Why We Still Mourn for Wounded Knee

Jacqueline Keeler

There are always things happening in Indian country that never make it into the mainstream news, and we Indian people are accustomed to it. We never expect the issues near and dear to our hearts to be covered 24 hours on CNN or to trend on Twitter or on Buzzfeed. And yet, this year, I felt it more than usual.

As we entered the holiday season it felt good to see, on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, hundreds of posts, videos, and retweets hailing the Dakota 38 riders as they began their 330-mile trek on December 10th, riding on horseback down snowy roads from Lower Brule in South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota. It was here, the day after Christmas in 1862, that 38 Dakota men were executed in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history for rising up in an insurrection against the Americans who had occupied their land without compensation. President Lincoln signed the orders, reducing the number to be executed from 303 to the 38 who were hung that day.

The United States had failed to fulfill their part — i.e. monetary compensation — of the treaty agreements with the Santee in exchange for the surrendering of up to 24 million acres of hunting grounds; without the ability to hunt, their children were starving. Reportedly, the money owed the Santee was reallocated by Congress to cover the costs of Mary Todd Lincoln’s redecorating of the White House and sunk into years of graft by Indian agents. A trader, Andrew Myrick, refused to release any food from his stores without payment and famously said, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass — or their own dung.” Myrick was the first white man killed in the uprising, and his body was found days later with grass stuffed in his mouth. General Jon Pope was dispatched to Minnesota to quell the insurgency (Pope’s assignment was in part a demotion for losing the 2nd Battle of Bull Run against the Confederacy); he wrote, “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.”

Then on December 29 came the anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre (1890), just three days after the Dakota 38 riders reached Mankato bearing gifts for reconciliation for the town. A tweet by @williamcander of the image of the burial of the frozen victims’ bodies was retweeted hundreds of times with my twitter name attached to it. My Twitter stream became filled with that painful image repeated ad infinitum regarding the December 29th, 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota: “123 years ago this past Sunday, 150 #Lakota men/women/children were massacred by the US 7th Calvary @ #WoundedKnee H/T @jfkeeler.” Each time someone would retweet it would show up again on my timeline, and so, even though I clicked on the image only one time, the long rectangular hole dug for mass burial with the bodies of Lakota people strewn in it and those waiting frozen on the ground while white men pose, holding guns or with their hands at their hips as if for a job well done — that grave stayed in my mind. 

That image is filled with all those things that, as Native people, we cannot name, and remains a symbol of all the ways in which we are not allowed to be ordinary Americans simply living our lives in the most powerful nation in the world. December 29th, 1890 is the date when we became a marginalized people denied the comfort of being part of a nation that recognizes our experiences and commemorates them with us. We live out our lives in this so-called democracy in a twilight existence where the only time Americans remember us is as we were then, when we were truly separate from them. Then they dress up “like us” with feathered headbands made in China and cheer for their sports teams on weekends named to “honor” us, not acknowledging us as we are today, as our encounter with them has made us. But still, after all this time, we are different because we remember; we remember Wounded Knee — and Mankato — and The Long Walk — and every broken promise that we must, for our own good, put aside to live in this new country, the United States. It only makes it harder that they do not join us in this; it makes what we lost, the millions of acres and lives of our loved ones feel cheapened and unappreciated and forgotten and makes their present-day ignorance of us even harder to bear.

So, as we Native people mourn and reflect upon these painful events in our history, we do so very much apart from the rest of this country. There is no national 24-hour news coverage of the Dakota 38 riders. No one is following their journey down icy roads and freezing temperatures except for us who look for updates on their Facebook event page and watch their YouTube interviews, creating our own piecemeal media coverage that does not exist elsewhere. Instead, on that Sunday on the 123rd anniversary of Wounded Knee a Washington Redsk*ns football game was featured on TV.

