Memorial gates at the entrance to the mass grave. The mass grave (surrounded by an ugly perimeter of chain link fencing) houses a marker for the hundreds killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre. The mass grave is surrounded by other (newer) graves in the Wounded Knee Cemetery. Wounded Knee Massacre happened in the valley below this gate. It was a powerfully sad place to visit, on many levels. What is a wasichu to do? I simply stood for a long while on the hill, surveying the terrain where the terrible events of 1890 unfolded.
I drove on. Northwest of Wounded Knee, I came to these beautiful, softly-rounded buttes, Manderson Buttes, like old teeth, and I parked there for an hour or two, sketching, reading and writing. The Oglala holy man Black Elk lived near Manderson. Today, Manderson is a small, poor community on Pine Ridge. After the starkly beautiful buttes, I was shocked to find graffiti covering several bleak tract houses along the road, reminiscent of inner city public housing. Children played in a fenced ring of brilliantly-painted playground equipment. In “Black Elk Speaks” he reflects with grief on the memory of Wounded Knee:
I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, 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 still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.
And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
Later, climbing Harney Peak in the Black Hills, where he had received his vision, Black Elk voices this prayer:
It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds. (….) Hear me in my sorrow, for I may never call again. O make my people live!
Each time I see the twisted cottonwood trees, with new shoots still budding from impossibly-battered old trunks, or half-buried in riverbank silt, I think of Black Elk’s prayer image.
For anyone interested in learning more, I recommend starting with Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and Black Elk Speaks (as told through J. G. Neihardt).