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Tim Giago: 'There are no words to describe it' - Wounded Knee

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: massacres, south dakota, tim giago, wounded knee

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Unity South Dakota

While trying to talk about the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut, last week it was said over and over by different individuals, “There are no words to describe it.”

It wasn’t a tragedy that resonated in only one small community in New England, but it was a horrific happening that spread across America into the homes of any mother and father with small children. Parents on the Indian reservations held their children in their arms on Sunday and grieved along with those families now dragged into one of the horror stories that are becoming all too common in America.

I absolutely mean no disrespect to those families in New England nor am I trying to make a comparison to certain events that happened in Indian country, but I am simply continuing a tradition.

Every year I write about the tragedies that have happened to Native Americans in the month of December. The great Lakota warrior and leader Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanka) was assassinated on December 15, 1890. On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux warriors were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota on the order of President Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of what became known as the Sioux Uprising.

The condemned warriors were not allowed legal counsel but were instead sentenced to death on hearsay and innuendo. It was the largest mass execution in the history of America. Most of the Sioux warriors who hanged that day were innocent of any crime. They died to placate the angry whites who wanted to see an Indian, any Indian, swinging from a rope.

Sitting Bull had allowed and participated in a religious ceremony on his land near Fort Yates that became known as the Ghost Dance. There was fear among the whites that this religious fervor would spread and could even threaten their existence. And this wanton murder of the Lakota leader led directly to another tragedy. And so, indirectly, the teachings of the Paiute Prophet Wovoka and those who followed his dream would end up at a creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation on December 29, 1890.

Fearing for the safety of his followers after the death of Sitting Bull, Sitanka (Big Foot) fled to the safety of the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking the protection of Chief Red Cloud. He and his band were intercepted at a place called Wounded Knee.

There were probably 350 Minneconju Lakota making up the followers of Sitanka. After the roar of the Hotchkiss guns and rifles of the United States Seventh Cavalry shattered the quiet of the valley at Wounded Knee, nearly 300 Lakota lay dead and dying. Many of them were women and children. The children who fled with their mothers were hunted down by the mounted cavalry and shot to death along with their mothers. In the books of the white man it was called a “battle” but to the Lakota it would always be known as a “massacre.”

After the shooting ended fear spread across the reservation. In his book “Moon of the Popping Trees,” Rex Alan Smith wrote, “The killing of Big Foot and his people had them shocked and stunned. In the agency buildings and in the church and school, whites and Indians sat by lamplight behind barred doors and shuttered windows, waiting for what would happen next.”

At the Holy Rosary Mission School near Pine Ridge the children also watched in fear as soldiers of the 7th Cavalry rode on to the Mission grounds searching for stragglers. My grandmother Sophie was a recent graduate of the Mission and was employed there on that fateful day. She often told her son, my father, of the terrible things she saw that day.

A huge trench was carved into the frozen ground at Wounded Knee and soldiers and volunteers gathered the frozen bodies of the men, women and children and dumped them unceremoniously into the open pit. The families of the dead were never given the opportunity to hold the spiritual ceremonies so dear to their hearts and traditions for their lost loved ones. Instead the mass grave was covered with dirt and the government hoped it would be forgotten.

The town that sprang up on the site of the massacre was named Brennan after an official of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The people continued to call it Wounded Knee and the trading post built 40 years after the massacre was named the Wounded Knee Trading Post. My father worked at the Trading Post for Clive Gildersleeve and his Ojibwe wife, Agnes in the 1930s. We lived in a small cabin near the Trading Post at Wounded Knee when I was a small boy.

Black Elk, the Wicasa Wakan (Holy Man), looking back at the tragedy at Wounded Knee said, “I did not know then how much was ended. As I look back from the high hill of my old age . . . . I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was covered up by the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . . (Now) the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead.”

And if one spoke to any Lakota who was there and asked them about it, they would say, “There are no words to describe it.”

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. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at

More from Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Gays and lesbians respected in traditional society (12/10)
Tim Giago: Indian Country remains out of sight and out of mind (12/3)
Tim Giago: Playing both sides against the middle in US politics (11/26)
Tim Giago: Still sweating after 34 years of my weekly columns (11/19)
Tim Giago: Why an Indian voted for a South Dakota Republican (11/12)
Tim Giago: Heart disease and diabetes invade Indian Country (11/5)
Tim Giago: Stuck like a fly in the honey of the Democratic Party (10/29)
Tim Giago: Kristi Noem is still the right choice for South Dakota (10/22)
Tim Giago: Alcoholism another vicious cycle in Indian Country (10/15)
Tim Giago: Race relations 22 years after Year of Reconciliation (10/8)
Tim Giago: Sister Ivo and the Mission boarding school epidemics (10/1)

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