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A Tour of Wounded Knee: Why It Matters, Why It Hurts

When American poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1931, his poem made no mention of the massacre of Lakota Indians that had occurred 42 years earlier on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. But since 1970, when historian Dee Brown published his book of the same name about the site where the U.S. government’s 7th Cavalry slaughtered hundreds of unarmed men, women and children, Wounded Knee has become the iconic site representing the U.S. government’s genocide against all the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. On Sunday, August 19, I was with around 35 other volunteers from Re-member, an independent, nonprofit organization that works with the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge, visiting the Wounded Knee memorial site. It was the first day of a week of volunteer work that included building bunkbeds and outhouses for Lakota families whose homes still lack indoor plumbing and electricity. Dakota High Hawk and members of his tiospaya—his extended family—spend days at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre talking to visitors and selling their crafts. The Re-member delegation sat under a “shade”—an arbor covered with cooling pine boughs that offered some protection from the the 90-degree-plus Plains sun—and listened as the 23-year-old Dakota gave a presentation about the massacre that took place at this historic place on December 29, 1890. “I give tourist information and sell arts and crafts and just help my people. This is what we do to make a living during the summer,” he explains. Dakota says he worked for the tribe, but got laid off because funding for the program he was involved in was cut. The High Hawk family made the shade and the high counter where they display and sell their finely crafted necklaces of beads and buffalo bones, and the intricately woven dream catchers. It is an official site, Dakota says with pride. “This is called a Hehaka Tiospaye. We’re number 22 on the map of places to visit [in the state] that comes from the Chamber of Commerce.” Visitors from all over the world come to Wounded Knee, he says. “A lot of church groups.” According to contemporaneous reports of the 1890 massacre, there was a three-day blizzard following the slaughter, in which between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women and children were shot and butchered. The U.S. military hired people to find and bury the Lakota dead—the frozen bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave on a hill overlooking the flat part of the Wounded Knee memorial site below where the 7th Cavalry was encamped and where High Hawk’s Hehaka Tiospaye is now located. There are other, more recent burials at the top of the hill as well, including several Lakota veterans of America’s wars. Dakota says he has two uncles buried up on the hill. It’s a sad place, he says. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to go by it. Sometimes my uncle tells me when we talk about the history and what happened [here] he says to bring sage because sage is used as a purification, so just burn it and the pain will go away.” The National Park Service and officials on the tribal council have tried to make the Wounded Knee memorial site a national park. “And a couple of times they got pretty close to it, but a lot of people here disagree with that. It would be a slap in the face,” Dakota says. Among the obstacles is the fact that 20 of the soldiers who participated in the slaughter were awarded Medals of Honor by the U.S. Army. Native American activists call them “Medals of Dishonor” and demand their revocation. According to Lakota tribesman William Thunder Hawk, "The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism; they showed cruelty." In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them. The local people, many of whom are descendants of the massacre, told the officials who wanted to turn the site into a National Park the same thing, Dakota says. But the pressure continues, he says. “Sometimes we get threats from some of the tribal officials that they’re going to move the residents from here in a five-mile radius because the tribal government wants to make this into a National Park, so that they can have revenue off this place, because they believe they can make a lot of money over it. So they were going to have a meeting, and there were fancy architectural drawings, designs and hotels and stuff like that they had planned. But a lot of the descendants disagree, you know. They said this is something local. Just let the people be at peace up there and the local people can share their stories instead of making it something out of control of the local people. “Sometimes you can still hear the screaming up there,” Dakota says. “Nobody wants that National Park here. That would be desecration of the monument.”

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