A delegation of volunteers with the nonprofit organization Re-member visited Wounded Knee on the first day of their week at Pine Ridge.

A Tour of Wounded Knee: Why It Matters, Why It Hurts

Gale Courey Toensing

When American poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1931, his poem made no mention of the massacre of Lakota Indians that had occurred 42 years earlier on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. But since 1970, when historian Dee Brown published his book of the same name about the site where the U.S. government’s 7th Cavalry slaughtered hundreds of unarmed men, women and children, Wounded Knee has become the iconic site representing the U.S. government’s genocide against all the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. On Sunday, August 19, I was with around 35 other volunteers from Re-member, an independent, nonprofit organization that works with the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge, visiting the Wounded Knee memorial site. It was the first day of a week of volunteer work that included building bunkbeds and outhouses for Lakota families whose homes still lack indoor plumbing and electricity. Dakota High Hawk and members of his tiospaya—his extended family—spend days at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre talking to visitors and selling their crafts. The Re-member delegation sat under a “shade”—an arbor covered with cooling pine boughs that offered some protection from the the 90-degree-plus Plains sun—and listened as the 23-year-old Dakota gave a presentation about the massacre that took place at this historic place on December 29, 1890. “I give tourist information and sell arts and crafts and just help my people. This is what we do to make a living during the summer,” he explains. Dakota says he worked for the tribe, but got laid off because funding for the program he was involved in was cut. The High Hawk family made the shade and the high counter where they display and sell their finely crafted necklaces of beads and buffalo bones, and the intricately woven dream catchers. It is an official site, Dakota says with pride. “This is called a Hehaka Tiospaye. We’re number 22 on the map of places to visit [in the state] that comes from the Chamber of Commerce.” Visitors from all over the world come to Wounded Knee, he says. “A lot of church groups.” According to contemporaneous reports of the 1890 massacre, there was a three-day blizzard following the slaughter, in which between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women and children were shot and butchered. The U.S. military hired people to find and bury the Lakota dead—the frozen bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave on a hill overlooking the flat part of the Wounded Knee memorial site below where the 7th Cavalry was encamped and where High Hawk’s Hehaka Tiospaye is now located. There are other, more recent burials at the top of the hill as well, including several Lakota veterans of America’s wars. Dakota says he has two uncles buried up on the hill. It’s a sad place, he says. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to go by it. Sometimes my uncle tells me when we talk about the history and what happened [here] he says to bring sage because sage is used as a purification, so just  burn it and the pain will go away.” The National Park Service and officials on the tribal council have tried to make the Wounded Knee memorial site a national park. “And a couple of times they got pretty close to it, but a lot of people here disagree with that. It would be a slap in the face,” Dakota says. Among the obstacles is the fact that 20 of the soldiers who participated in the slaughter were awarded Medals of Honor by the U.S. Army. Native American activists call them “Medals of Dishonor” and demand their revocation. According to Lakota tribesman William Thunder Hawk, "The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism; they showed cruelty." In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them. The local people, many of whom are descendants of the massacre, told the officials who wanted to turn the site into a National Park the same thing, Dakota says. But the pressure continues, he says. “Sometimes we get threats from some of the tribal officials that they’re going to move the residents from here in a five-mile radius because the tribal government wants to make this into a National Park, so that they can have revenue off this place, because they believe they can make a lot of money over it. So they were going to have a meeting, and there were fancy architectural drawings, designs and hotels and stuff like that they had planned. But a lot of the descendants disagree, you know. They said this is something local. Just let the people be at peace up there and the local people can share their stories instead of making it something out of control of the local people. “Sometimes you can still hear the screaming up there,” Dakota says. “Nobody wants that National Park here. That would be desecration of the monument.”

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wanbli's picture
Submitted by wanbli on
Now you understand why we need real authentic sovereign traditional governments, not BIA and IRA Oppressive and Repressive Construct of Genocide. Why the people must resist, this kind of evil and hate to our red ways of life and prosperity!!!And why we need unity among those willing to die for our red divine homelands to stopping the last great theft of first nations treaty territories. Our BIA and IRA tribal governments are traitors to our ancestors and have and are corrupting our Ochiti Sakowin Oyate, the Seventh Counsel Fire and complicity to murders, theft, gredd and destruction of our culture, spirituality, love, and our sacred destiny, by this empire called, America!!!! The BIA and IRA so called traditional leaders and spokesman are responsible to the genocide of our red culture and the theft that is taken place now to our treaty landholdings and every last resources. Every day the United States of America breaks they're own ten commandments, as they continue on they're campaigns to dominated earth and all living things, that is indigenous, to this sacred earth mother. Now, Cobell and her whore corrupt godless constitutes and traitors to all red sovereigns, whats to by you off from "Hell" with and extra 800 dollars of "Fed" monies, if you will relinquish your treaty rights and any other claims we as red sovereign nationhood's' have with the United States of America. Wow, with friends like this, who needs enemies. No body should touch this blood money of million of murder indigenous relatives for centuries, here on Turtle Island. We mus hold those among us responsible they're knowing acts of genocide of their own kind. We must "expose them" and they're dealings with the white communities and the empire; and continue to press them into stopping what they are doing to their own families and red nationhood's by allowing the U.S. and their whore Corporate Indian Killers to continue to finish off last Indian problem, INDIANS!!!!!! For any activist to support any Uncle Tom House Nigger IRA Tribal leader or BIA Politics is a traitor, liar, cheat, murderer, racist brainwashed haters of all indigenous genuine sovereign nationhood's and their own Christ, Jesus, haters of the Wakan Tanka. I promise, they will and are paying with they're souls for continuing to kill the prophecies of Black Elk and Crazy Horse and all his People and this red earth. We must fight with no feeling of the white mans governments life, families and friends that support the complete genocide of our culture and spirituality and destiny, because their time will end in this life, in our life time with the BIA and IRA Oppressive White Supremacy time and forever on this holy continent called, Turtle Island. This is our century, the century of red people. The century of liberation and freedom from all empires! Wanbli 2012 Wanbli 2012

MrBoylen's picture
Submitted by MrBoylen on
I want to visit this site this weekend. Where can I camp in a tent nearby? I think this story needs to be told more widely. I teach in a public school in Iowa and want to learn more about those who are descendants of the victims and/or survivors of this horror.