New Year 1891 did not start well for the American Indian.
On December 29, 1890, the United States cavalry rounded up more than 300 Sioux in an area today known as Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
All but 120 of these plains Indians were women and children.
On the orders of Colonel George Forsyth, acting under the direct supervision of commanding General Nelson Miles, the cavalry opened fire with Gatling guns, rifles and heavy cannon.
The slaughter began just before noon.
It did not last long.
By four o’clock that afternoon all but a handful were dead or dying.
A young Lakota Sioux man by the name of Black Elk recalls, “It was a good winter day when all this happened. The sun was shining. But, after the soldiers marched away from their dirty work, a heavy snow began to fall.
“The wind came up in the night. There was a big blizzard, and it grew very cold. The snow drifted deep in the crooked gulch, and it was one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away.”
Harold Tibbles, an independent reporter from Nebraska’s Omaha World Herald, writing from a nearby church described it this way:
“Nothing I have seen in my whole life ever affected or depressed or haunted me like the scenes I saw that night in that church. One un-wounded old woman held a baby on her lap.
“I handed a cup of water to the old woman, telling her to give it to the child, who grabbed it as if parched with thirst. As she swallowed it hurriedly, I saw it gush right out again, a bloodstained stream, through a hole in her neck.
“Heartsick, I went to find the surgeon. For a moment he stood there near the door, looking over the mass of suffering and dying women and children. The silence they kept was so complete that it was oppressive.
“Then to my amazement I saw that the surgeon, who I knew had served in the civil war, attending the wounded from the wilderness to Appomattox, began to grow pale. ‘This is the first time I’ve seen a lot of women and children shot to pieces,’ he said. ‘I can’t stand it’….
“Out at Wounded Knee, because a storm set in, followed by a blizzard, the bodies of the slain Indians lay untouched for three days, frozen stiff from where they had fallen.
“Finally they were buried in a large trench dug on the battlefield itself. On that third day Colonel Colby saw the blanket of a corpse move. Under the blanket, snuggled up to its dead mother, he found a suckling baby girl.”
As the sun came up on January 1, snow falling, cold as hell, the world of the American Indian was forever changed.
The war to eradicate the culture of native peoples would go on for many years.
In fact, it has never ended.
As if to remind themselves that Indian culture was something to fear and do away with, agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs again opened fire on Sioux Indians gathered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early spring of 1973.
Indians had gathered there to bring international attention to the plight of aboriginal peoples throughout the world.
At Pine Ridge, unemployment among native peoples ran well over 40 per cent. There were limited social services, education was substandard at best and there was very little hope.
This time around, the precision firepower unleashed on those gathered there was more technologically advanced.
Over the course of 71 days, 200 FBI agents, US marshals, BIA police officers with attack dogs, paramilitary sharp shooters with night-vision scopes and armed with 50-calibre machineguns, supported by armoured personnel carriers and helicopters, fired more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition at 183 Indians armed with 12 rifles with mismatched ammunition and four knives.
Two Indians were killed: Buddy Lamonte was hit four times by M16 rifle fire and bled to death inside the Wounded Knee encampment; Frank Clearwater was killed by heavy machinegun fire.
Those warriors who had gathered on Pine Ridge in 1973 and others who strongly supported this courageous act of direct confrontation had not forgotten the stories of the horror of Wounded Knee 1890.
Warriors like Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Russell Means, Vernon Bellecourt, Clyde Bellecourt, Gladys Bissonette, Ellen Moves Camp, Leonard Peltier, Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. Winona LaDuke and John Graham all put themselves and their families at great risk to confront the powerful political machinery that was about to plow under all of native culture.
These warriors were sustained in this struggle by their deep cultural roots. Those still alive are even more determined.
They know the importance of dance and song to psychological wellbeing.
They know we must continually reinvent and heal ourselves through stories.
They wisely tap into the great symbols and signs of our cultures that are everywhere in our world and everywhere in our mind.
They know that land is religion, that our wild creatures are our brothers and sisters and that those elders who have passed before us are always our teachers.
They know this earth we live on is not ours to own. It is borrowed and must be returned.
And we must return it in good shape, full of colour, full of songbirds, running everywhere with clear water and fresh air.
Again reflecting back on that winter day in 1890, Black Elk spoke like a broken man.
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream…”
I believe Black Elk was wrong.
The dream is still alive.
During the time of Wounded Knee 1973 I was working on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana.
I participated in a conference in which Vernon Bellecourt, one of the early founders of the American Indian Movement, spoke of the latest massacre at Pine Ridge.
Bellecourt pleaded with the young people in the audience to be clean and sober and to take up the struggle for the survival of native language, to preserve native culture in the community, to revisit treaty rights in the courts, and to never rest until all aboriginal people could take their rightful place on the land.
He pleaded with them to become warriors, warriors willing to practise civil disobedience, if necessary, for the betterment of their Indian brothers and sisters.
He made it clear that the struggle for social and economic justice was real and ongoing, that victory would not come easy, would not always be peaceful, and that, if it came at all, it would take a warrior’s spirit always.
The spirit of Wounded Knee is still alive and well.
The fight for native rights is being fought on the streets of Vancouver and on the streets of Whitehorse, and in rural communities in Ontario and in the Yukon.
And it is being fought in the extradition hearings of American Indian Movement activist John Graham, which is scheduled for early this summer.
Friday, Heming writes about his personal experiences as a Sun Dancer in ceremonies in southern Saskatchewan and northern Montana in the early 1970s.