On December 29, 1890, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 Lakota men, women, and children were massacred near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They were mowed down by gunfire from members of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, who had been called out to disarm the Native Americans based upon the fears of local white settlers.
Eighty years later, Dee Brown gave the massacre prominence in his book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The book became a bestseller. Then, Native American activists, led by Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Clyde and Vern Bellecourt, and others, staged a protest march and demonstration, The Trail of Broken Treaties, on October 2 – November 2, 1972 from St. Paul Minnesota to Washington, D.C. In that event, the Wounded Knee Massacre was also well publicized.
Eighty-three years after the massacre, a Native American group, Redbone, released the record, “We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee.” It was designed to inform a new generation of what had happened in 1890. Pertinent lyrics are, “We were all wounded at Wounded Knee, you and me … In the name of Manifest Destiny, you and me … They made us many promises, but always broke their word. They penned us in like Buffalo, drove us like a herd … and finally on the Reservation, we were going for our preservation … We were all wiped out by the 7th Cavalry, you and me …” The record was censored, and the group found it difficult to get bookings around the country.
They had, nevertheless, kept their word. The lyrics near the end of the song stated, “Now we make our Promises, we won’t break our word. We’ll sing, sing, sing out our story, Till the truth is heard. There’s a whole new Generation which will dream of veneration. Who were not wiped out by the 7th Cavalry, You and Me, You and Me …”
Aside from the book, the march, and the record, too little has been said and done. Thus, as we bid 2022 goodbye, the writer thought it fitting to revive discussion of the event. Native Americans are still under assault, as are other people of color, amidst America’s strong resurgence of white nationalism.
The massacre at Wounded Knee, although a massive tragedy for Native Americans and a tremendous blot on white American nationalism, does not by any means stand alone. There have been many other such tragic encounters.
The infamous Trail of Tears removal marches, which took place between 1830 and 1850, is perhaps most noted among them. In that case, between 57,400 and 61,500 Native Americans were forcibly removed from the southeastern states to “Indian Territory” as Oklahoma was then called. In that removal, which one writer has called “ethnic cleansing,” between 10,000 and 17,000 Native Americans died of various diseases and hardships, as they walked the trail during all types of weather.
These were members of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes.” These Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole nations were dubbed civilized because of the manner in which they adopted or acclimated to English customs. They, nevertheless, were unconstitutionally uprooted to make way for white settlers. President Andrew Jackson, in fact, deliberately defied the Supreme Court in order to have them removed. (Rather than to be so removed, the Seminoles decided to fight and then migrate to Mexico. In their fight they lost some 700 tribal members.)
History is replete with other genocidal measures against Native Americans. Each of the last several years, we have learned of thousands of Native American children who were taken from their families and tribes and sent to boarding schools in order to rid them of their native cultures and customs. Many of these children died or were otherwise abused.
Finally, scholars of Native American history have concluded that every treaty entered into by America with Native Americans – approximately 368 – has been broken, wholly or in part. In each case, it was broken because white Americans wanted more wealth and resources. In each case, it was because the Native Americans were not able to resist America’s military power. In each case, the Native Americans were victimized.
Yes, like African Americans, Native Americans have been perpetual victims of white greed and nationalism. As Redbone so aptly put it, “We were all wounded at Wounded Knee.” This suggests a need for understanding and coming together for survival and the advancement of true democracy. In the case of America’s people of color: “There is a whole new generation which will dream of veneration,” because they have all been “wounded at Wounded Knee.”