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ONE WHEEL - MANY SPOKES. Excerpt
Wounded Knee is a dozen miles out of Pine Ridge in the other direction. We drive there next and take ourselves back to a desperate time, the climactic month of December 1890.
Two days after Chief Sitting Bull was assassinated by Indian police on December 15, the St. Louis Republic editorialized his death,
The death of Sitting Bull removes one of the obstacles to civilization. He was a greasy savage, who rarely bathed and was liable at any time to become infected with vermin. During the whole of his life he entertained the remarkable delusion that he was a free-born American with some rights in the country of his ancestors… He will now make excellent manure for the crops, which will grow over him when his reservation is civilized.
A similar editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer advocated genocide. The writer was Frank Baum, who would later author The Wizard of Oz.
With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.
Some speculate that newspaper writings like these helped to incite the Wounded Knee Massacre. Long-standing issues were also in abundance. In December of 1890, even army officers and South Dakota legislators were petitioning the U.S. Government to fulfill its treaty requirements. General John Schoefield's telegram to Washington D.C. is representative; it was sent on December 19, four days after Sitting Bull's assassination.
One point is of vital importance—the difficult Indian problem can not be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment by Congress of the treaty obligations which the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing. They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost a total failure. The disaffection is widespread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.
Today at Wounded Knee there is a tiny community of homes and families, the American Indian Movement Museum, and the simple site of the massacre. Here, just ten days after General Schoefield's urgent appeal, some three hundred Lakota people were slaughtered on December 29, 1890. Two-thirds of the massacred Lakotas were women and children. The report of American Horse, one of the survivors, was preserved in the 1896 report of the United States Bureau of Ethnology.
They turned their guns, Hotchkiss guns [breech-loading cannons that fired an explosive shell], etc., upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce, and of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled...There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce [which flew over the Lakota camp], and the woman and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed...After most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there...Of course it would have been all right if only the men had been killed; we would feel almost grateful for it. But the fact of the killing of the women, and more especially the killing of the young boys and girls who are to go to make up the future strength of the Indian people, is the saddest part of the whole affair and we feel it very sorely.
An army photographer was along on the day of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Graphic pictures were taken after the killing. We view them at the site. The weather that day of the massacre was freezing cold. Bodies in the picture are shown frozen in contorted position. Wounded Knee ended with a mass burial.
Or, more precisely it never ended. We've gotten just the barest taste of Pine Ridge. Real faces with the complexity of hope and despair have replaced one-sided memories from TV shows we've seen. The people live on despite the genocidal editorials and actions of the past. History and the present story mix in ways that are difficult to understand. We've seen another of the many spokes to this one wheel that we call the United States of America.