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  • In 2013 will we finally be able to remove the names of the soldiers from the Honor Roll who 120 years ago were rewarded for spilling the blood of innocent children and others now buried in the mass grave at Wounded Knee? Will we finally be able to erect a proper memorial containing the correct names of every man woman and child?

    I hope so and that is why I decided to write a letter to the White House. Was that crazy? I don't know. Is it any crazier to sit back and watch something you know is wrong continue? Probably.

    I asked my wife to help me with a letter because I am Lakota and I don't think I write English very well. I wanted to respectfully express feelings I share with many of my Lakota people. When doing some research we learned of certain facts I think justify the removal of those medals and so I wanted to write a letter that included all of these things. After we finished it, I asked two friends to look over it before I put it in the mail.

    I'd like to share the letter here because it is a part of a much wider story that continues for myself and other Lakota people.

    My name is Calvin Spotted Elk. I am a direct lineal descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, the Minneconjou leader who was killed at Wounded Knee in 1890. For many years my grandfather has erroneously been known as Chief “Big Foot”. His name and certain photographs that were allegedly taken of him have been the source of some historical confusion since his death.

    My grandfather’s correct name was Unpan Gleska. This literally means “Spotted Elk”; a female spotted elk, to be precise.

    After the tragedy, the newspapers published his name as "Chief Big Foot" and a name, which according to my family history was derogatory, became the unfortunate name by which he was to be referred to by for many years. In government delegation council meetings he and my other grandfathers were a part of, he is referred to by his correct English name, "Spotted Elk". The same is true of the Minneconjou Winter Counts kept by Lakota elderly councils during the time he was alive. Only in the newspapers and after his death was he referred to by this name yet the memorial marker and the highway named in his honor both bear the name "Big Foot".

    While attempting to correct this and other misinformation in the public regarding my ancestor, it came to my attention that Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for service at Wounded Knee in 1890, remain a matter of importance to many people today.

    My relatives and I, as representatives of the Minneconjou (and now Oglala), humbly request your support as Commander-in-Chief to assist in the revocation of at least eighteen (18) Medals of Honor. As you are probably aware, a Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded by the President in the name of Congress, to military personnel according to a standard of “extraordinary merit.” We feel those medals were not held to that high standard.

    On December 29, 1890, Minneconjou Chief Spotted Elk and at least 350 Lakota people were intercepted by a Seventh Cavalry detachment under Major Samuel Whitside near Porcupine Butte presently on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Specific details on what triggered the fight will probably always be debated but it is an historical fact that what ensued was a massacre.

    There were many eyewitnesses; sources including General Nelson Miles who himself criticized the indiscriminate killing that morning. Historical records detail the tragedy at Wounded Knee so to go into further detail at this time is not necessary but we believe the facts justify careful reconsideration regarding removing those soldiers from the Medals of Honor Roll.

    In a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1917 then retired Lieutenant General Nelson Miles stated:

    [ “The rifle was discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot and a large
    number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prarie [sic], were hunted
    down and killed.“ ]

    Although General Miles was critical of the tactics, he believed the Lakota people at that time should have been under military control. A year prior to his 1917 letter, he was a part of the governing board which ultimately rescinded 911 Congressional Medals of Honor.

    [ On June 3, 1916 Section 122 of the National Defense Act was passed, calling for a board of five retired Army generals to review
    every award of the Medal of Honor to date. Retired Lieutenant General Nelson Miles presided over the board which rescinded a
    total of 911 Medals of Honor that were illegitimately awarded. Each of the 2,625 Medals of Honor awarded up to the time of the
    review was given a number so that each case would be decided on the merit of the action without undue prejudice. ]

    I do not know why the following medals were not part of those reviews but because it was General Miles whose efforts, in part, were related to the tragedy, prejudice was outstanding.

    As you can see, what I am requesting is not something new. Others before me have petitioned. I am aware that two resolutions (SPO-01-100 and DEN-07-082) were submitted by the National Congress of American Indians in 2001 which were tabled for further review. As we go into 2013, twelve years later, I humbly request this issue be brought back for active consideration. I am making this request as only one of the many Lakota people who lost their ancestors at Wounded Knee.

    One reason this is important is because so many names have been forgotten and some inaccurately recorded. There are only a few names inscribed on the memorial marker but there are many more ancestors buried in the mass grave at Wounded Knee. The monument was erected by a well-meaning family some years after the massacre but even my grandfather's real name was incorrectly inscribed. This has led to further confusion because there was a different leader from the Oglala band who went by the name of Big Foot. It is some of his photographs which have been mistaken for my grandfather. For people from Cheyenne River (where my grandfather was from) and people from Pine Ridge (where our people are buried and where many later settled) this has been a source of conflict and subsequently it has also been a problem for modern scholars.

