Grief, hope mix on Wounded Knee anniversary

Painting by Frederic Remington of the massacre
A painting by Frederic Remington depicts the opening of the fight at Wounded Knee, with the Seventh Cavalry in battle with American Indians. Remington arrived just after the massacre. Published in Harper's Weekly, Jan. 24, 1891.
Library of Congress

Dec. 29 marks a tragic, iconic day for American Indians. It's the anniversary of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre where dozens of Native American men, women and children were killed by the U.S. Army.

Every December since 1986, riders on horseback have made a pilgrimage, riding about 150 miles across the South Dakota prairie to Wounded Knee, about 100 miles south of Rapid City on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

"(In) 1986, 19 riders rode down into Wounded Knee," recalled Percy White Plume, a Pine Ridge resident who has participated in every ride. "There, I couldn't stop crying coming off that hill. Today, I ride down that hill with pride."

The pride reflects a people who survived government efforts to kill them, destroy their language and culture and take their land.

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Big Foot's camp three weeks after the massacre.
Chief Big Foot's camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background. This information comes from unverified, old data from caption card.
Library of Congress

Historians still debate exactly what happened at Wounded Knee. The military came in response to fear caused by Indians practicing the Ghost Dance, a spiritual movement built on a prophecy that a new world was coming that would restore Indian societies and remove white people.

When soldiers confronted an encampment of people led by Chief Big Foot, someone fired a shot and the soldiers opened fire. Historians put the number of Native Americans dead at anywhere from 150 to 300. Twenty-five soldiers died. Twenty soldiers were given the Medal of Honor.

In 1990, Congress passed a resolution acknowledging the historical significance of Wounded Knee as "the last armed conflict of the Indian wars period," and expressing "deep regret" for the incident.

White Plume said the horror of Dec. 29, 1890, lives in a quote from Black Elk, a Lakota holy man who went to Wounded Knee the day after the massacre.

"As I stand here on this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch. As plain as I see them with eyes still young."

"And can you imagine the horror that he seen. That it affected him to the point that even as an old man he could still see it clearly," said White Plume who recited the quote from memory as he talked while loading horses at his South Dakota ranch.

Cartoon titled Consistency, published in Puck Mag.
Cartoon titled "Consistency," published in Puck Magazine, Jan. 21, 1891, as a satire on Uncle Sam's benevolence toward Africans, Asians, and Europeans while massacring American Indians at Wounded Knee.
Library of Congress

White Plume said that grief lasted for generations, until traditional ceremonies were performed from 1986 to 1990 to release the spirits of the dead and wipe the tears from the living.

Now, he thinks of the annual ride not as a memorial, but a time of healing.

"The people that are involved come away with a different view of how their life has been. People heal from the things that they did and didn't do. They heal from their own personal traumas," said White Plume. "So that's why it's so important that we continue on not only for that, but also that the memory of what happened, the tragedy at Wounded Knee, we don't forget it."

While Wounded Knee remains a symbol of repression and resistance for many American Indians, David Treuer sees it as a beginning.

Treuer, an Ojibwe from Minnesota, is an author and professor at the University of Southern California. He says for many Americans, Wounded Knee marked the end of Native American tribal life, the final battle of the Indian wars.

"And all we've been doing since then is suffering on reservations. That's it," said Treuer, who is working on a book which examines Wounded Knee not as the end of Native American culture, but a low point from which American Indians have risen. "To be honest I think many of us have chosen for a long time to focus on that and to define ourselves by our losses and our grief. That to really be native is to suffer."

Soldiers on horseback after the massacre.
"Return of Casey's scouts from the fight at Wounded Knee, 1890-91." Soldiers on horseback plod through the snow after the massacre.
Department of Defense, Department of the Army

He said the recent Dakota Access pipeline protest started by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is an example of the rising of American Indian culture. Treuer said the gathering of tribes sparked by that protest has been unprecedented.

"One of the main ways that's happened is through a new appreciation for and commitment to American Indian ceremonial life, and things like that. It's an incredibly powerful shift on the ground in Indian communities across the country," he said.

American Indians are increasingly choosing a path that focuses on survival rather than grief and draws strength from historical tragedies such as Wounded Knee, Treuer said.

"It's important to remember the transgressions of a government drunk on its own power and on the inevitability of its own success. But we should remember much else, too. One thing I always remember is that more people survived Wounded Knee than died there. That's crucial to remember.

"Wounded Knee is not just a story about a horrible government. It think it's a much bigger story and that's why it's worth remembering."