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.

| June 2016

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.

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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.