Wounded Knee

As mentioned in the previous post, traveling Sage Creek Road was unsettling. Here we were, 21st century senior citizens who’d been around the block more than a few times, and yet we felt jangly and jittery. I thought of the Native Americans who’d persevered without air-conditioned cars, cell phones, tasty snacks, or GPS systems. We were on a dirt road that would end in a matter of miles and minutes, rain or no rain feeling the shadow of unease and anxiety—stress.

At the end of Sage Creek Road, we turned right, eventually arriving in Scenic. After getting the “straight down that road” instruction, we began the long, desolate road that eventually took us to Wounded Knee. There were few people in sight, just buildings, including a school and some small homes, and acres and acres of land on all directions. Cows and horses abounded, and we discussed what cows did in the rain, snow, sleet, or relentless heat. We were mainly quiet, though, daunted by our surroundings, barren and beautiful at the same time.

After forty-five minutes, give or take, we saw three Native Americans sitting behind a sign on the side of the road. Large and red, the sign had “Wounded Knee” written on it, but since that wasn’t the sight we were expecting, we traveled past, totally missing the church and cemetery across the road. We turned left at a crossroads, rode on about six or seven miles, and finally realized we were in the middle of nowhere. We pulled over to consult the GPS together, confirming our confusion. Tired and aggravated, my husband turned around and retraced our route, vowing that if he didn’t see something soon, we were going back to Rapid City. He was officially done.

“Come on, Hon. We’ve come so far, and it’s stupid to go all the back to Rapid City without visiting Wounded Knee,” I said. And after a moment, “This is something I really want to do to honor my mother. You know how she felt about Native Americans, especially after reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” That did it. Like my mother, he too has a special affinity for America’s first inhabitants.

We soon came to the fork in the road where the three Native Americans were seated and turned in. I got out to ask about our whereabouts, feeling every atom of my appearance and background, an older white female fortunate enough to be gadding about doing the tourist thing on a Friday afternoon. A little twinge of guilt seized my conscience, but once I was out of the car and walking toward them, there was no turning back.

One of the men, Emerald, pointed across the road to a cemetery and church on a hill and began telling the story of the massacre that had occurred December 29, 1890. Estimates of the dead vary depending on the sources one reads, but somewhere between 175 and 300 Lakota men, women, and children were slaughtered by the American Cavalry. A blizzard made burying the bodies impossible until days later. At that time, the Cavalry hired civilians to dig a trench to bury the massacred Lakota in a mass grave.

We were incredulous. Somehow, we’d missed this story in history classes. We’d heard of the Battle of Wounded Knee, yes, but we didn’t know many American Indian groups refer to it as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Calling this slaughter a battle doesn’t prettify what happened, and I can well understand the difference in terminology.

My husband and I walked across the road to the cemetery, stopping first at the fenced in area surrounding the mass grave. Ribbons, shawls, feathers, and other mementos were tied to the fence. Gone but not forgotten crossed my mind. As we strolled through the cemetery, every grave was decorated in some fashion, and I got a sense of what the deceased were like and how much they’re still loved and remembered.

The cemetery was peaceful, and I was overcome with a sense of history as I listened to the rustling sounds of the trees, noted the views surrounding the hill, and read the tombstones. Lost Bird’s grave especially touched my heart. I sauntered over to the church and looked down the hill at the little community of Wounded Knee, glad to know that descendants of the massacre still lived.

Well, Mama, here I am, I thought as we returned to the car, the hillside with its history and inhabitants behind us. I might have gotten a little choked up.