In the blazing heat of the South Dakota summer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we make two certain stops: Bear Butte, a sacred mountain, and the cemetery, where the dead of the Wounded Knee Massacre are interned. The fenced-in area is a mass grave and the area outside is a normal community cemetery. I cannot bear to walk on the grassy surface where the spirits of those buried still seem to cry out for some kind of justice or mercy or at least pity. It's a place of sub-text, of a low level vibration in the ground that comes up through the soles of my feet. This place calls for prayer of some kind, of communion with the spirits that abound on the rez.
Jerome, our storyteller friend and a Lakota, sings a song to his ancestors, banging his hand drum out of beat with his words, the incongruity making two different songs of one action. I feel like crying, his song winding through my body and soul, plucking at my own grief and history. Within minutes of our arrival, a woman appears carrying some handmade items she would like us to buy. The sun is hot, and she is protected by an enormous black umbrella, reminiscent of those carried by undertakers for rainy graveside ceremonies. We think she is the same woman from last year, but no, that was her cousin, she tells us. Peter wears a medicine pouch around his neck filled with sage and beautifully beaded that we bought from the cousin.
Today we buy a dream catcher also of buck skin with a tipi woven into it and beaded with the medicine wheel colors of black, white, red, yellow. The Strong Woman Tipi she called it. This sale and others like it at the cemetery are her livelihood. She thanks us, and we watch her descend the stairs, sliding our bills into her jeans pocket, Jerome's voice in accompaniment. We focus back on the song and the singer, the heat nearly impossible to ignore.
Our peace is broken by a hundred motorcycles snaking along the road, leading to the museum just below the monument and grave site. They circle around and group in front of the closed wooden structure. They linger long enough to regroup and retreat along the same road, the only way out. They are the Wounded Knee Ride. A solitary rider breaks away from the procession and loudly approaches the parking lot of the cemetery. He pulls in close to Jerome, who is still singing his tribute to his ancestors. The biker gives us a limp wave or is just waving away the smoke from his cigarette as he idles on his Harley, nearly drowning out the soulful song. Unable to compete with the growling engine, Jerome drops his arms, turns to us, his drivers, and says, "Let's go."
From Wikipedia, a version of events... "The Wounded Knee Massacre happened on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek (Lakota: Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, USA. On the day before, a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted Spotted Elk's band of Miniconjou Lakota and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them 5 miles westward (8 km) to Wounded Knee Creek where they made camp. The rest of the 7th Cavalry Regiment arrived led by Colonel James Forsyth and surrounded the encampment supported by four Hotchkiss guns.
On the morning of December 29, the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. One version of events claims that during the process of disarming the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, claiming he had paid a lot for it. A scuffle over Black Coyote's rifle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the 7th Cavalry's opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troopers. Those few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking troopers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire.
The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed.
By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded (4 men, 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. Twenty-five troopers also died, and 39 were wounded (6 of the wounded would later die). It is believed that many were the victims of friendly fire, as the shooting took place at close range in chaotic conditions.
The site has been designated a National Historic Landmark."