Are we about to do it again?
Copyright 1995 - by Wanbli Sapa and William Cooper
CAJI News Service - Exclusive - The government has been trying unsuccessfully with a variety of guises for many years to reclaim the land granted to the Red Nations of this continent under various treaties the U.S. made. It seems like Congress has hit upon a scheme that may work this time by trying to convince us that it intends to memorialize a tragedy. In this particular case, the Congressional Delegation from South Dakota and its supporters have proposed legislation to Congress that could create a new national park at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Though the act is supported by a few Lakota, it is adamantly opposed by a large number of other Lakota. Those who support it stand to make financial gains. Those who oppose it stand to lose their land, and/or are deeply concerned that this site, sacred to the Lakota people, will be taken from them and their access to it denied. This concern is based on real experience, and one has only to look west a short distance to the Black Hills or north an even shorter distance to Badlands National Park, both sacred sites for the Lakota Nation, to see the reality of the concern.

The legislation, HR 877 and S 382, are only the latest in a long series of similar attempts that stretches back to the 1940s. The current legislation (the two versions are identical) calls for the creation of Wounded Knee National Tribal Park, consisting of 1800 acres at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and encompassing the current memorial and mass grave site that many non-Lakota people are familiar with from movies like "Thunderheart". Additionally, the legislation proposes to consider establishing a "Chief Bigfoot National Historic Trail", that would trace the route followed by the victims of the massacre from the Cheyenne River Reservation to Wounded Knee. Additional studies would examine the feasibility of creating a visitor orientation and information center on the Cheyenne River Reservation. All land used to create the Park and these other units would be removed from the reservation land base and placed in custodial trust with the U.S. Government. Landowners would be displaced. Roads would be constructed and others near the current memorial site would be relocated. Any existing buildings and structures not "deemed historically significant" would be destroyed. All of this action would be on the mass grave and existing memorial at Wounded Knee, a burial ground surrounded by more recent burials. In other words, the construction would occur in and around an existing cemetary. If this were not enough, throughout the bill are many other insensitivies and insults that anger any traditional Lakota who reads it. Included are numerous references to Chief Spotted Elk, which use "Chief Bigfoot", an epithet given to him by the U.S. Army, the same army that ordered the massacre of Chief Spotted Elk and more than 300 innocent men, women, elders, and children.

Historians like to say that the Massacre of December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee was the last major clash between federal troops and the Red Nation of this continent. This is blatantly untrue, though, and does an injustice to all those of the Red Nation who fought with or were massacred by the U.S. Army after 1890. Historians also like to say that the reason for the massacre was the desire to contain and quash the Ghost Dance religion among the Lakota people. Indian agents, who never took the time to understand the new religious movement, used it as an excuse for extermination of its adherents, and the agents sent many messages to Washington claiming that a violent outbreak was imminent. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however, because the Ghost Dance religion espoused peace, prayer, and dance.

Chief Spotted Elk was a follower of the Ghost Dance, and, as the religion demanded, he was a man of peace, a respected leader whose people were cared for in the traditional ways of the Lakota. When Sitting Bull was murdered in cold blood on December 15, those of Sitting Bull's band feared for their lives and fled to the sanctuary and comfort of Chief Spotted Elk and his band. The arrival of these refugees and their panic added to the panic within Spotted Elk's band, who also believed that the murder of Sitting Bull heralded another wave of wanton murder by the Army of the Lakota people. The decision was made by the entire band, now including the refugees from Sitting Bull's band, that perhaps the only safe place was with Red Cloud at Pine Ridge. So, in December, when the bitter, cold winds and snows of December froze anything out and about, this band of over 300 elders, men, women, and children began their trip southward, fleeing for their lives and hoping to find refuge with Red Cloud.

They were intercepted on December 28, 1890, by the U.S. Army and forced into a selected spot on Wounded Knee Creek a few miles away. Chief Spotted Elk, deathly ill from pneumonia, made it clear to the soldiers that they were peaceful and wanted no trouble. He and the other leaders of the band were assured that they and the band would spend the night on Wounded Knee Creek and then would be escorted by the Army to the agency at Pine Ridge. The next morning dawned clear and mild. Orders were given to "disarm the hostiles". This activity proceeded under the watchful eyes of several different units of the U.S. Army, deployed on the hillsides surrounding the camp. Within their ranks were the men of the 7th Cavalry, Custer's unit. Only a handful of men present that day on December 29, 1890, had been in the Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer and so many men under his command fell in battle, but the unit knew its history, and wanted to "set things right" for Custer. Gatling guns and cannon were already dug into the hillsides amidst the Army units, all pointing downward into the valley of Wounded Knee Creek and Chief Spotted Elk's camp.

