A view of the canyon in South Dakota where the December 29, 1890, Wounded Knee Massacre took place. Photo: Library of Congress

Tim Giago: Lakota people will never forget the Wounded Knee Massacre

Wounded Knee 1890: A Day of Infamy
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji, Stands Up For Them)

On December 29, 1990, the Lakota people gathered to mourn the 100th anniversary of the massacre of their people at Wounded Knee.

To the white people of South Dakota and, yes to the rest of America, December 29, 1990 is just another day. But to the Lakota people, December 29 is a day they have commemorated every year since 1890. It was a day when nearly 300 of their relatives were shot to death in cold blood by the enlisted men and officers of the United States 7th Cavalry. Ironically, 21 members of the 7th Cavalry were awarded Medals of Honor for this horrific slaughter of men, women and children. Perhaps the American soldiers who slaughtered the men, women and children at Mai Lai in Vietnam should have received Medals of Honor also. Perhaps as many as 500 Vietnamese were massacred there.

White people ask why we Lakota still talk about Wounded Knee as if it was not ancient history. If something terrible happened to your grandmother — that’s right, your grandmother — something so heinous that it became a part of American history, would you still consider that to be ancient history? I think not. A grandmother can never be ancient history. The memory of her is much to near.

Consider this. On December 29, 1890, my grandmother, Sophie, was an 18-year-old employee at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission, a Jesuit boarding school just a few miles from Wounded Knee. She was called to help feed and water the horses of the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry that had just rode on to the mission grounds chasing down survivors that had escaped the slaughter. My grandmother never talked about it and I never learned about it until reading a Holy Rosary anniversary article mentioning her name and the events that occurred on that infamous day.

My grandmother, who is now deceased heard and saw the aftermath of that day. Now does that make the Massacre at Wounded Knee ancient history to me? It most definitely does not. Many other Lakota still living today had grandmothers and grandfathers that were either killed or survived the massacre. No, it is not ancient history to the Lakota. To us it seems like only yesterday.

In early December of 1990, as the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee approached, I wrote the cover story for USA Today. I quoted an editorial that appeared in the Aberdeen (SD) Saturday Review on January 3, 1891, just five days after the massacre. The author wrote about those terrible “Redskins,” his favorite word for Indians. He wrote, “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 or more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

That editorial calling for the genocide of the Lakota people was written by L. Frank Baum, the man who would later write, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” There have been many others before and since that called for genocide against a race of people. Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot come to mind. But then they never followed up their calls for genocide by writing a charming book for children. It appears to be unthinkable to most Americans that such a wonderful man as L. Frank Baum could be compared to other inhuman beasts that called for the extinction of a race of people. Even the Editorial Page Editor of USA Today thought that and said he would have to leave out the part about Baum in my article. I told him if he did he should just pull the entire article. He decided to run it.

In 2006, descendants of Baum asked the Lakota people to forgive Baum for the editorials he wrote calling for their annihilation. What do you think the Jewish people would say today if the descendants of Adolph Hitler approached them asking them to forgive Adolph for nearly exterminating all Jews? It’s a tough question because the attempted extermination of the Jews was taken much more seriously than the extermination of the Lakota people. After all, according to the white man, we were just Indians and sub-humans at that and we didn’t have the power of the press or of the free world to support our claims to life. In order for America to expand, the people of the Great Sioux Nation had to be eliminated.

December 29, 2016, will mark the 126th anniversary of the slaughter of innocents at Wounded Knee. As is their custom, the Lakota people will gather at the mass grave where the bodies of men, women and children were dumped and they will pray and ask the United States government to do something it has never done in those 126 years; to apologize to the Lakota people for this day of death. They will pray that the Medals of Honor handed out to the murderers be rescinded and they will pray for peace between the Lakota and the rest of America. There will be a ceremony called “Wiping Away the Tears,” and this ceremony will conclude a day of mourning, a day when the Lakota reach out to the rest of America for peace and justice.

Americans may have forgotten Wounded Knee and pushed it to the back pages of history, a bad memory to some, but the Lakota people have not nor will they ever forget this terrible day. To the Lakota, to paraphrase President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from his speech on December 8, 1941, “December 29, 1890 is a date that will live in infamy.”

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He is the Editor Emeritus of the Native Sun News Today newspaper based in Rapid City. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007.

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