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Defenders at the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973 by Native activists led by the American Indian Movement. Photo in respectful deference to Native descendants who object to posting photos of their massacred ancestors.

This We Shall Not Forget: The Nation's Hoop Was Broken

Abby Zimet

Exactly 131 years ago, at dawn on a bitterly cold Dec. 29, 1890, U.S. soldiers opened fire on a band of Lakota Sioux forced to camp the night before along South Dakota's Wounded Knee Creek; in minutes, hundreds of men, women and children lay dead in the snow. America's bloodiest massacre of Native people was part of a years-long genocide that slashed its indigenous population from up to eight million to about 200,000. The Lakota, the most powerful tribe of the Northern Plains Sioux, suffered with the rest thanks to a national mindset that argued, per one editorial, "It is inconsistent with our civilization and with common sense to allow the Indian to roam over a country as fine as that around the Black Hills...This region must be taken from the Indian." And so it was. For months before the massacre, U.S. troops had been pushing into South Dakota's Sioux reservations to shut down the Ghost Dance movement, which Natives believed would bring back the spirits of the dead to help fight with them against America's cataclysmic colonial expansion. With winter closing in, the hungry, exhausted Lakota finally agreed to surrender, go to Pine Ridge Reservation, and take shelter with Chief Red Cloud; in this, they were following the dictate of their own leader Big Foot, or Sitanka, by then so ill with pneumonia he couldn't sit up. Soldiers from the US Calvalry's 7th Regiment loaded Sitanka into an old wagon and, with his ragged band following, "escorted" the Lakotas to a camp on Wounded Knee Creek, where they anxiously tried to sleep amidst the heavily armed troops surrounding them.

On the cold, clear morning of Dec. 29, three soldiers tried to wrench a rifle away from a young Lakota; he refused to give up "the only thing standing between his family and starvation." As the men struggled, the gun went off; the soldiers opened fire, including with Hotchkiss mountain guns. As Lakota men fell, survivors fought back with knives; women preparing for the day's trip tried to flee but were shot down with their babies; over the next two hours, troops on horseback hunted down and slaughtered any more they could find. In the end, as many as 300 were killed, and scores wounded. In "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," Dee Brown described "when the first torn and bleeding bodies" were carried into a nearby, candlelit church; those conscious could see Christmas greenery still hanging, and a banner reading, "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." Since then, little good will has materialized. In 1990, Congress issued a toothless apology for the massacre, which ended the Ghost Dance Uprising and was the last major encounter between U.S. troops and the Sioux. Today, Pine Ridge remains the largest, and one of the poorest reservations. In 1973, it was the site of the American Indian Movement's occupation; in one final atrocity, AIM's Leonard Peltier, this country's longest serving political prisoner, is still not free. And despite demands by lawmakers to revoke 20 Medals of Honor awarded for "gallantry beyond the call of duty" to the soldiers who murdered Lakota women and children, Biden has yet to act on the calls. He should, says one Native activist: Those "medals of dishonor" should be rescinded "to help my nation heal." Small mercy, indeed.

Years after surviving it, Black Elk, holy man of the Sioux, mournfully remembered Wounded Knee: "I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered (as) plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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