A carefully hand-lettered red wooden sign marks the Wounded Knee Massacre site at the confluence of Highway 28 and Big Foot Trail (Highway 27). It fronts a dusty parking area while its backside faces a row of ramshackle makeshift shelters under which jewelry vendors proffer their wares to the handful of visitors who pass through. The day we stopped there were only two vendors out, one of whom was being harangued by a pair of Christian missionaries.
When the missionaries left, we ambled over and spoke with the woman, a grandmother selling the wares of her son, Hehaka Tiospaye. Yes, the missionaries were annoying, and yes they were insulting. She looked off across the empty parking lot and sighed. She was friendly to us, told us that we should visit the small cemetery and memorial across the street, that we could walk along the creek a few hundred yards down the road, that we were welcome by the Lakota people.
The massacre commemorated by the sign occurred in 1890 and marked the end of the American cavalry’s war on the native peoples. Ostensibly a mission to “disarm” the “Indians,” when the operation was over some 150-300 men, women, and children lay murdered in the frozen wastes. It was the last of a long list of atrocities visited upon the Plains Indians by the United States government, the conclusion of a decades-long campaign of what we now call ethnic cleansing.
Though designated a National Historic Site, the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial site seems, like the reservation surrounding it, impoverished, ignored, forgotten by the outside. Ignored except by the Christian missionaries, that is.
We took the Lakota woman’s advice and visited the memorial and cemetery. On a small hilltop, a stone plinth inside a small chain link fence reads: “This monument is erected by surviving relatives and other Ogallala and Cheyenne River Sioux Indians in memory of the Chief Bigfoot Massacre Dec. 29. 1890”. As if to perpetually shame the cavalry officer responsible the plinth also notes “Col. Forsyth in Command of U.S. Troops.”
More recent graves surrounded the plinth itself and reminded visitors that history is not static, that Lakota men and women continue to live and die here, that, though a way of life was exterminated, the people were not, despite the inglorious efforts of the U.S. government.
Just below the cemetery sits a round building with a sign declaring Indian Holocaust Museum. Inside, homemade displays documented a more recent history at Wounded Knee, the siege and assault by the FBI in the 1973 (sometimes referred to as the “Wounded Knee Incident“) and the resistance of AIM, the American Indian Movement.
|Museum Building center right|
The small museum was staffed by what appeared to be teenage Lakota girls. After going through the displays and noticing no mention of Leonard Peltier, I asked one of the girls why that was so. Leonard Peltier, of course, was an AIM leader who was implicated in and, by most accounts, wrongly convicted of, the murder of two FBI agents, and who is now serving life in the Federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS. (For an excellent account of the Peltier/Wounded Knee Incident, see Peter Matthiessen’s “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse“). The girl had never heard of Leonard Peltier. I still wonder about that, how it could be possible that in a museum dedicated to the memory of AIM and the events of 1973, there could be no reference to Leonard Peltier.
At the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee you can sign an Amnesty International petition for his release and also see exactly how long Peltier has been incarcerated (at this writing he’s been in prison for 13,720 days 8 hours 22 minutes and counting).