Remembering the Wounded Knee Massacre

A glimpse into the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre and how the event has resonated with Native American writers ever since.

Wounded Knee

Much as the “Ghost Dance” was the first truly pan-Indian movement, Wounded Knee became a pan-Indian site for memorializing the dead, recalling the pain, remembering the Indians’ hopes for a different kind of world, mourning the death of those hopes, and mobilizing to protest contemporary conditions that are the legacies of white Americans’ war of genocide against the Indian tribes that peopled North America before they got there.

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Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee, A Reader's Companion (Rutgers University Press, 2015) by Shelley Fisher Fishkin is a unique, passionate, and eclectic series of meditations on literature and history, covering over 150 important National Register historic sites, all pivotal to the stories that make up America, from chapels to battlefields; from plantations to immigration stations; and from theaters to internment camps. Rather than just providing a cursory overview, Fishkin offers a deep and personal reflection on how key sites bore witness to the struggles of American writers and inspired their dreams.

On May 28, 1903, Joseph Horn Cloud made his way across the desolate rolling grasslands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota until he reached the top of a hill at Wounded Knee, his thoughts circling back to that bleak December day, thirteen years earlier, when he had watched the U.S. Army kill so many of his relatives and friends. They had been unarmed. They hadn’t stood a chance against the rifles of the Seventh Cavalry. Joseph Horn Cloud climbed the hill with some fellow survivors to place a granite monument at the unmarked mass grave where some 150 men, women, and children who had perished in the 1890 massacre were buried.

There is still debate today about the number killed at Wounded Knee, as Gail Brown notes in “Wounded Knee: The Conflict of Interpretation.” Some sources put the number of Lakotas killed as high as three hundred or even four hundred. But while the precise number of deaths may be uncertain, the significance of the event is not: Wounded Knee—the violent climax of decades of white duplicity, greed, murder, theft, and revenge—was the last armed encounter of the nineteenth century between Native Americans and the United States government.

For Native Americans, it quickly became an emblem, as Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn put it in The Politics of Hallowed Ground, of “the deliberate genocide of a people by European invaders of this continent who called themselves Americans.” The events of December 29, 1890, were precipitated by a pan-Indian messianic religious movement—the “Ghost Dance” —that the government felt threatened by, but which held out to Native Americans the hope that these lands would once again be theirs and not the white man’s. The Wounded Knee massacre marked the end of that hope. From 1890 to the present, Native American writers have struggled with the challenge of how to best to remember what happened at Wounded Knee, how to honor the dead, and how to let the past inform the present. They have struggled with the question that contemporary Oneida poet Roberta Hill Whiteman asked when she occupied Wounded Knee in 1973: “How can I mark this sorrow?”

Marking the sorrow of Wounded Knee has been central to much Native American autobiography, fiction, and poetry ever since the terrible events occurred there in 1890. Much as the “Ghost Dance” was the first truly pan-Indian movement, Wounded Knee became a pan-Indian site for memorializing the dead, recalling the pain, remembering the Indians’ hopes for a different kind of world, mourning the death of those hopes, and mobilizing to protest contemporary conditions that are the legacies of white Americans’ war of genocide against the Indian tribes that peopled North America before they got there. The Native Americans who witnessed all or part of the massacre and its aftermath—including Nicholas Black Elk, Charles Eastman, and Alice Ghost Horse—passed on their versions of what had happened. The Wounded Knee massacre figures prominently in the first novel written by a woman of American Indian descent, Wynema: A Child of the Forest, by S. Alice Callahan, published in 1891. In the twentieth century, Wounded Knee has figured in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by Native American writers including Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Mary Crow Dog, Vine Deloria Jr., Roberta Hill Whiteman, N. Scott Momaday, and Wendy Rose, while themes that Wounded Knee brings to the surface figure in poetry by James Welch, Zitkala-Ša, and others. The place and its multiple meanings reverberate through more than a century of Native American letters.

Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark is located near the Stronghold Unit of Badlands National Park on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, an area comanaged by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Park Service. The names that the Lakota and early French trappers gave the area—mako sica and les mauvaises terres a traverser—both mean “bad lands,” reflecting the place’s relative lack of water and desolate loneliness. The rugged landscape of the park is marked by native short prairie grasses, scattered pine trees, occasional small streams, and a large numbers of spires, peaks, and buttes carved by erosion—extraordinary rock formations that a mid-nineteenth-century explorer quoted in a geological survey of the upper Midwest refers to as “some magnificent city of the dead, where the labor and the genius of forgotten nations had left behind them a multitude of monuments of art and skill.” In 1935, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was struck by the “indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere” of the Dakota Badlands, “a distant architecture” that struck him as “an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” Peopled first by ancient mammoth hunters, by the mid-eighteenth century the area had become home to the Lakota Sioux, who considered the Black Hills sacred. The Second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 (between the Sioux and the U.S. government) set aside the area for exclusive use by the Indians, as a part of the Great Sioux Reservation. The United States promised that no unauthorized persons “shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in [this] territory.” But the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 led whites to rush to the area in unprecedented numbers in violation of the treaty, precipitating the violent clash at Little Bighorn in 1876, in which the Sioux prevailed over the Seventh Cavalry. Nearly a quarter-century later, on the chill, windswept hills near Wounded Knee Creek, the Seventh Cavalry would take its revenge.

By the fall of 1883, whites had killed most of the bison herds, and, as the decade wore on, increasing efforts were made to confine Indian tribes to reservations. Nicholas Black Elk, the great Sioux spiritual leader whose story (as he told it to John G. Neihardt) would be published in 1932 as Black Elk Speaks—puts it bluntly:

There was hunger among my people before I went away across the big water, because the Wasichus did not give us all the food they promised in the Black Hills treaty. They made that treaty themselves; our people did not want it, and did not make it ... [I]t was worse when I came back. My people looked pitiful. There was a big drouth, and the rivers and creeks seemed to be dying. Nothing would grow that the people had planted, and the Wasichus had been sending less cattle and other food than ever before. The Wasichus had slaughtered all the bison and shut us up in pens. It looked as though we might starve to death. We could not eat lies.

Black Elk recalls a time when Indians had lived in harmony with the animals and each other: “Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us. But the Wasichus came, and they have made little islands for us … and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed.”

During the years leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre, the Indians’ lands were confiscated by the U.S. government and overrun by government troops, the promised rations were cut to starvation levels, and Indian protests and appeals were ignored. “Never was more ruthless fraud and graft practiced upon a defenseless people than upon these poor natives by the politicians!” recalls Sioux writer Charles A. Eastman (whose Santee Sioux name was Ohiyesa, “the winner”) in From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian. “Never were there more worthless ‘scraps of paper’ anywhere in the world than many of the Indian treaties and Government documents! Sickness was prevalent and the death rate alarming, especially among the children.” “Trouble from all these causes had for some time been developing, but might have been checked by humane and conciliatory measures,” Eastman writes, but such measures were not forthcoming. Like many a troubled and despairing group before them, the Indians sought hope in a religious revival movement—in the preachings of a Paiute Indian named Wovoka who fashioned himself as the messiah who would bring an end to the Indians’ sufferings if they followed his teachings and danced the religious dance he taught them, the “Ghost Dance.” “My people were groping blindly after spiritual relief in their bewilderment and misery,” Eastman continues. “The ‘Messiah craze’ in itself was scarcely a source of danger,” he notes, adding that it was about as dangerous as the preachings of a well-known Christian evangelist whom no one found especially threatening: “One might almost as well call upon the army to suppress Billy Sunday and his hysterical followers,” Eastman wryly suggests.


Reprinted with permission from Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee, A Reader's Companion by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and published by Rutgers University Press, 2015.