Friday, December 29, 2006

Reflecting on Wounded Knee

I have had two friends (that I know of) who were born in late December: one of December 24th and the other on December 31st. Both have expressed that they have felt cheated out of birthday celebrations due to the day on which they were born, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, respectively. Since I was born on February 14th, I can identify with their feelings.

A few days ago when I was reflecting upon and researching Boxing Day, I came to the realization that we do seem to overlook historical events that take place on or near major holidays. For example, even though it was a very recent event, I had not remembered that the 2004 catastrophic tsunami had occurred on the day after Christmas, Boxing Day. I somehow knew it had occurred in late December, but had I not been researching Boxing Day I never would have made the connection between the two.

Likewise, I would not have remembered the today is the 126th anniversary of the massacre (no, I do not believe that is a politically incorrect term) at Wounded Knee. I’ll not go into the details on what took place on December 29th, 1890, in South Dakota; at the end on this post I have placed some links that will allow the interested reader to explore the story.

In February of 1973 Native People elders of the Pine Ridge Reservation and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM)—several hundred men and women, young people and elders—went to Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre, and “occupied it.” They were soon surrounded by the state police, FBI agents, BIF agents, etc. The occupation and siege created headlines around the world.

At about the same time, I, as a very new and inexperienced social worker had referred to me a new client, Tonya Whitehorse. Of all of the clients with whom I have worked, I believe that Tonya was the most unique. He claimed to be (about) 80 years old, thin with skin gnarled like the trunk of an old tree. The day I met him he was sitting outside of his bungalow in the Portland area of Louisville witling on a long, narrow piece of wood. He told me he was creating a walking cane/stick. His knife brought out of that wood all sorts of creatures in bas relief: scorpion, snake, puma (mountain lion), eagle. I was fascinated by his art, by his creation.

I was more fascinated by the stories he old me—stories of his life, Native American legends, his view of the world, etc. Not long before I met Tonya, I had read Dee Brown’s incredible book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It is a manuscript that goes far beyond the 1890 massacre; it chronicles primarily the relations and conflicts between Native Peoples and the westward moving people of European origin over the thirty-year period from 1860 to 1890. It was “the first account of the time period told from the Native-American point of view.” (See eNotes: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee/Introduction).

Brown’s book had opened my eyes to events in a way that no history I had read before had. So it was natural that I should bring it up with Tonya. He told me he had read it—borrowed it from the public library—and asked me to bring my copy the next time I came to his home. Of course, I returned with the book much sooner than, as a social worker, I needed to visit him. I sat beside Tonya holding the book in my hands as he carved another walking stick . Tonya, without looking up, told me to turn to a specific page in the picture section in the middle of the book. He pointed to a picture of a Kiowa chief named White Horse and said, “He was my father. I was conceived the year he died.”

Kiowa Chief, White Horse (Tsen-tainte)

I must admit that I took almost everything Tonya told me with a very large grain of salt. However, I would like to believe that his stories—growing up on an Oklahoma reservation; earning university degrees in engineering and law; serving in World War II; meeting personally every U. S. President from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson—were true.

Back to today’s anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre. Tonya told me, as I had already learned from reading Dee Brown’s book, that the 1890 Wounded Knee attack was the end of the Native People’s resistance to “the white men.” The Ghost Dance and the promised return of buffalo, he said, was their last hope. The approximately 146 Sioux, including men, women and children, killed by the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee, not only irrevocably affected the Lakota and the Sioux people, but all Native Peoples.

I then asked Tonya about the current (1973) AIM occupation of Wounded Knee. His response was one I never would have expected. He said, “Just a bunch of drunken Indians. Give an Indian a bottle of whiskey and he has more courage than sense.” Of course, I challenged Tonya’s statement. After all, he had himself told me about the prejudice he had encountered: for example, in the 1920s he had earned a law degree and then been told than Indians were not allowed to practice law in Oklahoma. But no matter what I said, I never changed his mind. The 1890 Wounded Knee massacre was, for him, the end of the Native Peoples resistance to White America and nothing would ever change that. Someday I shall share more of the stories I heard from Tonya and allow you to accept them with or without a grain of salt.

On this 116th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, I cannot help but remember Tonya White House. I also remember what I have learned from reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and numerous other books on the manner in which those who share my European ancestry attacked, lied to, and stole from the original inhabitants of this land.

I end with the reflection of Black Elk regarding the Wounded Knee massacre:

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 all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still 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.

Wounded Knee Internet Links (in no specific order):

Wounded Knee 1890

The Wounded Knee Massacre: December 29, 1890

1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee

Lakota Accounts of the Massacre at Wounded Knee

We Were Not Savages

A Tattoo on My Heart: The Warriors of Wounded Knee 1973

Wounded Knee 1973

(Lyrics) Wounded Knee/Big Foot by Johnny Cash (1972)


  1. Nick thank you for remembering the anniversary of Wounded Knee. Many Americans do not know this history or care about it for that matter. It is so telling of our governments and our behavior to one another. It is a shame that we do not seem to learn from it. Perhaps that is the destiny of human nature.

  2. Wounded Knee, both 1890 and 1973, were events that weigh on the consciences of all of us European Americans. Thank you for the blog and the links. By following them, I have learned more than I thought I would.

    I hope you write more about Mr. Whitehorse. He seems like a really interesting character, even with a big grain of salt.

  3. Hi Nick ~~ Very interesting post about the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
    Thank you for your welcome back and the comment that Christmas need never be over if we have the Spirit in our hearts. Glad you had a nice Christmas with family and I wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year in 2007.Take care Nick, Regards, Merle.

  4. I came to say happy after the holidays to you and your fuzzy owner

  5. My birthday sometimes coincides with Father's Day. It's not hugely bad for me.


  6. i not heard of wounded knee wow

  7. HAPPY NEW YEAR in case I don't get back before next year. :)

  8. Excellent post, Saint. We’ve discussed Wounded Knee (both massacre and occupation), but I don’t remember the story of White Horse. Please write more.

    By the way, here’s another link for you:

  9. Was aware but had not read about it -

    What an interesting man - his carved works sound beautiful! Not something you see too often...

    Know someone who taught on a reservation - it took a while but the people learned to trust her, & many of her students are moving on to college - but from what I understand there's still a need for good teachers.

    Geez Saint Nick - your b'day's on St. Valentine's day? How appropriate:)

  10. Nick, what can I say but thank you, again, for remembering those who are so often forgotten

  11. Very interesting story about Tonya, Nick. I would love to hear more about him.