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Tim Giago: 'Wiping away the tears' after Wounded Knee 1890

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

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

It was just six days after the horrible massacre of nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee and the news was spreading not only across the Nation, but to the small communities in Western South Dakota. December 29, 1890, was to become a day of infamy to the Lakota.

1890 had become 1891 and an editor at the Aberdeen (SD) Saturday Review had just heard the news of the slaughter and he sat at his desk ready to kick off the New Year with his editorial about the massacre. He began his story with, “Having wronged them before, perhaps we should wrong them once more, and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

As L. Frank Baum wrote this editorial call for genocide against the Lakota people, wagons were still gathering the frozen bodies of women and children from the valleys around Wounded Knee where many of them had fled at the urging of the warriors to run from the carnage. Mounted soldiers of the United States Seventh Cavalry followed them into the hills and gullies around Wounded Knee and mercilessly shot them to death. Over the next few days their frozen bodies were gathered and dumped into a trench dug out by the soldiers.

One of the survivors, a Lakota woman, was treated by the Indian physician Dr. Charles Eastman at a make-shift hospital set up in a church in the village of Pine Ridge. Before she died of her wounds she told about how she had concealed herself in a clump of bushes. As she hid there she saw two terrified little girls running past. She grabbed them and pulled them into the bushes. She put her hands over their mouths to keep them quiet but a mounted soldier spotted them. He fired a bullet into the head of one girl and them calmly reloaded his rifle and fired into the head of the other girl. He then fired into the body of the Lakota woman. She feigned death and although badly wounded, lived long enough to relate her terrible ordeal to Dr. Eastman.

It has been 122 years since that last major slaughter of American Indians took place in America, but the memory of that fateful day remains strong amongst the Lakota. Every year riders follow the trail of Sitanka (Big Foot) and his followers on the exact route they took to Wounded Knee. They gather at the mass gravesite and pray for peace.

In a Nation where memories of tragedies fade so quickly, the slaughter of the innocents at Wounded Knee has never been forgotten. Each year a ceremony known as “Wiping Away the Tears” is held at the gravesite as a reminder of that tragic day and of the many years of tragedy that followed.

Whenever I read about a “mass shooting” in America and listen to the talking heads on television remark that “this was the largest mass shooting in American history,” my mind goes back to Wounded Knee and of the 300 men, women and children that died there. Wounded Knee is a part of American history that America would like to forget.

The fact that 23 Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who carried out the mass murders there still boggles the mind. Those medals will never be rescinded even in the wake of all the revelations occurring since that day.

In the 1960s the words “frontier mentality” were coined in Indian country by militants like Russell Means to describe the murderous mindset of white Americans. Do you suppose that there are still remnants of that “frontier mentality” living in the hearts of many Americans who cherish their weapons over human life?

The soldiers who carried out the massacre at Wounded Knee did have an affliction of “frontier mentality” that caused them to believe that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Crimes against Indian clans and families were never reported by the local media. Many families were shot and killed simply because they were Indian. A family was at risk simply from traveling to visit relatives on another reservation. Caught out in the open, the frontiersmen were only too eager to add their scalps to their collections and they didn’t care if the scalps came from women or children. After all, who gives a damn about Indians? That was the “frontier mentality” that marched West with the settlers.

122 years have passed since December 29, 1890. L. Frank Baum called for the extermination of the Indian people and then he sat down and penned “The Wizard of Oz.”

An elderly Dakota man named Sydney Byrd once wrote, “Sometimes the wind blows over the hilltops at Wounded Knee Creek and moans its mournful death song for the heroes of Big Foot’s band now resting peacefully in the bosom of Mother Earth. The guns of the soldiers are silent now as are the moans and groans of the Indians who died there. Little children laugh and play on the grass hillside oblivious to what happened there one cold winter day many years ago. Ho, mitakoyapi, iyuskinyan nape ciyuzapi yelo (My grandchildren, I give you the hand of friendship).”

And for all of these years that has been the prayer of the Lakota people at the gravesite at Wounded Knee; “I give you the hand of friendship.”

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: The Olympics of Indian basketball in South Dakota (12/24)
Tim Giago: 'There are no words to describe it' - Wounded Knee (12/17)
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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