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The Ghosts of Wounded Knee

Massacre continues to haunt Lakota Indians

Pine Ridge, South Dakota 1973 Jim Hubbard

If there is a haunted place in America, that place is Wounded Knee. Frank Jealous of Him introduced me to the place. I met Frank, an Oglala Lakota Indian, at a gas station shortly after I graduated from UVA and moved to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He wore a black mesh baseball hat that read “Native Pride” and round, gold-rimmed glasses.

He introduced himself and asked where I was headed. I told him Pine Ridge. “Hey, the Rez,” he said, referring to the reservation. “Well, give me a ride then. I’ll show you the real Wounded Knee, man—not the tourist stuff—where our people died. I live right by there.”

I agreed. Although I knew the basic story of the 1890 massacre, I was curious to have somebody who had grown up there show me around.

This was in September 2007. I had left Charlottesville to teach sophomore English and drive a school bus at Red Cloud Indian High School, a Jesuit school on Pine Ridge.

Despite its idyllic name, Pine Ridge is a troubled place. Alcoholism and drug use are rampant, as is domestic violence and corruption in the tribal government. Unemployment exceeds 80 percent. Life expectancy on the reservation is 56.5 years for men and 66 for women, about the same as in Haiti. The suicide rate among young people is 10 times the national average.

Against these odds, the 15,000 or so Lakota who live on Pine Ridge have held on to their culture. The schools—like Red Cloud, which regularly turns out Gates Millennium Scholars—teach Lakota language and history. Tradition remains a central part of life, from year-round sweat lodges to the summertime powwow and sun dance.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documented their encounter with the Lakota on Sept. 24, 1804, and although no blood was shed that day, it marked the beginning of a century of violence that would reach its climax on the frozen ground near Wounded Knee Creek.

The village of Wounded Knee lies between two hills. As Frank and I turned off the highway, I saw a low, sloping plain cut by a gulley that traces the winding course of the creek. Frank pointed out a lean-to of plywood and corrugated zinc siding. “That’s my camp,” he said. A few yards away stood a patina-green sign that read “The Massacre of Wounded Knee.”

Frank began to run through the history of Wounded Knee. On Dec. 29, 1890, troops of the U.S. 7th Cavalry regiment accompanied about 350 Lakota who had surrendered to the soldiers into a camp at the creek. The Indians were to be escorted to the Pine Ridge Indian Agency the next day. While witnesses disagreed on what sparked the shooting, what happened next is not subject to debate. The soldiers opened fire on the Lakota, killing as many as 200 men, women and children.

Frank and I walked up a gentle slope capped by a stone monument. Some of the names etched into it I recognized, names still carried by students at Red Cloud. Below the stone lies a 120-year-old mass grave; nearby is a low-slung log chapel. Frank said the chapel replaced a church that burned in 1973, during the “second” Wounded Knee.

That story is more complicated. In February 1973, armed members of the militant American Indian Movement seized the village that had grown up at Wounded Knee, demanding a change in federal Indian policy. Two AIM occupiers died in gunfights with U.S. marshals. The incident was part of a larger conflict with more casualties.

Frank took me to Wounded Knee’s other cemetery. While a few marked people who had died in AIM conflicts, many of the graves, Frank said, contained the remains of the reservation’s numerous drunk-driving deaths. As he led me from grave to grave, what emerged was a catalog of the social ills that plague Pine Ridge—drug overdoses, liver disease, suicides, victims of domestic or gang violence.

After a while Frank grew quiet. The roll call of the dead had worn him out.

The Wounded Knee that Frank showed me is a place haunted not only by its past, but also by its present. Frank is too young to remember much of the AIM days. Still, he talked about the “second” Wounded Knee with a present rage. That rage, and the pride and desolation that feed it, is part of an ongoing struggle—a “third” Wounded Knee. Though there’s still hope on the Rez, there is a sense that no matter what good may come, that there will forever be somebody or something trying to destroy the life of the Lakota.

One spring afternoon I drove to Wounded Knee with my father, who had come from Virginia to visit. We parked near the green sign and walked up a gravel service road toward the chapel. In the silence, we looked out over the field where soldiers had massacred the Lakota, read the grave marker, peeked through the church’s boarded-up windows.

Walking back to the car, we heard a rustling ahead. A rattlesnake lay coiled in our path. A rattlesnake is reason for pause anywhere. In Wounded Knee, it felt like something else, a sign we would be forever at a loss to interpret. My father and I gave a wide berth to the snake, which stayed coiled on the gravel as we returned to our car and drove away.

Ian MacDougall until recently lived in Oslo, where he covered Norway for the Associated Press.