December 29, 1890
Wounded Knee, With Arabic Subtitles
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, December 29, 2006
The massacre trophy pose
Times and locales change. The language of massacres doesn’t. The perpetrator justifies them as inevitable or necessary or overblown, whether it’s 2005 Iraq , 1967 Vietnam , or 1890 South Dakota . Over there they might call it Haditha or My Lai. Over here, Wounded Knee. Twenty-three days after the massacre at Wounded Knee, the New York Times editorialized on the subject, but only to express its indignation at the way the British press was referring to the killings as a “bloodthirsty and wanton massacre.” The French press, the Times was happy to say, treated the English reports “with more or less gentle satire, wishing to know what the English philanthropists propose to do about it, and whether the slaughter of red men, mad with the delusion of the appearance of a Messiah, is to be regarded with more patience than the outrages suffered by Armenians or Greeks at the hands of the unspeakable Turk.” Impressive, how bigotedly action-packed a single Times sentence could be — denigrating in one breath three races on four continents, plus a creed, plus Fleet Street’s profession. It gets better: “Americans know that the killing at Wounded Knee was unavoidable and that the military operations against the Indians have been conducted with wonderful skill for the prevention of bloodshed.” Not quite my italics: the words are slanted by the concussion of plagiaristic similarity to the words of our own day, by our own Pentagon, by our Rumsfelds and Bushes and Cheneys and Limbaughs and Snows as they’ve gone about praising the current military’s “wonderful skill for the prevention of bloodshed” in Iraq even as Mesopotamia’s legendary floods have run more red than brown for the last three years. The American press is as well practiced as the American military in the craft of spinning high-minded missions from murder. Indians were their training whacks.
On December 29, 1890 , five hundred men of the 7 th Cavalry under the command of James Forsyth surrounded an encampment of Indians along Wounded Knee Creek in what’s known today as South Dakota . Their aim was to disarm them before removing them to Omaha , Nebraska . As the disarmament proceeded, a shot rang out. The cavalry opened fire. Within an hour more than 150 Indians, including at least 44 women and 18 children, and 25 cavalrymen, had been killed. Another 150 Indians who’d scattered would also die. As Black Elk described the scene in one of his recollections, “Dead and wounded women and children and little babies were scattered all along there where they had been trying to run away. The soldiers had followed along the gulch, as they ran, and murdered them in there. Sometimes they were in heaps because they had huddled together, and some were scattered all along. Sometimes bunches of them had been killed and torn to pieces where the wagon guns hit them. I saw a little baby trying to suck its mother, but she was bloody and dead.”
It’s remarkable how closely Black Elk’s description resembles that of Elaine Goodale, Supervisor of Education in Pine Ridge at the time of the massacre, who’d written the Commissioner of Indian Affairs within days of the massacre after her own investigation. “I do not credit the statement, which has been made by some,” she wrote,
that the women carried arms and participated actively in the fight. The weight of testimony is overwhelmingly against this supposition. There may have been one or two isolated cases of this kind, but there is no doubt that the great majority of the women and children, as well as many unarmed men and youth, had no thought of anything but flight. They were pursued up the ravines and shot down indiscriminately by the soldiers. It is reported that one of the officers called out, ‘Don’t shoot the squaws,’ but the men were doubtless too much excited to obey. The killing of the women and children was in part unavoidable, owing to the confusion, but I think there is no doubt that it was in many cases deliberate and intentional. The Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s command, had an old grudge to repay.
The truth was in that final line. An old grudge to repay, whether the men, women and children of Wounded Knee had anything to do with Little Big Horn or not — and whether Little Big Horn even warranted revenge from the cavalry. But isn’t that where all massacres begin and end, with an old grudge to repay? Wasn’t the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila camps by Lebanese Christians and their Israeli enablers a not-so old grudge being repaid? Wasn’t the Haditha massacre by the Marines last year a grudge massacre for the IED killing of one of their men? Wasn’t My Lai one of several massacres borne of accumulated grudges the Americans had no right to hold, being the invaders, but did anyway. With the abandon of guilt to boot? Isn’t the Iraq war a grudge massacre, repayment for 9/11, with which Iraq had nothing to do?