    The various lists of names maintained by the tribes originated with a non-native anthropologist in the 1990s. Unfortunately there are still many errors on the list in the form of duplications, mistranslations as well as other types. Unfortunately this problem creates real-world consequences for people. Especially for those who have not been raised knowing who their biological ancestors were.

    Lakota naming conventions are different than English naming conventions. In our culture, we have a saying: "We are all related." Traditionally, we have referred to some of our relatives in the "Indian way" but they may not have ever been biologically related to us. When the naming conventions were imposed by the census takers, there were problems created that cannot be easily untangled today. Some names were mistranslated into English and lost their meaning. Other names were translated by French interpreters and then into English. Still other names were shortened so much that they barely resemble their original meaning or actually have the opposite meaning. Only by being and knowing Lakota can this ever be untangled. Unfortunately, few people today speak our native language fluently. For the past two years, I have been working with many descendants of survivors from all three reservations in an effort to untangle and correct as many errors as possible so we can finally have a proper memorial for our people. It is difficult and time-consuming work but together we have made steady progress. With each of the people I have spoken with the same issues surface again and again. One of the main ones is the issue I bring to your attention today.

    Mr. President, will you please consider revoking the medals awarded to the soldiers listed below as well as any subsequent awards which may have been overlooked during our research? We found there were at least eighteen (18) Medals of Honor awarded for Wounded Knee. In contrast, during the four year course of World War II, only three (3) such medals were given to tens of thousands of soldiers from South Dakota. It is incomprehensible that a hundred and twenty two years later, this remains unresolved. It will help to heal a wound between the recent generations of Lakota people and generations of non-native settlers in the area who were brought up with the belief that this was a battle instead of what it was. I feel there is strong justification for removing those soldiers from the rolls and making it clear that this was a terrible tragedy that should never happen again. According to the rules governing the Medals of Honor, "each of the armed services has set up regulations which permit no margin of doubt or error. The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life; and it must be of the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

    Mr. President, what happened at Wounded Knee was not worthy of exceptional valor. The actions of the soldiers did not adhere to these guidelines and for this reason, there has been much criticism. This tragedy, for many, remains a blemish in American history. My relatives and I pray for this never to happen again and we pray you will hear our plea to put this to rest.

    I am reluctant to bring it up but as you know, just this month, in America, we have experienced, an unthinkable tragedy with the recent massacre of small children at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. The circumstances were different between the two massacres but there were some aspects that were the same and for this, my heart truly mourns for the families in Connecticut. A massacre is a massacre no matter when or how it occurred but there is something truly horrifying when children and elders are deprived of their lives. It is especially heartbreaking when those responsible for taking their lives have been rewarded with medals of valor.

    Tomorrow morning, December 29, evokes painful feelings for Lakota people. Infants, small children, teenagers, elders, women and men, most of whom were unarmed (or very poorly armed) were hunted down for miles around Wounded Knee and killed. A couple of days later, after a blizzard swept through the area, some were amazingly discovered to still be alive, despite their wounds. These were frightened people, on the verge of starvation, whose leader was dying of pneumonia. This was not a true battle.

    Like the people at Sandy Hook and other places around the world, we should not forget their lives. Unless someone experiences this kind of violent sudden loss personally, it is very difficult to imagine how their surviving families will be affected. In the case where mostly orphans are left, this trauma can last for generations. Native Americans know unresolved grief. Many African Americans know too. There are lessons to be learned from Wounded Knee that will go a long way toward healing hearts and minds everywhere.

    The healing process takes time but through prayer, acceptance, awareness and forgiveness, it is possible. For many of us, acknowledgment of what happened is at the root of our healing. Many people in South Dakota, native American and not, still hold on to false beliefs that make reconciliation difficult. I pray that be able to honor his sentiment and reconcile differences through truth, compassion and forgiveness.

    Mr. President, I would like to sincerely thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to consider my request. As the President I voted for the very first time I voted in my life, I believe you hold the power to change this and I hope you hold the desire to right this wrong so that future generations can live in truth and heal from senseless tragedies like this one.

    I humbly ask you to consider rescinding the following:
    Medal of Honor Recipients Who Were Involved in the Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek (29 December 1890):* (list of names follows)

    Calvin Spotted Elk

    **If you like this story and would like to help bring closure to this long overdue issue, a Lakota woman started a petition at the White House website

    In order to have policymakers even consider the request, it will take 25,000 signatures by January 27, 2013. I believe that there are at least 25,000 people who would agree that it is time to put this to rest.
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