Very few guns were found by those searching the Lakota people in camp, and the officers in charge were convinced that the band must have more and had hidden them in the camp somewhere. Things escalated as the disarmament turned into a search of the camp. The men grew restless. A medicine man began singing to calm the Lakota and to remind them that the Creator would take care of them. It is said by the survivors of that day that a young Lakota man, unable to hear, did not understand what was happening and that as the soldiers attempted to take his rifle away, the struggle between him and the soldiers resulted in the rifle firing a shot straight up into the air. Journalists on the scene stated that as the disarmament turned into a search, they could hear the clicks of safeties being taken off weapons and rifles being readied to fire and that the first shot actually came from among the soldiers on the hillside. Whatever is true, what all the survivors report is that the soldiers began wantonly firing into the camp. Women and children and the elderly began fleeing for their lives among the ravines that feed into Wounded Knee Creek. The soldiers hunted them down and shot them whereever they were found, up to several miles away. Survivors also report that at one point, all firing ceased and a call was made by the soldiers via translators among the scouts for all the kids to come out from hiding and they would be kept safe. When the kids did so, soldiers rode up and shot them.

When it was presumed that all were dead, the Army marched away and left the bodies lying where they were. A storm blew in that evening and the temperatures plummeted. Snow began to fall. The bodies froze into grotesque shapes, and when the Army detail of civilians came back to bury them, they stacked the bodies like cordwood in wagons and dumped them, men, women, and children, together into mass graves. Later on still, the 7th Cavalry made up songs about how they had taken revenge for their unit and how they had murdered all the savages.

The United States Army touted the massacre to the American public as "a fierce battle." The Army said they had been fired upon by the Lakota after attempting to peacefully disarm them. Historical investigation has revealed that it was a soldier that fired the first shot. The other soldiers heard the shot and began to kill without mercy. Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to the butchers of those helpless men, women, and children. The government would use these tactics again many years later at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

On February 28, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement seized the village of Wounded Knee. The confrontation was the result of the murder of more than 40 traditional Lakota by the Tribal Council and its "Goon Squad." The followers of the traditional culture of the Lakota had claimed that the FBI and/or U.S. Government had assisted in the murders. After 72 days, the death of two, and the wounding of many AIM occupiers and supporters, they surrendered, having drawn attention to Lakota grievances. Nothing was done, however, to help the Lakota in their plight. Leonard Peltier was chosen as the government's scapegoat. He was tried and sentenced to many years in prison. The harassment, beating, and murder of traditionals continues to this day.

Are we about to write another infamous chapter in the chronicles of Wounded Knee? It seems most probable that another conflict could erupt over the insults and offenses connected with this proposed national park. The government never returns land that it takes. The terms of the legislation before Congress clearly state that the land could be used for purposes other than a national park, including exploitation of water and mineral rights.

"Indian Country Today's" reporting tends to be rather biased in a number of areas, just as any newspaper's reporting - it reflects the opinions, ideas, and agenda held by the management of the newspaper. "Indian Country Today" tends to be an avid supporter of tribal council. "Indian Country Today" also sometimes fails to confirm its facts. Notably, the Ice's plans for a campground are 7 years old. When they first thought of the idea, they asked all the traditional elders for their opinions. All the elders said this campground should not be built, but the cultural center should be built, so the Ices discarded permanently the campground idea and have spent their energies instead on trying to make the cultural center dream come true.

Pamela and Gerald Ice are traditionals, as is the membership of the Wounded Knee Landowners Association who also opposes the national tribal park. The traditionals have no voice. Those massacred at Wounded Knee have no voice.

Indian Country Today's reporting tends to be rather biased in a number of areas, just as any newspaper's reporting. It reflects the opinions, ideas, and agenda held by the management of the newspaper. Indian Country Today tends to be an avid supporter of tribal council. The traditionals have no voice. Those massacred at Wounded Knee have no voice. There tends to be a division on the reservation which dates back to the pre-reservation days when leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull refused to give up their traditional ways of life and settle down near the agencies. Pine Ridge is not the only reservation that has this division.

Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull led their bands in the manner that they felt were best for their people, in accordance with the wishes of their people. Because these bands lived in remote areas and maintained the old ways of life, they received little or nothing of the government aid that was promised in the treaties. Other leaders felt it was best to settle near the agencies, like Pine Ridge, depend upon the treaties being fulfilled, and try to adopt the new life dictated by the dominant culture. These leaders led their bands in ways they felt were best for their people, and in accordance with the wishes of their people. They were rewarded by receiving the best and most of government aid.

