Remembering Wounded Knee

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

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

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

It was the fourth day after Christmas in the Year of OurLord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into thecandlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hangingfrom the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung acrudely lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.
Below, “December 29, 1890, Wounded Knee Creek,” by the Kiowapoet N. Scott Momaday, his poem inspired by the iconic photographs taken of themassacre:
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 teachesin the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s,Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicatednationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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