What Wounded Knee Means to Me
Most of the time I don't say, “Hi my name is Lindsey, and I'm an Indian.” I would feel false, insincere and presumptuous. That is why I identify as mixed-blood and qualify my Navajo with an Irish. But today is different. On this day in 1890 three hundred and fifty men, women and children were killed at Wounded Knee after being completely unarmed by American troops looking to capture the sickly Chief Big Foot as he lay on his death bed.
It was not the first time Indians were massacred and it wasn't the last. Today the battle continues, sometimes bloody sometimes not. For a long time I didn't even recognize myself as a part of that battle. I was in a state of surrender. But not today.
Hi my name is Lindsey, and I am an Indian.
They* have tried to make me deny that. They have tried to silence my heritage. They have tried to take the land from my tribe and take my tribe from me. They have tried to kill off the Indian inside for something more suitable. But not today.
I may be Indian, but I am not Sioux. I've never been to Pine Ridge. I've never seen a plain. I don't know how to ride a horse, in fact they kind of scare me. But on this day I stand with the Sioux as a comrade and a relative.
I don't know the day or the place but I can always remember the thought, in fact the series of thoughts, that secured my Native identity. I remember traversing the past, tracing back the lines of my family and fully realizing for the first time that I had ancestors who had lived for generations on this continent before any settlers. I then began to walk back to the present day. I knew that more painfully than I would ever experience they had witnessed the theft of land, language, clan members, tribal members, everything they held dear. I used to think of all this pain, all this loss as a sort of curse, the curse of a colonized people. Performing this act of time travel today, I know in a different context, it could just as easily have been my ancestors shot down, slaughtered and mutilated by the 7th cavalry regiment without warning or reason. Indeed, every tribe, every Native person, has their Wounded Knee moment, the time when they told you were dead or tried to make it so.
As a non-traditional mixed-blood who grew up in the suburbs, I often feel guilty, even ashamed, that I can't live up physically or culturally to the model of an ideal Indian. I know in my mind that it's not my fault. I didn't give up my culture, my language, my people. They were taken from me. It may be my duty to struggle to regain these things but it is not my duty to feel bad that I was not born with the a legible and uncomplicated identity. Over the years I have accepted myself not as a traditional Indian, no, but as an Indian whose identity is founded in the struggle of all indigenous people for what is rightly theirs: their lands and lives.
Unfortunately when Wounded Knee is mentioned, in fact when Indians are thought of at all, the predominant theme is one of death and defeat. But there is another story of Wounded Knee, a story of resistance, hope and pan-Indian solidarity. On February 17, 1973 members of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where the massacre had occurred less than one hundred years past. They held the town for seventy-one days and light a fire in the hearts of Indians across the country, many of whom came to join in the occupation. The re-occupation, or de-colonization, of Wounded Knee was a moment where the possibility of standing up to the colonial government and corrupt tribal governments became startlingly clear. It is true the occupation did not end as a total victory. Two of the occupiers had been killed and Leonard Peltier would be sent to prison for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. Regardless, it was a proud moment for a people so often made to feel hopeless. It was a moment when people who had been beaten down by history stood up and refused to pass away. Today, when we think of Wounded Knee, we need not only think of tragedy, we can also think of the resistance of a proud people.
Many lives were taken at Wounded Knee and many lives continue to be taken in prisons, reservations and more subtly in the melting pot. You don't have to let them take yours. You can be a part of the resistance, not the tragedy. Today, whether full-blood, half-blood or mixed-blood, we can all stand as an Indian. We can all stand with the Sioux. Together we can say “We are here and we shall overcome!”
*”They” in this essay refers to the colonial actors and forces in Occupied America.
Lindsey Catherine Cornum is a Navajo-Irish writer and independent scholar. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and writes for the blog, Mixedblood Messages.