A people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass.” Those words are attributed, by different writers, to Amos Bad Heart Bull and to Crazy Horse. Whomever the author, the words hold great truth and wisdom.
But history itself becomes a victim when it is twisted to fit the agendas of academics, advocates and writers.
Take, for instance, the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. There is no question that it was an unspeakable and unprovoked rampage resulting in the death of more than 220 of Chief Big Foot’s band, many of them very old men and women, children, and even infants. It is a dishonor to the otherwise proud history of our fighting forces and a shameful blot on the history of this country.
Nevertheless, the Wounded Knee story is sometimes twisted to support victimhood. For example, although we might like to believe the scenario put forth by some of U.S. Cavalry troops disarming the Indians, herding them into a ravine and slaughtering them, it is not accurate.
We should look at that history in a more factual and realistic frame, and we will discover much to take great pride in: not enough to ease our horror and anger, but enough to somewhat assuage our victimhood.
First of all, even though Big Foot’s band was weakened by their long trek with little food and in the dead of winter, and he himself was dying of pneumonia, they didn’t go quietly. They were Dakota and it would not be the Dakota way.
It is a fact that some people in Big Foot’s camp did have rifles that they refused to surrender, trying instead to conceal and keep them. These were people who needed guns to hunt because their treaty-guaranteed rations were inadequate, often capriciously withheld, and sometimes even inedible. The majority of Big Foot’s people were Ghost dancers who believed in their messiah’s promise that the white man would disappear, and most likely some warriors felt that they should be ready to help disappear them.
These proud old men, still warriors to their dying days, would not admit to victimhood because they never admitted defeat. They told their stories with pride, albeit with sadness.
And the Sioux were not people who would be herded anywhere. When the gunfire started, they put up a good fight. Of the 23 soldiers killed in the action that day, it is usually said by victimhood apologists that it was the cavalry’s own crossfire that killed them. But it is as likely that many of the troops faced deadly fire from the Sioux and hand-to-hand combat with women and boys engaged in the desperate fighting.
The heroics of Iron Hail – Dewey Beard, as he later named himself – is a story of indomitable courage and of fearsome rage at seeing his family blown apart by Hotchkiss cannon fire. According to his own account and that of other survivors, he was badly wounded but took the rifle from the hands of his dying brother and, from a concealed bend in the ravine, “dueled with the Hotchkiss,” as one historian put it. The brave-but-hopeless battle he and other leaders have described is something to make us proud – as fighters, rather than victims.
Other stories put forth, telling of cavalrymen throwing infants in the air and catching them on the point of their bayonets, are also unfounded. Cavalrymen, with their carbines, were not equipped with bayonets; and by the time of the Wounded Knee massacre, swords were largely ceremonial and were seldom carried into battle.
An account of a cavalry officer leaning down from his mount and with his rifle lifting the dress of an Indian woman to look at her private parts, then sneering and continuing his butchery, is pure fiction. The account is attributed to Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota physician who, the story goes, heard it from the victim herself before she died in the makeshift hospital in the Episcopal Church at Pine Ridge village. But I could find no such dramatic account in Eastman’s writings on Wounded Knee.
But even though the facts belie much of these exaggerations, it does not absolve the U.S. Army from its needless and wanton slaughter of old men, women and children, most of which occurred after any resistance had ceased. Nor does it absolve the colonial overseers – the patronage-appointed Indian agents, whose treachery and cowardice fomented the disaster. The accounts of reporters, doctors, and even the Army condemn the 7th Cavalry’s actions that day. Embellishment for any cause is not needed to exaggerate the accounts of their brutality, or to enhance our own victimhood.
My generation on the Pine Ridge reservation may have been the last to know the old men who took part as youthful warriors in the fight at Little Bighorn, survivors like Dewey Beard, old Joe Horn Cloud and others. These proud old men, still warriors to their dying days, would not admit to victimhood because they never admitted defeat. They told their stories with pride, albeit with sadness.
Lessons we could learn from history would help us today in our quest for true self-determination and self-government. Understanding what happened in the transition from the traditional to the modern models of government helps us understand the problems we see, often rolling our eyes as we talk about them, in the foibles of self-government. We must learn and pass on the real histories, not those spun to fit contemporary purposes.
We need a true and factual history, taking into account oral histories from time immemorial, not one that is constantly twisted to fit agendas. Perhaps what would help is a national Native American Historical Society. Not an elite cadre of academic favorites that comprised the Indian Historical Society in the 1960s and ’70s, nor an arbiter among historians. We need an organization for Indian scholars, degreed or not, to do research and write true history; and, indeed, to debate it and hone its accuracy and truth.
The bright new era heralded by the National Museum of the American Indian might support the concept of a Native American Historical Society.
Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 – 78. He is retired and resides in Omaha, Neb., with his wife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.