid history? Or does not knowing our own history--our own Great Plains history--constitute a kind of national senility? 

125 years ago there were corpses all over the landscape at a place so out of the way today that few ever bother to drop by. They were there because of a slaughter that for all practical purposes ended the Great Sioux Wars of the 19th century.

When they were buried, those misshapen bodies were simply tossed in a mass grave.

Maybe the Cultural Center is right in putting the whole story in a dark, back corner. Maybe after 125 years it's high time those horrible frozen corpses are buried once and for all. 

Or are they already? 

For most of us, I think yes. 

But not for others, not for many others.


Anonymous said...

The Historical trauma, as a result of that incident, has found it's place in the dark recesses of that museum. Guilt is not a gentle reminder of the holocaust of that day. It is said that as some of the survivors were brought into a nearby church, they were greeted with a sign that read, "PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN". None of which was displayed on that day 29 December 1890. Isn't it any wonder that the attempts of the CRC to bring the message to the Lakota people failed five years later.

Anonymous said...

Jim, TY for remembering this day! This is a significant anniversary of a tragic day in US history. Sharing the good Dr.'s own words (and heart) about the pain and the predicament of this clash of culture and civilization was penetrating. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

They held a war and peace broke out.


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