Incidentally, the New York Times editorial belittling the characterization of Wounded Knee as a massacre was written on January 22, 1891 , five days after Elaine Goodale’s account had appeared in the very same paper. The Times did report the Wounded Knee conflagration over several days, but only to describe surrenders and Indian-instigated skirmishes in the days following the massacre (a word it never uses), and to describe what remained of the Indians, in American custody, in demeaning terms. This from a January 10, 1891 dispatch, datelined Pine Ridge Agency , S.D. , and headlined “Closing on the Hostiles—They Are Demoralized And Beating on Each Other”:
Hostiles began their devilment this morning by burning the cabins four miles north of the agency. Three columns of dense smoke in the north show where the fires are raging. There is pandemonium in the great village of the hostiles. The assassination of Lieutenant [Edward] Casey [a week after the massacre] has caused a panic, which has not yet been quelled. […] During the excitement which has prevailed since the cowardly murder of the brave Lieutenant, the ghost dancers have been perfect friends. Government scouts report that the hostiles are without a head, and that in their frenzy they are destroying their own property, beating their own people, and shouting that they want to fight. […] The cut-throats from the north and from Rosebud are still crazy for a fight with the soldiers. They are raiding the country right and left and killing cattle simply for their tongues and tenderloins.
Replace “hostiles” and “cut-throats” with “terrorists” and “insurgents,” and “rosebud” and Pine Ridge with Anbar and Baghdad , and you’ve got yourself a repeat on another stage. Same methods, same language, same assumptions, same denigrations of aliens too savage to submit to the American Way .
Wounded Knee is just one example of a domestic blight, out there, a vulture’s hike from Mount Rushmore , so named after a lawyer who made his fortune expropriating the Black Hills from Indians, and so eventually carved of presidential faces by the anti-Semite and white supremacist Gutzon Borglum. A home-borne blight now marked by nothing more than a marker along the road (and, in Kansas, a monument to the federal soldiers killed there). No Oklahoma bombing-like mega-memorial for those Indians, no memorial on the Washington, D.C. Mall, for those or any Indians massacred in the name of what Lewis & Clark called their “Great White Father” back in D.C., whoever it was at the time. And all along, the justifications à-la-Times, and the recourse to the buzz word of the day. For us now it’s the all-purpose “terrorist.” Back then it was “the hostiles.” That’s how Indians were referred to. “The hostiles.” In headlines, in passing references, even in sympathy: Elaine Goodale, for all her bleeding descriptions of the Wounded Knee massacre, couldn’t resist using the word when referring to the wounded: “Some were carried off by the hostiles.”
But then Goodale, 27 years old at the time, was one of those Eastern-born whites convinced that the best way to help the Indians was turn them into white Americans. (She wrote a memoir called Sister to the Sioux.) She was at Pine Ridge as an emissary of that federal program, ancestral root of neocons’ delusions, designed to whitify Indians, turn them into farmers, cut their hair, eliminate their native tongues. It was that very program, which had also entailed the breaking of a treaty and the slashing up of Dakota Territory’s vast Indian lands into six smaller reservations, that gathered the embers that became the roil of Indian resentment leading to the conflagration at Wounded Knee. Elaine Goodale, believing herself part of the solution, had been an integral part of the problem. Elaine Goodale: The innocent American unaware, or unwilling to be aware, or incapable of being aware, of the catastrophe to which she was complicit. Every American in Iraq is Goodale’s progeny.
And let’s not forget the founding fear. The fuse that really lit the conflagration at Wounded Knee as elsewhere. White America’s fear of the religiously incomprehensible, the moment it poses a challenge to its domineering creeds.
In the toughest times, superstition and ritual are like welfare to the soul. The Ghost Dance was one such ritual for Indians in the late 1880s. Depending on the tribe and place, the dance was wrapped up in millenarian myths or the prophesies of Jack Wilson, a 19 th century Gandhi type who preached non-violence and the coming end of the white man’s encroachment on Indian lands. Some Indians thought the dance made them invulnerable to bullets. That it didn’t was irrelevant: it filled federal soldiers with fear enough that it had a similar effect. At least for a while. At least until December 29, 1890 . By then the federal government’s experiment of making farmers out of Indians in the West’s arid plains was running out of patience. Poor land and poorer rainfalls obviously yielded few crops. To the federal government that only meant one thing: proof that Indians were lazy. Indians around South Dakota were starving. The Ghost Dance was like a salve—and to federal troops, an omen. That’s what precipitated the rush of troops to Pine Ridge, where the Ghost Dance was forbidden yet more and more performed, and attracting more and more Indians. That’s what precipitated clash after clash until the eventual massacre, the last of the major Indian wars.
These days the Ghost Dance is performed as a tourist attraction, as an entertainment when politicians visit the reservations, hunting for votes this time. The old insurgents have been tamed, marginalized, largely Americanized. The Goodale impulse had its way after all. The massacres, like the ghost dances, are no more than roadside markers along Manifest Destiny’s continuing itinerary. It once went West, young man. It now trawls East, although this time it isn’t the Americans who are doing the taming. A whole new generation of Goodale’s children is discovering the meaning of Little Big Horn.