Sometime we don’t go to places for light and love. We go to remember. To feel. To touch the other side. And sometimes to heal. Wounded Knee is such a place.
We arrived in the mid afternoon. The sun was thankfully mild that day, and the breeze made it easy to sit in the shade to listen to our Lakota guide’s one hour presentation on the history of the site. He spoke of his family history in a matter-of-fact tone that made the horror of his words almost unbearable.
In case you don’t know the story, in December 1890, the situation for the Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation was looking pretty bleak. Winter was setting in. The buffalo were gone. The nomadic Lakota could no longer roam around freely and were confined to the reservation. Starvation and disease threatened every family. The Lakota depended upon the Indian Agents for everything, and supplies were never what they were promised to be. People were dying.
A messiah taught that these conditions were the Creator’s punishment for abandoning their traditional lifestyle. The Ghost Dance was a way to restore order and vanquish the white man. American soldiers worried. The atmosphere was tense on both sides. In a land where religious freedom was guaranteed to all, the Ghost Dance, and all Native spiritual practices, was outlawed.
On December 15, Sitting Bull and six others were slain as the chief was being arrested. This atrocity prompted Chief Big Foot to lead 150- 350 of his followers to Pine Ridge for safety two weeks later.
U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry surrounded this band of Ghost Dancers and demanded they surrender their weapons. There are differing accounts of what happened next, but what is known for sure is that between 150 – 350 Lakota were killed. About half were women and children.
Later that day, a blizzard set in. Many dead were frozen in grotesque postures. The wounded were exposed and died. Corpses were scattered for two miles.
Four days later, the army sent out parties to bury the slain. A Lakota doctor went out searching for survivors. He found ten. Among them was a bloody infant found under a pile of dead women. National Guard general, Leonard Colby, adopted/kidnapped her and kept her as a living souvenir. Her name was Lost Bird.
Numb after hearing this story, I set off up the hill to the graveyard. (Lakota dead are often buried on hills because it makes their journey to the Creator shorter). I felt the stones and earth for any messages that they may have chosen to impart, but received none. This was a place of peace – at least it was for me in that moment.
Many graves were marked with simple wooden crosses, a sign of the survivor’s poverty. There were many colorful flowers, cards, and offerings that showed that while money may have been lacking, love certainly wasn’t. After offering the dead some tobacco, I made my way back down the hill.
Our guide either failed to mention, or I was too numb to register, that the massacre site wasn’t actually the gravesite. No, the massacre site was at the bottom of the hill on a grassy plain. As I got closer, no announcement was needed. The earth wept with sadness. The sorrow came in waves, so softly like it was riding on the wind. Oh the spirits were lively here!
As I looked around me at the tourists eyeing the handmade souvenirs on display, I was in shock at how the people around me could continue standing upright. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t need a story or marker to tell me what horror passed here. I could feel it in every pore.
Later while looking at photos of the frozen dead that were exhibited at the Oglala Lakota College, the same horror overwhelmed me. It felt like it was happening today.
I will never forget what it felt like to stand there on that ground and to look at those photographs. When we allow ourselves to feel separate from the earth, the wind, the sky, and each other, fear happens. Cruelty happens.
Life is dance of balance. We’re all light and all dark. When we visit places like Wounded Knee, we can get in touch with the horror that resides inside of us so that we don’t have to manifest it. We can remember what happened to our brothers and sisters so that we don’t repeat it. When we can heal and balance ourselves, we give that gift to others as we’re all connected.