The ultimate beauty of being retired is that life is no longer ruled by a calendar. Week days are generally no different than weekends. Responsibilities are minor. It is acceptable to run away on a whim. Thus it was on that summer day as we left Drake, Colorado intending to return home. Having no pressing obligations, at the junction that would have led us south we instead chose to head north in search of Mount Rushmore, a national treasure that we had never before seen. It was only three hundred miles out of our way, a mere five hour journey.
We drove quickly across the northern planes and into the wide open spaces of South Dakota. Our plan was to visit the monument in the afternoon, catch the nighttime presentation there, sleep in a local hotel and then make the return trip home. Of course as is often the case our best laid plans indeed went awry. A sudden storm brought a driving rain, hail, and threats of tornadoes, dashing our hopes of a quick side trip. Instead we decided to spend two nights and another day in the area, learning about a part of our country that we had never before explored.
The imprint of the native Americans who once roamed freely across the land is everywhere in South Dakota. It takes little imagination to visualize the great Sioux tribes following the buffalo and taming the wild expanses in the ways of their ancestors. The geography seems ill suited for modernity. It is wild and unpredictable, best left to those who understand its whimsy. It is also strangely beautiful and even spiritual. With the very small footprint that I left I at times felt like a trespasser. It somehow didn’t seem right to be gawking at the places that were once ruled by great chiefs like Sitting Bull.
We visited a refuge for the animals that had been the mainstay of life for the people who lived in South Dakota long before settlers came in search of new homes. We enjoyed viewing the Sitting Bull monument that is still a work in progress. Our time at Mount Rushmore was more breathtaking than I had imagined. Still something about our presence seemed wrong and I understood my nagging feelings when we drove through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and found ourselves at the site of Wounded Knee.
Following the American Civil War there was a great push to move the nation ever westward. Our military became engaged in what would eventually become known as the Indian Wars. Soldiers were sent to outposts far from Washington D.C. to insure that the ever growing numbers of citizens and immigrants moving west would be protected from tribes of native peoples who became increasingly concerned about the encroachment on land that had once been theirs to roam freely. The influx of people and the tragic encounters led to horrific misunderstandings and battles, particularly in places like South Dakota.
After the Battle of Little Big Horn efforts were made to broker peace with the native people. They were promised a huge reservation in South Dakota in exchange for acceptance of certain conditions. Many of the leaders were weary of the fighting and agreed to the terms but Sitting Bull refused to abide and instead moved further north with his people. Sadly when gold was discovered in the Black Hills the American government reneged on the contract, drastically reducing the available land for the tribes.
After a difficult winter in which his people suffered the ravages of hunger and disease Sitting Bull was forced to return to the land that had been his home and submit to the terms of the Americans. He was informed that he must accept a Biblical name, learn English, wear westernized clothing and farm the land on which he lived. The agents and teachers who worked in the area sincerely believed that it was only in assimilating to modern ways that the native Americans would ultimately be successful in transitioning to a new kind of life. It was a demeaning defeat for a once great warrior.
There was great tension in the area as Congress attempted to strike a final deal with the members of the tribes. They offered each man one hundred sixty acres of land and a paltry sum of money for the area around the Black Hills that had been so egregiously taken away. Sitting Bull wisely noted that as families grew the amount of land would not be enough to sustain life and refused to sign the agreement.
In the meantime a shaman had a vision that the Sioux tribes would rise to power once again. He told the people that if they performed the ghost dance in their traditional regalia their ancestors would make them immune to the bullets of the white men. Feeling desperate and with nothing to lose they began the rituals which frightened and angered one of the Indian agents who called for military reinforcements in the region. When the same man decided to arrest Sitting Bull for inciting insurrection one of the great tragedies of our nation ensued.
The inexperienced and frightened soldiers tasked with procuring Sitting Bull shot and killed the great chief and members of his families. When word spread many of the already angry members of the tribe rebelled and the troops reacted with heavy fire. Even women and children fleeing from the melee were mowed down as they attempted to escape by crossing the Wounded Knee River. The encounter marked the end of the Indian Wars and served as a black stain on American history as both sides argued as to whether it had been a battle or a massacre. Much later the United States Supreme Court would rule that the entire affair was one of the most horrific examples of greed and outright theft in the history of our nation.
I was stunned when I saw the simple painted wooden sign marking the site of Wounded Knee. Somehow I had thought that it would have had a beautiful monument designating the site of such an important moment of history. Perhaps the lack of pretense in marking this place was intentional because it struck me far more deeply in its humble reality. The land was as wild as it had been over a hundred years ago. It was rocky and dry, hardly the kind of place amenable to growing enough crops to keep a family alive. It exuded a poverty of spirit. I understood as I looked at that bleak area just how our government had murdered a whole way of life.
I was overwhelmed with sadness and a sense of guilt after visiting Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge Reservation. The area was dotted with alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers. The signs of poverty were unmistakable. I wondered at what our ancestors had done.
We stopped for gasoline before beginning our journey back home. I stood in line to purchase a few snacks for the road. The mostly native American people who surrounded me were affable but there seemed to be so many who were not working on a day when they should have had jobs. They wore defeated expressions as they languished at tables attempting to fill the hours. I wanted to announce my apologies but knew that I would seem crazy in doing so. I simply paid for my wares and drove away forever touched by the knowledge of the unfairness with which their ancestors had been treated. I left a piece of my own heart at Wounded Knee.