WOUNDED KNEE, SOUTH DAKOTA — 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 you 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 December 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 Seventh 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 from their wounds and from 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 were later destroyed in the American Indian Movement occupation in 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 amongst the Lakota in the form of the Ghost Dance that led to the assassination of Sitting Bull on December 14, 1890, just 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 in order 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 women and children 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.’”
On the 100th anniversary of that infamous day, Birgil Kills Straight, Alex White Plume and Jim Garrett, organized a ride that followed the exact trail taken by Big Foot and his band. That ride has taken place every year since December 29, 1990. At the end of the ride they hold a ceremony called “wiping away the tears” that calls for peace and forgiveness. This year they will take that ride again 120 years after the massacre.
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 America will someday apologize to the Lakota for the terrible deeds of the Seventh Cavalry, and that the 23 soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for the slaughter of the innocents, will have those medals revoked. He also prays for peace and unity.
120 years after the tragedy at Wounded Knee, America has not apologized and the Medal of Honor winners are still looked upon as heroes by the United States. Will America ever own up to its sins?
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News.
He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won
the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted
into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at
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