Looking Back at Wounded Knee 1890
by Professor Robert Venables, Senior Lecturer
Rural Sociology Department., Cornell University
published in "Northeast Indian Quarterly" Spring 1990
of Cornell University's American Indian Studies Program


One hundred years ago, on December 29, 1890, in a ravine near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, the U.S. Army, supported by American Indian mercenaries, slaughtered approximately 300 Lakota men, women and children -- 75 percent of Big Foot's Lakota community. Two-thirds of the massacred Lakotas were women and children. Only 31 of the 470 soldiers were killed, many by "friendly fire" of fellow soldiers.

Big Foot's Lakota followers had already surrendered when they were brought to Wounded Knee by the army. While the Lakota warriors were being disarmed, fighting broke out. Any real resistance on the part of the warriors was quickly over. But atrocities escalated as the U.S. troops turned their weapons -- including four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns -- against clearly defeated warriors and innocent women, children and old men. Women and children trying to escape were pursued and slaughtered. An official U.S. report noted that "the bodies of the women and children were scattered along a distance of two miles from the scene of the encounter."

The following quotes were printed in "The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer," a weekly newspaper published in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The first was published immediately after Sitting Bull's assasination by Indian Police Dec. 15, 1890.

"Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead.

"He was an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. In his day he saw his son and his tribe gradually driven from their possessions: forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites. And these, his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies.

"The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.

"We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America."

The editorial begins ambivalently, but concludes by calling for the extermination of American Indians.

The editor and publisher of "The Aberdeen Pioneer" who advocated genocide is well known: his name is L. Frank Baum. A decade later, his book "The Wizard of Oz" (1900) would become a classic. As you [re]read Baum's editorial, you may also recall that last year, 1989, was the 50th anniversary of the MGM version of this children's book.

On December 20, the next editorial, notable for the irony it offers, is separated from the first only by a graphic line:

"On Christmas day the Nativity of Christ is observed. "The Kris Kringle or, Santa Claus, is a relic of the ancient Yule Feast, so that the festival of Christmas is a curious mingling of ancient heathen and Christian customs, albeit a very pleasing and satisfactory celebration to the people of today.

"With this issue it is a pleasant duty for us to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas."

On January 3, 1891 (after the Wounded Knee massacre) "The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer" published another editorial:

"The peculiar policy of the government in employing so weak and vacillating a person as General Miles to look after the uneasy Indians, has resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers, and a battle which, at best, is a disgrace to the war department. There has been plenty of time for prompt and decisive measures, the employment of which would have prevented this disaster.

"The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

"An eastern contemporary, with a grain of wisdom in its wit, says that `when the whites win a fight, it is a victory, and when the Indians win it, it is a massacre."

I first obtained a microfilm copy of Baum's Saturday Pioneer in 1976, believing that I would probably find editorials which protested the massacre of Wounded Knee. After all, what else would one expect from the original Wizard. After mulling over the editorials for fourteen years, I must admit to the reader that I still love both the books and the movie.

But what of L. Frank Baum? I've tried to read his editorials as satire or parody -- even as proto-Monty Python. They aren't.

The editorials at points are curiously ambivalent -- the description of Sitting Bull, for example. But their core message is genocide. Like so many humans who are capable of uttering and doing the unthinkable, L. Frank Baum was in many respects a sensitive and loving man. But I don't believe it is enough to say that his editorials are an indication of how, in Baum's era, calls for genocide were not abberations, that they were widely held, and that they were public.

I have instead been haunted by a hypothetical parallel: imagine what the reaction would be if a former Nazi newspaper editor who had advocated the "Final Solution" had, ten years after World War II, published a children's book in Germany. Imagine that this author and this children's book became world famous. Imagine a movie, with wonderful music.

All this is possible -- if Germany had won the war.


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