Remembering Wounded Knee

The massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota was on this day in 1890, the U. S. 7th Calvary gunning down hundreds of unarmed Lakota Indian warriors and their families. As framed in Dee Brown’s influential, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the massacre represented not only the culmination of the Indian Wars but the mindset which began to form with the arrival of Columbus. Dee’s first chapter quotes from a letter which Columbus wrote home to the King and Queen of Spain describing the Indian tribes in what appears to be glowing terms:

So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.

Columbus’s point turns out to be that the Indians and their nation should be easy pickings, with only a firm hand needed to make the natives “work, sow and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways.” Brown’s book then traces the centuries of abuse, his last chapter describing the Wounded Knee killings, his last paragraph describing the transport of the fifty-one wounded Indian survivors to shelter in a nearby Episcopal mission:

It was the fourth day after Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into the candlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hanging from the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung a crudely lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.
Below, “December 29, 1890, Wounded Knee Creek,” by the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday, his poem inspired by the iconic photographs taken of the massacre:
In the shine of photographs
are the slain, frozen and black
on a simple field of snow.
They image ceremony:
women and children dancing,
old men prancing, making fun.
In autumn there were songs, long
since muted in the blizzard.
In summer the wild buckwheat
shone like fox fur and quillwork,
and dusk guttered on the creek.
Now in serene attitudes of dance,
the dead in glossy death are drawn
In ancient light.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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