“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
A Facebook friend reminded me that it was 122 years ago today, on December 28,1890, that more than 300, unarmed native Americans were slaughtered in South Dakota by U.S. Forces. The dead included women and children, and this travesty is recanted in horrific detail through the pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Colonel James Forsyth was later charged with The Killing of Innocents, but was exonerated and promoted. 22 of the soldiers that day were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Do you remember being taught that lesson in public school? Probably not. It’s a piece of American history we like to forget.
“I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. My people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” -Black Elk (1863-1950); Oglala Holy man.
The Lakota and other tribes were labeled as terrorists in Washington, DC, long before we created the Patriot Act to keep ourselves “safe” from terrorists.
As we once again debate how to keep American citizens safe, many people dismiss the quaint notion of government tyranny. Tyranny happens in other places, not here…not now…they say.
Generally, these believers in government authority and the government’s sole discretion in keeping us safe are white folk who rarely consider the downsides of an unbalanced distribution of force and power. These believers in government sanctity forget about the rather recent atrocities in Dafur, Serbia, Libya or Nazi Germany.
I spent the summer of 1987 working on the Cheyenne River Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Back then, I thought wanted to be a priest.
I was 23 and full of my self as most 23-year-old men are. I strived to be sensitive, to be politically correct. The wise Lakota who surrounded me would gently smile when I used the words, “Native American.”
One night, while assigned to sit with a critically ill man (DeSmit Holy Bear) in the reservation hospital, I sensed his nephew needed someone to talk to, someone to work through his grief. John and I were about the same age. He appeared to be struggling with the pending loss of his beloved uncle.
I tried my best to be empathetic, compassionate. I desperately wanted him to know that I was enlightened and not a typical white man; someone who could listen and console him without judgment or prejudice. “I have no idea how hard it must be to be a Native American,” I offered. “To see your entire culture decimated, to face daily discrimination and humiliation.”
He slowly turned to me and paused before replying. In a low voice and with clear eyes, he said: “Give me a fucking break. We are Indians, and don’t you ever forget it. If you think you can assuage the sins of your past with a couple of words, you are even dumber than I previously thought.”
He stepped outside to have a cigarette. His uncle died two days later, and I will never forget that conversation.
So here are two pictures. One is from 122 years ago; the other is from 1987.
Take a good look, and you tell me… have we learned anything from history?