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Think of it as a tawny ocean stopped in time, a vast landscape of grass, here and there mustache-like strips of trees darkening creek beds or running along the ridges like an old headdress unfurled in wind. Today, the place where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place looks very much as it did in the early winter of 1890: a featureless, shallow valley in a seemingly unending field of prairie grass that, on a gray day, weaves itself inconspicuously into the cloudy sky at its reaches.
On December 28, 1890, four Hotchkiss guns--the Sioux called them the guns that fire in the morning and kill the next day--stood on a small, whitecap hill amid this arid ocean, all four aimed down into the camp of a Minneconjon chief named Sitanka, or Big Foot. There, 300 men, women, and children were camped, hoping to reach Pine Ridge Agency the next day.
Today, more than a century later, a single battered billboard offers the only available outline of the story, the word "battle" crossed out and "massacre" scribbled in roughly above it. Otherwise, there is little to mark the spot. It is almost impossible to stand on that small hill and look down into the valley of Wounded Knee Creek and imagine what the place must have looked like so full of people.
But try. Try to imagine with this yawning, empty space, a couple hundred Lakota just beneath the promontory where we're standing, their worn and ripped tipis thrown up quickly, campfires floating thin plumes of smoke. These folks have been hungry for days--and tired, having marched hundreds of miles south toward Chief Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge Agency, where they thought they'd be safe.
But there's more, far more. Across the ravine west, maybe a half mile away on another bill, sits a sprawling encampment of several hundred troops under the command of Col. James W. Forsyth, the largest military encampment since the Civil War. Picture a campground of nearly a thousand people in tents, then cut down all the trees in your mind's eye to take in the sweep of the Dakota prairie.
Big Foot's people were dancers, Ghost Dancers, strong believers in a frenetic, mystic ceremony,a hobgoblin of Christianity, Native ritual, and sheer desperation. If they would dance, they thought, Christ would return because he'd heard their prayers and felt their suffering. When he came he'd bring with him the old ones (hence, the Ghost Dance). And the buffalo would return. Once again the people could take up their beloved way of life. If they would dance, a cloud of dust from the new heaven and the new earth would swallow the wasicu, all of them. If they would dance, their hunger would be satiated, desperation comforted.
There was no dancing here on the night before the massacre, December 28, 1890, but for almost a year leading up to it "the Messiah craze"--as the wasicu called it--had spread throughout the newly sectioned reservations, as unstoppable as a prairie fire. A committee of Sioux holy men had returned from Nevada, where they'd met Wovoka, the Paiute who'd seen the original vision. They returned as disciples of a new religion.
Wovoka designed the ritual from his own visions. Erect a sapling in the middle of an open area, like the one in front of us now--the tree, a familiar symbol from rituals like the Sun Dance, then banned by reservation agents. Purge yourselves--enter sweat lodges, prostrate yourself before Wakan Tanka, the Creat Mysterious. Show your humility--often warriors would cut out pieces of their own flesh and lay them at the base of that sapling to bear witness to their selflessness.
Then dance-women and men together, something rare in Sioux religious tradition. Dance around that sapling totem, dance and dance and dance and don't stop until you fall from physical exhaustion and spiritual plenitude. Dance until the mind numbs and the spirit emerges. Dance …