Seeing photos of Redsk*ns and Chiefs and Braves fans dressed up in fake eagle feather headdresses, I think of a photograph of Owl Man, my great-grandmother’s grandfather, as he stood with a delegation of Yankton Dakota headmen at the White House in Washington, DC in 1868 to sign the Yankton treaty with the U.S. Government. A diminutive President Andrew Johnson stands in frock coat in the balcony above the Yanktons, and he is flanked by the Miami tribe’s delegation who tower over him in turbans and eagle claw necklaces. My ancestor is easily identifiable as he is the only one wearing the full eagle feather headdress. I think what he would have thought of all this. Each feather is said to have represented the confidence the people had for the leader. It was something very precious, but it came with a great deal of responsibility and accountability to the people. When the headmen returned home, the women chastised them for signing away the salt mines which they needed to preserve meat. Even then, there were no good deals to be made in DC. The people were focused on securing their survival, to live, to protect and raise the young, but sometimes, like at Wounded Knee, even that was an impossibility.

Looking at this image of Wounded Knee I want to run—run like the Ihanktonwan man my dad used to tell us kids about at dinner. He was at Wounded Knee visiting, and despite being shot through the middle of his body, he ran all the way across the state of South Dakota to our people. We kids would pepper our dad with questions about the story, “How could he run all the way across the state with a gunshot wound in the middle of his body?” “They were just tougher back then.” “But, why did he do it?” “Because he thought our people really needed to know. It was important to the people.” I want to run like him — running, carrying the story with the pain still lodged inside of me, the worry and the doubt eating me up. Only by putting my feet to ground and feeling the tempo my movement like a heartbeat upon the body of my Mother, Maka, can I find where I belong again and shake loose the despair. 

I suppose a lot of Native people feel that way, and this is why we share our stories with each other on social media. Because these things are terrible and the country we are supposed to be part of cares not at all, or it cannot care without assuming guilt, and it is unwilling to do that because of Manifest Destiny. In their minds it was all for the greater good of creating this country that our nations were buried in the snow. And so, we live in a country where Wounded Knee and the Mankato 38 does not receive the same amount of broadcast time as does a perpetually losing NFL team’s flailing weekly on the field.

And even as we mourn, publicly for the first time in a long time, on social media sites like Twitter, we are confronted by those who would tell us to “get over it.” And they refuse to see that we cannot as long as our concerns remain shunted off into the gutter of our daily American experience. We are mourning the dead, but also the death of our own centrality in the story of our lives. We are surrounded by stories of white men and boys overcoming obstacles and triumphing in their quests to get the woman of their dreams, to save the world, become rich from TV, films and books.

One white guy had to respond to the tweet of the photograph of Wounded Knee by saying it was okay, because Indians were not Noble Savages and did far worse to each other, so we should stop remembering. In rejecting one stereotype he had embraced something even worse. The notion that unless Native people are better than any other people in the world they do not deserve basic human rights accorded to every other people in the world. That has to be the most dehumanizing thing anyone can say against us. Does he mean that we, having fallen off our pedestal must now endure any atrocity against us, even against unarmed women and children—even infants? In his myopic attack on the Noble Savage, he has returned full circle to the mindset that initiated the genocide on this continent. It reminded me of Col. Chivington’s words to his soldiers before the Sand Creek Massacre, “Kill them one and all, nits make lice.” I think the truth is to Americans like this gentleman, we are just an annoying reminder of the true price paid for this land, a reminder that needs to be silenced. It is so important to him that he’s willing to publicly make his point grandstanding on top of a massacre. Something that the Dakota 38 descendants recognize as wrong. Jim Miller, the Dakota man who had the vision for the commemorative ride has said that part of the ride’s purpose was for the Dakota to be the first to apologize for their role in the historical tragedy. Another organizer, Dakota veteran Peter Lengeek explained, “We’re trying to reconcile, unite, make peace with everyone because that’s what it means to be Dakota.”

