Above is a photograph of the mass grave that stretches 30 ft across the center of Wounded Knee cemetery. Where rest bones of the elderly, women, and children mowed down attempting to flee US calvary gunfire December 29, 1890. Take a good look at that trench. It is one of the biggest blood stains of injustice on the cloth of American history.
I walk there sometimes to remember the dead. An ancient ancestor of mine is buried with the rest of those slain in the frost 120 years ago. Number 19 on the government memorial is my name, my blood spilled. When I view photos of the dead, it is with the knowledge that I’m looking at a precursor to myself. Kin I never knew is among the bodies. My whole family might not exist if a grandma didn’t escape with her children into ravines that provided shelter from hotchkiss cannon fire. The grandfather died that day, one of those heaped unceremoniously in the snow.
Wounded Knee is a place permeated with reflections for a Lakota. Thoughts about who we are, who we were, and how the present is built on the shallow grave of the past electrify the air. Something quivers in my stomach when I think of those below the dirt, how hard their journey was. Those women and children were already dying, ravished by illness and cold. Theirs was no hostile band of warriors, but a caravan of refugees, just hoping to cling to life long enough to reach a warm place with a scrap of food. I’m reminded of a firsthand account by Dick Fools Bull of that day:
“There were dead people all over, mostly women and children, in a ravine near a stream called Wounded Knee Creek. The people were frozen, lying there in all kinds of postures, their motion frozen too. The soldiers, who were stacking up bodies like firewood, did not like us passing by. They told us to leave there, double-quick or else. Old Unc said: “We’d better do what they say right now, or we’ll lie there too.”
So we went on toward Pine Ridge, but i had seen. I had seen a dead mother with a dead baby sucking at her breast. The little baby had on a tiny beaded cap with the design of an American flag.”
I’m so overwhelmed, standing on the same ground, I can do nothing but repeat, over and over:
“You are not forgotten. You are not forgotten.”
I look at that monument and think “ain’t that the US government for you”. Blow people to smithereens like ants before a firecracker. Toss what’s left into a trench. Then years later, genuflect somberly about the tragedy while trying to seize thousands of acres to build a national park, so tourists can come gawk at what you did back in1890. In two sentences, that summarizes two hundred years of Indian policy.
Wounded Knee is a lesson to the world on what happens when you stand in the way of lands an imperial power wants. If you follow a different god than the Christian lord of manifest destiny. If you’d live free in nature, rather than couped in the industrial factories of American labor life. Nothing was ever atoned, and the way of the world hasn’t changed. Standing before the grave, I understood for the first time a great struggle that has continued over centuries. Reverberations of that struggle whispered in the line of blood, trickling from Wounded Knee all the way into my modern veins. I had to remember, I had to learn everything I could about who we used to be, about our people snuffed out before their time.
If I didn’t, who would? Who even remained to care? Alone on Wounded Knee hill, glint of sunset shearing the empty plains, I caught a glimpse of one of life’s three big questions. “Where do you come from?” Like falling dominoes, the answer connected to that second big question “who are you?”. Perhaps it even nudged the angle of my journey closer to figuring out that final question “where do you need to go, what do you need to do with yourself?”