Wounded Knee: A Lasting Struggle for Indigenous Rights

On December 29, the Wounded Knee massacre is commemorated in the US, where more than 300 men, women, and children lost their lives under the hands of the US military forces.

The Big Foot Memorial Riders (now called the Future Generation Memorial Riders, O’maka Tokatakiya) commemorate this date through a spiritual ritual of empowerment and healing that began in 1986 and includes almost 100 people riding a distance of 191 miles in the harshness of winter, December 15-29, to Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The ride follows the path followed by Chief Big Foot and entire families hoping to escape the military.

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(Chief Bigfoot Ride 2019: Ride reaches Wounded Knee, documented by Juliana Brown Eyes)

Also every year, since 2012, the descendants of the massacre take turns running for three days, 175 miles in total, to commemorate this massacre. Called the Wounded Knee Survivors Run, it seeks to revitalize and help the healing of new generations. At the end of the race, its members gather to celebrate their cultural roots and history, and to share testimonies of the survivors. Ota Au Films has documented this race where young people, particularly, take part as a matter of deepening their ancestry and celebrating their identities:

South of Abya Yala (Turtle Island), little is known about the colonialization and forced assimilation of the peoples of North America, a policy of extermination that began during the England invasion, followed by the founding of this republic, and that had its peak between 1850-1930 .

For example, few know that indigenous peoples in the United States were granted citizenship only in 1924, under the Indian Citizenship Act. Prior to that date, indigenous people lived without any guarantee of their civil nor human rights.

Masacre de los Manisses en el fuerte de Block Island

The arrival of the English in September 1620 occurred under the same ideology of the Spanish conquistadors: with a bible and rifle in hand, in pursuit of the demarcation of a new empire, and the capitalist accumulation of land. There was only one problem: the native peoples. It is not possible to call the violent act of colonization “battles”: the first massacres documented by the English themselves occurred just 16 years later against the Manisses and Pequot people, causing the death of more than 400 men, women, and children.

More than 250 years later, on December 29, 1890, history would repeat itself with the Wounded Knee massacre (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála, in Lakota) where hundreds of families were eliminated, contributing to the imaginary construction of the “America’s West” at the expense of the invasion, expulsion, and persecution of indigenous peoples.

It is said that under the command of Colonel James Forsyth, at least 400 Indians were besieged in Wounded Knee and when a shot was heard, the military began the cruel and inclement killing of all present. The soldiers chased and killed women and children who ran up to two miles beyond the camp. The bodies of the dead were abandoned for three days, due to inclement weather, before being buried in mass graves.

Unfortunately, this case was not isolated but rather attests to a state policy of extraction and elimination of native peoples. Additional similar massacres are still being documented.

The difference of Wounded Knee from previous massacres is that by the end of the 1800s, several indigenous peoples had achieved some integration with the rest of the population and took care that this injustice would never be forgotten.

The first testimony came from Sussette La Flesche (Inshata Theumba or Bright Eyes), daughter of Waoowinchtcha, a Ponca woman, and a French merchant who lived with the Omaha. Inshata was an activist, a journalist, and wrote about the horror lived in Wounded Knee for the Omaha World-Herald. She and her husband were in Wounded Knee with many other journalists to document the so-called negotiations between the army and the Sioux Lakota, but they ended up witnessing the massacre aftermath and even treated many of the wounded on the floor of a church. In an article on January 2, 1891, entitled “The Horrors of War” she wrote:

There was a woman sitting on the floor with a wounded baby on her lap and four or five children around her, all her grandchildren. Their father and mother were killed. There was a young woman shot through both thighs and her wrist was broken. Mr. Tibbles had to get a pair of pinchers to get her rings off…There was a little boy with his throat apparently shot to pieces. He was a horrible sight, having nothing around him but a blanket, and his little bare, lean arms looked pitiful. They were all hungry…

Inshata knew she was the only indigenous witness of the massacre and had a unique point of view, non-existent until then: “I am the only Indian speaking to the public through the press, for the Indians.” Her articles were key in showing the horror of what happened to the general public.

In 1901, survivors of the massacre created the Wounded Knee Survivors Association to pressure the US Congress to listen to their testimonies and compensate the families financially. In 1938, two survivors, Dewey Beard and James Pipe on Head, testified in front of Congress and a congressman introduced a bill requesting indenminization for surviving family members, but the law failed to materialize.

Eighty years after the massacre, Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the first written account of the1860-1890 history of the “old west” from an anticolonialist indigenous point of view, through testimonies of the survivors of the many injustices experienced. Published in 1970, it has been translated into 15 languages and sold more than 5 million copies.

By then, indigenous activism in the US was booming, as people began to claim rights, reclaim their identity, and seek social justice. As part of this activism, the controversial 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM), once again helped publicize the oppression of indigenous peoples for the general public.

One hunders years after the massacre, Congress formally expressed “deep regret” in 1990 for the pain caused to the Sioux Lakota, acknowledging for the first time that it had been a massacre perpetrated by the state.

Mario Gonzalez, representative of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, was amongst those who testified, demanding for his clients: a public apology, an official monument to commemorate the massacre, and direct compensation to the surviving families. In recent years, the descendants of the massacre have managed to claim several items that were stolen from the bodies frozen in the snow, but they are still waiting for true justice to be done.

As David Treuer of the Ojibwe Nation wrote in his recent book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (2019):

In the American imagination and, as a result, in the written record, the massacre at Wounded Knee almost overnight assumed a significance far beyond the sheer number of lives lost. It became a touchstone of Indian suffering, a benchmark of American brutality, and a symbol of the end of Indian life, the end of the frontier, and the beginning of modern America. Wounded Knee, in other words, stands for an end, and a beginning…

The new generations seek to redeem the struggle of indigenous peoples and their incredible ability to survive and claim the right to exist. The beginning of resistance begins with the creation of new ways of telling the story.