On YouTube is a video of Redbone, the Native rock band singing in 1973, “We were all wounded at Wounded Knee for Manifest Destiny,” but I’d take it even a step further than that. As a people, a living vibrant culture, we all died that day. Even if your tribe had no runners present to bring them the news, that was the day that, as Black Elk said, the tree was cut. Both the Minnesota Sioux Uprising and Wounded Knee affected two members of my father’s family in ways that marked them the rest of their lives. The first was Owl Man. After the Dakota fled Minnesota they came and sought refuge amongst our people, the Yanktons, and as their cousins we took them in. When the U.S. Military found out they sent Colonel Sully who demanded we fulfill the treaty and kill them or he would return to “kill us all.” The headmen met, and, in the meeting, Owl Man was chosen to kill one of the Santee in order to fulfill the treaty — he had had a vision as a boy that he would do this when he received his powers as a medicine man. So he killed the man, and then went up on a hill and sat for four days and four nights without any weapons proclaiming that any Santee who wanted to come and kill him could if they wished. None did, and the Santee were able to remain, another massacre was averted, but it bothered my great-grandfather the rest of his life. He claimed to be haunted by the spirit of the man until he died.

My grandmother told me about the second relative her uncle, the Rev. Charles Cook. One day, we were in her attic and she unrolled a large portrait-sized daguerrotype of a young, handsome Indian man. She told me he was the Episcopal minister at Wounded Knee during the massacre. It was the holidays, so the church was decorated for Christmas; desperate to save the people, he and Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota, turned it into a hospital for the wounded and dying. They were both young, educated Dakota men still in their 20’s, working tirelessly to save the lives of their people. I asked her what happened to him, as I had never heard him spoken of before. She said simply, “Oh, he died a few years later, they say, of a broken heart by what he saw that day.”

I think of those young men, educated to be leaders in this new way of life their people were supposed to assume. And how they found themselves, instead of building this new society of churches and hospitals, patching together the bloodied bodies of their own people torn to bits by U.S. soldiers. Dr. Charles Eastman was embittered by the experience, noting the banner inside the church which read “peace and goodwill to all men.” My great-great uncle, could not reconcile the two, and even Owl Man, a seasoned warrior, was wracked with guilt by the choices he had to make to save the most people possible. I highly recommend reading a wonderful blog post written by Cutcha Rising Baldy, (On telling Native people to just "get over it" or why I teach about the Walking Dead in my Native Studies classes... *Spoiler Alert!*) where she explains why we cannot just “get past” these experiences by using The Walking Dead and survival of a zombie apocalypse. In it she notes just how American invaders were like a zombie swarm, how our people were unable to get them to see our humanity; when she asks people how they think the great-grandchildren of the Walking Dead will be able to “get past” the terrible things that happened to their ancestors, all her students understand that in this fictional event they cannot — yet, not all can understand our experience in the same way.

And then, thinking of these things—the annoyed rantings of a white man on Twitter telling us to “get over it”, and another on Facebook carrying on about the terrible hardships of giving up his enjoyment of Native Mascotry he loves to change its name because of whiney Native people—I am reminded of these very real decisions my ancestors had to make for our survival, and I remember it was not made for these white men’s benefit, nor for their comfort; it was made for me, for us, their descendants. We are the reason they did these things and made these hard choices. It was for the hope that we would be alive, their descendents living today and loving life, the sun on our faces, and even the blistering snow on a long ride as we remember them. I write these thoughts down, these family stories in attempt to preserve the dignity of their actions because no one else will. No one in the American media cares as much as we do about these things. And ironically, it is because social media provides these communal spaces to grieve and remember and to take courage in the acts of Reconciliation that riders like the Dakota 38 do, that make me feel even more the great yawning distance between my experience, as a Native woman and mother, and that as an American citizen. I wish the two were closer together. The distance is a part of the pain, and being told to be silent about it makes me think others know it, too.

Jacqueline Keeler is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. She lives in Portland, Oregon.




joeybladb's picture
Well said!
tracey's picture
Thank you for such a beautifully written, informative piece. It's truth and wisdom is gut wrenching and is something every citizen of the Unites States should read.
ypochris's picture
There is an exception to the failure of the media to cover the Dakota 38. Al Jazeera America had a lead article on their website. They consistently have coverage of stories from Indian Country. The rest of the mainstream media in this country, however, is worthless. Not only on the topic of indigenous people, but on every other topic as well, other than promoting policies that support the well-being of their ultra-wealthy owners.
Itsoch's picture
The truth of this desperately needs to become knowledge for everyone in this country, or the world for that matter. Thank you for writing this.