What They Thought of Wounded Knee

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You know what they say: never meet your heroes. You'll meet a few now.

What They Thought of Wounded Knee

US soldiers outside the camp in South Dakota, January 1891

Ed. Note: In late December of this past year, 2017, Lakota Sioux activists and others rode across South Dakota on horseback to Wounded Knee in memory of the victims of the massacre by the US Army that took place there in 1890. They do this every year. The journey requires hardy people: the temperature at night was down to -20C or worse1.

There is a reason for the commemoration, besides wanting to honour the men, women, and children who were killed there. The activists want the US government to rescind the 20 Congressional Medals of Hono[u]r given to troopers who participated in the massacre. The government have already admitted that what happened at Wounded Knee was wrong, but won't take back the medals, which were awarded for what we now regard as a war crime akin to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

We know what we think about militaries slaughtering civilians. But what did people think in 1890? We've got some primary sources for you. Warning: they may make you think differently about people you may have admired.

Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorne Clemens], The Galaxy, 1870

He is little, and scrawny, and black, and dirty; and, judged by even the most charitable of our canons of human excellence, is thoroughly pitiful and contemptible. There is nothing in his eye or his nose that is attractive…when he does not wear his disgusting rabbit-skin robe, his hunting suit consists wholly of the half of a horse blanket brought over in the Pinta or the Mayflower, and frayed out and fringed by inveterate use. He is not rich enough to possess a belt; he never owned a moccasin or wore a shoe in his life; and truly he is nothing but a poor, filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator's worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses…

Mark Twain, frequently regarded in the 21st Century as a font of 19th-century wisdom, also said, 'Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.' He may have just proven it.

The Pittsburg2 Dispatch, 8.1.1891

The Machine Guns Ready for Business. Grim looking Hotchkiss and Gatling guns, still powder burned from their terrible work at Wounded Knee, and at the Catholic mission stand, where industrious bucks used to saw wood for the officials. The crimson cross of the army hospital is now moving alone over the northern buttes and over in the little Episcopalian church, where services were held two weeks ago, there are 30 struck by bullets while trying to escape from the deadly triangle at Wounded Knee. Pine Ridge is now a grim army camp that can show all the horrors of a war with savages.

Poor Trooper Francis Chette, of Troop G, Seventh Cavalry, was buried to-day. He was in the heavy skirmish at the Catholic mission, and when the troops left the field Chette was missing. Indian scouts who were riding over the battle ground to-day saw the dead body of the trooper laying in the grass. He had been scalped. One hand had been cut off and his skull was broken. The savages had further mutilated the body until it was almost unrecognizable.

This was a news story. The troopers used Gatling guns on children, but the Indians were 'savages' for taking trophies.

L Frank Baum, in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, 3.1.1891

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

Ed. Note: L Frank Baum was the author of the beloved children's book series involving Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

Red Cloud's Speech After Wounded Knee

You who eat three times a day and see your children well and happy around you cannot understand what a starving Indian feels! We were faint with hunger and maddened by despair. We held our dying children and felt their little bodies tremble as their soul went out and left only a dead weight in our hands. They were not very heavy but we were faint and the dead weighed us down. There was no hope on earth. God seemed to have forgotten….

The white men were frightened and called for soldiers. We begged for life and the white men thought we wanted theirs…

For more information, read this article from Native Times.

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

08.01.18 Front Page

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1The weather was actually warmer on the day of the massacre: see this report from the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies.2Pittsburgh was for a while spelled without the 'h'. It was complicated, and involved government bureaucrats with OCD.

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