Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

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.

Black Elk as a young man

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?

7 thoughts on “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

  1. Maggie Brendan

    I enjoyed your post so much. I grew up reading about Indians and one of my term papers in HS was about the American Indians, and I never knew why I felt such an affinity for the American Indian. Years later, I learned that I had Indian heritage in my family tree. Sadly no one ever researched the facts until this past year. My nephew and his wife have traced my roots to the Creek Indians. We were from the Wind tribe. I just had this conversation with them as he showed me all the history they’ve learned on Christmas Eve. Wow! I had no idea. Now I understand the strong pull to read and want to know more about them all these years. They planned to send me the info and I’m excited to be able to have a chance to know more.

    I think we always have to keep in mind the earlier movies depicted a grim picture of the Indian, but in the last 15 yrs. that has changed and paints a truer picture. My brother, wrote a novel–Blue Sky, Night Thunder (hardcover) that depicted the true events of the Ute Indians and their hardship. It will make you cry. If he were alive today, he would be thrilled to find that we are part Creek Indian and without a doubt that would be his next novel. Sorry to ramble on…Mags

  2. Cathy Richmond

    Have you read Kathleen Eagle’s Reason to Believe? It’s a novel set during the annual commemoration of the Wounded Knee massacre. I’ve been thinking about the people out riding in cold South Dakota winds today.

    It’s so sad that the students attending a nearby school had not heard of Wounded Knee. How can we understand each other if we don’t know history?

  3. Kiersti

    Dorothy, thank you so much for sharing this with us–we know too little of our own history, and of each other, so much of the time.

  4. Jennifer Major

    I spent a day this past summer making my way through the Navajo/Dine memorial near Ft Sumner, NM. I was brought there by two friends, sisters from the Mohawk nation, who were taking me on a tour across the Navajo Nation. After a short while inside the museum, one sister was so furious she had to leave and the other was close to losing it.

    Only a few years before Wounded Knee, was the catastrophic killing ground of Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. It is estimated that 10,000 people were marched up to 450 miles across the desert, and 3000 to 5000 Navajo/Dine died between 1863 and 1868. All thanks to Kit Carson and the US Army, and the white settlers who wanted the vast lands of Dinetah, known as the Navajo Nation. Men were shot, women and children were stolen and sold as slaves, in fact, the last slave sold in the US was a Navajo Indian, in the 1950’s. The prison camp of Bosque Redondo was along an alkali river and soil that didn’t grow much at all. Conditions were so bad, the Army officers and soldiers stationed there didn’t even have enough rations.

    It amazes me how little is known of this event, which many Dine refer to as “the Navajo Holocaust”.
    At least three of my books will deal with, or have as a back drop, The Long Walk of the Navajo.
    I want to tell their story. I can’t not tell it.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Jennifer, what a sad and fascinating story. thanks for stopping by here to tell it. Wishing you great good luck with your books.


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