On December 29, 1890, US Army Troops were dispatched to Wounded Knee, SD in response to fears of white settlers. The Lakota Sioux were restless, some said because of the vision of the Ghost Dancer, a story that moved across the Plains following the removal of the Sioux from land that had been promised to them by treaty. Like many other treaties, this one was worthless, especially once gold was discovered in the hills of South Dakota. When the soldiers reached the Indian camp, a skirmish broke out between one soldier and one of the Sioux, and the soldiers opened fire. When the shooting stopped, three hundred men, women and children lay dead, their blood seeping into the ground and prairie grass.
One survivor of the massacre was a twenty eight year old Sioux named Black Elk. In 1932, he published a book called Black Elk Speaks, in which he recounts the events of that day at Wounded Knee. I read it first as a college student, along with Dee Brown’s book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Those books shamed me and changed me. As a girl reared on TV westerns and Western movies, I, along with almost every other “white” child, grew up thinking of Indians as ignorant murderous savages. I cheered the movie heroes who fought the Indians as wagon trains rolled across the west in pursuit of “Manifest Destiny.” But as a college student, I learned that those “savages” had highly developed cultures. They had languages, and religious beliefs, social orders and values shaped by tradition and necessity. They were not a faceless blob of evil. They were individuals who fell in love, married, had children, dreamed and prayed and laughed and cried, mourned and danced. Those were the people killed at Wounded Knee and countless other places during the 19th century.
In the 1990’s I taught a required course in human relations at a small liberal arts college on the Iowa-South Dakota border. We were just a few hundred miles from Wounded Knee and none of my students had ever heard of it. None of them had ever met a Native American. I located a local man, a Lakota Sioux and invited him to speak to my class. He came, and we had a great discussion. In his remarks he made note of the fact that Indians think differently than whites do, a lesson I learned first hand the very next semester. I called him again to invite him to speak to my new class of students and we agreed on a date and time. He never showed. Never called. I never heard from him again. To this day I have no explanation for his actions. Perhaps it was too painful, this recounting of his people’s history. But I am ever grateful that at least a few of my students had their eyes opened that day.
Shortly before his death in 1950, Black Elk made a long prayer to the great Spirit. It’s a poetic prayer of faith, thanksgiving, hope, and praise. It’s too long to quote here, but I hope you will look it up. It might change your perceptions of our history as it pertains to “the Indian problem.” It might change the way you view Western movies such as “The Searchers” in which John Wayne’s character would rather kill his niece who has been kidnapped by Indians, than have her turn into a “squaw.”
Here is a very brief excerpt from Black Elk’s prayer. “Grandfather, Great Spirit, the good road and the road of difficulties you have made to cross and where they cross the place is holy. Day in and day out, forever, you are the life of things.”
Doesn’t sound much like an ignorant savage, does it?