As time passed, and the reservation system became forced upon my Lakota ancestors, and other Indian nations, these two ways of living became separate. Those who held to the traditional ways of life became the "traditionals". That term became a contemptuous epithet used by those who were trying to live the ways of the dominant culture. Those who had adopted the dominant culture became the "hang-around-the-fort Indians." And that term became a contemptuous epithet used by those who were trying to live the traditional ways of the Lakota culture.

This division is still present and very strong, though there are many in each group who are trying to bridge the gulf, and reach out to Lakota brothers and sisters on each side.

However, tribal council was not a governing body that was in place in the traditional Lakota culture. It was forced upon the Lakota people by the dominant culture. Tribal council is often filled with folks who would prefer the dominant culture, and not the traditional Lakota way.

Tribal council tends to have its own agenda. Most who live near the agencies maintain the ways of the dominant culture. They are still the best provisioned of those Lakota living on the reservation. This pits tribal council and non-traditional people against the traditionals.

Traditional folk usually do not become members of tribal council. They live out in the districts away from the agencies. Those in the districts are among the poorest of the poor. They have the least provisions.

Not long ago, impeachment of the current tribal council was being considered. Many Lakota people felt that the actions of this council were not in the best interest of anyone.

The situation was highly publicized in the 1970s when the tribal council of Dick Wilson openly abused and trampled on the traditionals and the Lakota culture. Dick Wilson created the "goon squad," that maimed, harassed, and murdered many traditionals. That led the traditional elders to ask the American Indian Movement, AIM, for help. The problem led to the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. It was that situation that escalated and led to the death of 2 agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, and the wrongful, in my opinion, incarceration of Leonard Peltier. The harassment continues today. It receives little, if any, publicity. Few seem interested in the problems of the Red Nation.

Today these divisive forces are at work with the issue of turning Wounded Knee into a national park. Tribal council, who stands to make financial gains by occupying seats on the advisory committee, which is required in the bills before Congress, and who will lose none of their own land, support the creation of the national park. Like the tribal council, the Survivors Association stands to make financial gains by occupying seats on the advisory committee. "See Section 8 of the Wounded Knee National Park Bills currently before Congress, which elaborates the role of themembers of the Advisory Committee and the financial remuneration associated with it.

The Wounded Knee Survivors Association no longer contains the majority of survivors descendants. The majority of descendants did not like the actions and positions taken by the Association. The actions and positions were contrary to the respectful remembrance of the Indian victims of the 1890 Massacre. Hence, the Survivors Association no longer represents the opinion of a majority of the Wounded Knee survivor's descendants.

The vast majority of land acquired for the park, 1800 acres, will come from Wounded Knee. The traditionals will lose their land and be forced to relocate. Consequently, all construction will be focused at Wounded Knee. The legislation calls for a visitors center, an amphitheater, the relocation of the three main roads that intersect near the existing memorial, the creation of a new memorial, the reconstruction of several buildings that were in existence at the time of the 1890 massacre, and the removal of any structures not found to be historically consistent. This could result in the destruction or relocation of the burial ground adjacent to the existing memorial. And finally, trails and interpretive displays will be constructed. All disturbance, therefore, will be focused on the area containing the existing memorial, and 5 or 6 mass grave sites. Very little, if any, land will be taken for the park from the Cheyenne River reservation. No disturbance will occur in Pine Ridge except for an increase in spending by tourists.

The Wounded Knee Landowners Association is composed of the people that would be directly or indirectly impacted by the legislation. The Association also contains a good number of descendants of the survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre. The Association members were never consulted regarding this legislation. They have had no voice in drafting the bills before Congress. There was one Congressional hearing on the issue. The Association and its members were not notified of the hearing nor were they invited.

Gerald Ice is a survivor descendent. He is a member of the Landowners Association, and one who would lose his land if the park is created. He and his family have lived on the same land for generations; the cabin in which Gerald and his brother were born still stands on the property.

Gerald walks the traditional way. He has college degree from the California university system. And though he has a good number of experiences in the world of the dominant culture, he chooses to live as a traditional on the reservation. This means he lives in poverty.

The truth? The Cultural Center is the dream of the traditional members of the Wounded Knee community. They have formed Wapaha Canku Luta, Inc., to bring the dream to life. The cultural center is intended to help Lakota people rediscover their traditional culture, and the strengths, and benefits it provides. The traditionals hope to preserve the present memorial and grave-sites in memory of their ancestors. The traditionals do not wish the dead to be disturbed. If those, massacred in 1890, could cry out from their graves, who do you suppose they would support?

What kind of people would give more to a conqueror who has already taken so much? What kind of people would disturb the graves of their mutilated ancestors just to make money? What kind of nation would create a national park over the graves of a people it had murdered? And what kind of people would travel to play in that park, over those graves? What kind of people?

Wanbli Sapa
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