WOSTER: On anniversary, still haunted by questions about Wounded Knee
Sunday is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee.
At least 150 Lakota children, women and men and probably many more died under the guns of the 7th Cavalry in that bloody incident on Dec. 29, 1890. Think of that. South Dakota had been a state for more than a year. We weren’t just some untamed territory. We were a state.
I’ve written before that I learned much of what I know about Wounded Knee after I finished college and began reporting for The Associated Press. As a reporter assigned first to cover the death of Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon, Neb., in the spring of 1972 and then the 71-day takeover of Wounded Knee itself in the winter and spring of 1973, I had much to learn about a geographic area of my own state and about the history of the people who lived and live there.
During quiet periods in that long 1973 occupation, other reporters and I read and swapped histories of the area and the people. A native South Dakotan, I learned about this part of my state’s history along with the out-of-state reporters from UPI and the New York Times and Omaha World Herald and some of the big television news networks. Some of those other reporters seemed to think I should have known a lot more than they did.
“You’re from around here,” they’d say. “What does this mean? Where did this come from? Why does this happen?”
The temptation was to guess. Instead, I confessed my ignorance and tried to find answers.
The 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee happened during a period in which reporters generally — not always but generally — enjoyed a certain protected status in events such as that. We were seen as neutral for the most part. While that didn’t mean anyone on any side trusted us, they generally allowed us to move rather freely across the lines, talking, taking notes and filming one side and the other. During Wounded Knee, for example, that meant we could talk with the government forces and with the occupiers. Such a status can create a false sense of invulnerability.
I recall one day when an Onondaga leader named Oren Lyons led a small group out of Wounded Knee through the main FBI roadblock atop the hill above the valley where the village sat. The group had sneaked into Wounded Knee under cover of darkness some days earlier, but Lyons said long-standing treaties gave his people free passage throughout the country. To make that point, he and his group, accompanied by a number of occupiers, some with rifles and shotguns, walked up the highway to the roadblock.
Ahead of them, I drove a rented Chevrolet. The backseat held the camera bags, lenses and spare film of photographers for the AP and UPI. The photographers walked along making pictures, sometimes riding on the fenders, now and then digging into the bags for more film or different lenses.
The agents at the roadblock were tense and nervous. I still can see the face of the agent in charge. He looked angry and I’m sure he was worried that something would spark a tragedy. The photographers and I weren’t thinking about the potential consequences of being between two armed groups. We weren’t fearless or courageous by any means. We were just getting a story and not thinking beyond that.
Only later did it occur to me that probably what had the agent in charge worried and angry was this: Had anything gone wrong — someone tripped, someone accidentally pulled a trigger, someone made just the wrong movement — shots could have been exchanged, people hurt or killed.
I can understand how that might have happened in 1973, so I guess I can understand how it could have happened in 1890 — a stray shot and a response. I can’t imagine, much less begin to understand, how the relentless firing and killing continued and continued as the histories of the 1890 massacre describe.
One could read those histories and vow to remember the event so that it will never happen again. I wonder, though, how is it possible it ever could have happened the first time?