It’s an old story, retold many times, but never enough for its full importance to sink in.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, the place was already thriving with tens of millions of native Americas, great civilizations covering continents north, south, and central. Over the next 400 years, waves of Europeans would come and systematically settle the land, dispossessing native people of their traditional homes along the way, often through brutal violence. In no place was this done more forcefully than in the USA, and the final stroke, breaking the last resistance, came at a small creek on the South Dakota Sioux reservation called Wounded Knee.
We remember Wounded Knee today mostly for two events: First is the December 29, 1890, massacre of between 150 and 300 Indian men, women, and children, as the men were being disarmed en route to the reservation — often portrayed as the final climax of the Plains Indian Wars of the 1800s. Then, three generations later, in 1973, came the second event, a siege mounted by 300 descendants of the original Wounded Knee Indians (calling themselves the American Indian Movement) who, in an attempt to protest decades of poverty, corruption, and broken promises, took up arms and seized the town of Pine Ridge on the Reservation. They held it for 71 days against US marshals, FBI, and military support.
Over the next few weeks, Viral History is proud to bring you a series of posts about Wounded Knee, setting the record straight on this history and updating it to the 21st Century.
- Part I: The Closing Frontier, from Red Cloud’s War, to the Little Bighorn, to the events setting the stage for 1890;
- Part II: 1890 — The massacre.
- Guest Blogger Marshall Matz on the 1973 siege. Matz, as a young staff lawyer to US Senator George McGovern (member of a delegation brought to Wounded Knee to negotiate an end to the 1973 siege), had a unique close-up view of those events that he shares for the first time,
- A take by Johnny Cash on the 1890 massacre. Cash, the great country singer & song-writer, visited South Dakota after the 1973 siege and wrote a beautiful song about the 1890 episode, which we share here;
- WOUNDED KNEE EPILOGUE- Karla Fetrow on the incarceration of Leonard Peltier. A big thank you to our friends at online magazine SUBVERSIFY for this post where Karla Fetrow brings the saga into the 21st Century with the tale of Indian activist Leonard Peltier who in 1975 was accused of murdering two FBI agents under questionable circumstance and who remains in prison today.
- Finally, a digression to the famous 1876 battle of Little Bighorn in nearby Montana and a facet that I have always found haunting – the story of Major Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command. Reno survived the battle but came home to accusations of cowardice, two military Court Martial prosecutions, bouts of drinking, a broken marriage, and an early death. Who paid the bigger price? Custer, who “died with his boots on” in Montana? Or Reno, who had to come home and face defeat?
Why Wounded Knee? Why now? Yes, this spring marks the 38th anniversary of the 1973 siege. And, yes, this summer will mark the 135th anniversary of the Little Big Horn battle. But this story has an importance beyond these dates. Today in 2011, the descendants of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud (photo above), Crazy Horse, and the other great Sioux chiefs and warriors still live on those same South Dakota reservations in terrible conditions, with unemployment reaching over 50 percent and all the related social problems of intense poverty — too far away from population centers to base an economy on casinos or tourism. And despite decades of talk, there seems little hope for the next generation without change.
The legacy of Wounded Knee lives on, and with it the responsibility to make things right.
So stay tuned during June as the drama unfolds. Enjoy.