I wonder if Tom Brokaw knew what was happening on the nine Indian reservations in his home state of South Dakota in 1968. I seriously doubt it.
On December 29, 1968, as they have done for many years, the Lakota people were gathered around the mass grave at Wounded Knee to pray. And on December 29, 1990, they would gather to mourn the 100th anniversary of the massacre of their people.
To the non-Indians of South Dakota and the rest of America, December 29, 1990 was another day. But to the Lakota people, December 29 was a day they commemorated every year since 1890. It was a day when nearly 300 of their relatives were shot to death in cold blood by the enlisted men and officers of the 7th Cavalry. Ironically, 21 members of the 7th Cavalry were awarded Medals of Honor for this horrific slaughter of women and children.
White people ask why we Lakota still talk about Wounded Knee as if it was not ancient history. If something terrible happened to your grandmother — that’s right, your grandmother — something so heinous that it became a part of American history, would you still consider that to be ancient history? I think not. A grandmother can never be ancient history or you wouldn’t be able to ride over the river and through the woods to her house on holidays.
Consider this. On December 29, 1890, my grandmother, Sophie, was a 17-year-old student at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission, a Jesuit boarding school just a few miles from Wounded Knee. She was called out with the rest of the students to feed and water the horses of the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry that had just rode on to the mission grounds chasing down survivors that had escaped the slaughter. My grandmother recalled seeing blood on their uniforms and she overheard them bragging about the mighty victory they had just scored at Wounded Knee.
That’s right, my grandmother, who is now deceased, remembered. Now does that make the Massacre at Wounded Knee ancient history to me? You bet that it does not. Many other Lakota still living today had grandmothers and grandfathers that were either killed or survived the massacre. No, it is not ancient history to the Lakota.
In early December of 1990, as the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee approached, I wrote the cover story for USA Today. I quoted an editorial that appeared in the Aberdeen (SD) Saturday Review on January 3, 1891, just five days after the massacre. The author wrote about those terrible “Redskins,” his favorite word for Indians. He wrote, “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one or more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
That editorial calling for the genocide of the Lakota people was written by L. Frank Baum, the man who would later write, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” There have been many others before and since that called for genocide against a race of people. Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot come to mind. But then they never followed up their calls for genocide by writing a charming book for children. It appears to be unthinkable to most Americans that such a wonderful man as L. Frank Baum could be compared to other inhuman beasts that called for the extinction of a race of people.
In 2006, descendants of Baum asked the Lakota people to forgive Baum for the editorials he wrote calling for their annihilation. What do you think the Jewish people would say today if the descendants of Adolph Hitler approached them asking them to forgive Adolph for nearly exterminating all Jews? It’s a tough question because the attempted extermination of the Jews was taken much more seriously than the extermination of the Lakota people. After all, according to the white man, we were just Indians and sub-humans at that and we didn’t have the power of the press or of the free world to support our claims to life. In order for America to expand, the people of the Great Sioux Nation had to be expendable.
December 29, 2007 will mark the 117th anniversary of the slaughter of innocents at Wounded Knee. As is their custom, the Lakota people will gather at the mass grave where the bodies of men, women and children were dumped and they will pray and ask the United States government to apologize for this day of death. They will pray that the Medals of Honor handed out to the murderers be rescinded and they will pray for peace between the Lakota and the rest of America. There will be a ceremony called “Wiping Away the Tears,” and this ceremony will conclude a day of mourning, a day when the Lakota reach out to the rest of America for peace and justice.
Americans may have forgotten Wounded Knee and pushed it to the back pages of history, a bad memory to some, but the Lakota people have not nor will they ever forget this terrible day until they at last see justice.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He became the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame on November 10, 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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