What Is Wrong With Our Country: Wounded Knee

I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.

In January 1891, a group of U.S. Army soldiers marched past their general for a final review. Though their setting was a windswept, seemingly empty South Dakota valley, it was a festive occasion. Company after company paraded past, observed only by their general and small clusters of the people they had recently subdued.

Just a few weeks before, 500 of these marching men had massacred at least 300 Lakota men, women, and children. Twenty of the soldiers would soon receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest and most prestigious commendation, for their actions at Wounded Knee.

More than a century later, legislators and activists are calling on President Joe Biden to revoke the medals awarded to the soldiers who participated in the killings. Once touted as a victory against an intractable enemy, Wounded Knee is remembered today as an outright massacre. 

The origins of the Ghost Dance

The massacre at Wounded Knee was a reaction to a religious movement that gave fleeting hope to Plains Indians whose lives had been upended by white settlement. The Ghost Dance movement swept through Native American tribes in the American West beginning in the 1870s. It was based on a series of teachings by Paiute medicine men, who prophesied that an upcoming upheaval would lead to the eradication of white men from the Earth and the resurgence of Native Americans.

The movement quickly took on special significance for the Lakota people of North and South Dakota. Over the course of a few decades they had lost over 58 million acres of their land, and were forced to share what was left among multiple tribes and bands. By 1889, they had been split into five separate reservations in North and South Dakota.

The movement’s adherents thought that songs and ceremonies could hasten the coming disaster, bring back their dead, and ensure the restoration of their lands. Lakota believers wore special shirts thought to repel bullets, while some experienced a hypnotic state brought on by the repetitive songs and shuffling, circular mass dances shared by followers.

‘We need protection.’

But the Ghost Dancers’ hopes were met with fear from white settlers, who worried the rituals would incite violence against them. Federal Indian agent Daniel F. Royer—jokingly nicknamed “Young Man Afraid of Indians” by the Lakota he had been hired to monitor—was one of them. In December 1890, Royer sent a desperate telegraph from Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands region of South Dakota to his bosses at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

“Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” he wrote. “We need protection, and we need it now.”

American authorities on other Lakota reservations were also worried about the Ghost Dance’s most prominent adherent, Chief Sitting Bull. In 1876, he had led the offensive against the U.S. Army and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” in which Custer and all of his soldiers were killed.

Though technically a prisoner of war being held at the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota, Sitting Bull had been given special permission to travel the country as a performer, most famously with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in 1885. But by the time Royer telegraphed his bosses in 1890, Sitting Bull was back at Standing Rock and had indicated he would permit Ghost Dancers to gather in his camp.

The war against the Ghost Dance

Convinced the movement posed a threat to whites, the U.S. Army banned Ghost Dance ceremonies on all reservations in December 1890 and began amassing troops across the region. The federal government had initially planned to have Buffalo Bill Cody try to convince Sitting Bull to make the dancers stand down. But Cody was intercepted enroute by Army officials and ordered to turn back. The U.S. Army now planned to arrest Sitting Bull instead.

On December 15, 1890, about 40 Native American policemen employed by the Indian Agency converged on Sitting Bull and attempted to take him into custody. When he resisted, a skirmish broke out and Bull Head, the police lieutenant, shot and killed Sitting Bull. Some of Sitting Bull’s band fled in the night and headed to join the slain chief’s half-brother, Chief Spotted Elk, at another reservation.

Convinced federal troops would kill more chiefs, Spotted Elk and his allies headed south to Pine Ridge in search of protection. But their pace was slowed by the weather and illnesses. On December 28, they encountered Army troops, who told them to head to Wounded Knee Creek. That night, as the Lakota made camp at Wounded Knee, about 500 soldiers surrounded the 300 or so men, women, and children.

Carnage at Wounded Knee Creek

Top: Wounded Knee became a rallying cry for Native Americans. In 1973, activists occupied the South Dakota valley, leading to a standoff with federal authorities. Here, members of the Oglala Sioux tribe march to the cemetery where their ancestors were buried after the massacre.

Bottom: Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement, stands beside a poster that advertises a Wounded Knee memorial event, which included a three-day march.

The next morning, Colonel James W. Forsyth ordered the Lakota to lay down their weapons and told them they would be taken to a new camp. The Lakota assumed this meant they would be moved away from Lakota territory altogether. Some began to sing Ghost Dance songs.

The troops surrounding the Lakota had been taught that the Ghost Dance and its ceremonies were preludes to war. When one of the dancers took dirt from the ground and flung it in the air, the soldiers interpreted it as a signal of some kind and began firing.

The result was carnage. Though they fought back, the Lakota were at a numerical disadvantage and were outgunned, especially by the early machine guns used by some of the troops.

By the time the shooting stopped a few hours later, bodies were everywhere. Most, including babies and women, had been shot at close range. Some of the Lakota dead were found up to three miles away from the camp where the few who fled had been chased down.

The U.S. Army recovered its own dead, but left the Lakota victims to freeze during the three-day blizzard that followed. Before flinging the frozen bodies into a mass grave, many soldiers stripped the Lakota naked, saving their ghost shirts as souvenirs.

Twenty-five Army soldiers were killed during the fighting, many due to friendly fire. Though no reliable record of Lakota victims remains, contemporary historians estimate at least 300 were killed.

Cheyenne and Arapahoe people reenact the Ghost Dance, which was typically performed around a flagpole, at the 1898 Indian Congress in Omaha, Nebraska. At the time, it was the largest gathering of Native American tribes of its kind.

Battle or massacre?

As soon as word of the incident got out, people began to tussle over how to define what had happened at Wounded Knee. Forsyth was relieved of his command after the massacre. His conduct was investigated, but he defended his actions and was quickly reinstated. American newspapers that had breathlessly followed the amassing of troops in the Dakotas portrayed it as a necessary battle; local white settlers celebrated it as a victory over a warlike people.

“We had better, in order to protect our civilization…wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the earth,” wrote South Dakota newspaperman L. Frank Baum, the future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in response to the news.

Meanwhile, Native Americans, Lakota and otherwise, interpreted it as a sign that the U.S. government would stop at nothing to eradicate them. “I did not know then how much was ended,” wrote Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man who survived the massacre. “The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

It would be the last large skirmish in a century of armed conflict between Native Americans and American troops.

Should the Medals of Honor be revoked?

In 1891, the Army issued 20 Medals of Honor to soldiers who had participated in the atrocity.

Over the years, public opinion about the incident shifted as historians dug into the events surrounding the incident. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s 1970 history of how white Americans’ actions along the frontier devastated Native Americans, sold millions of copies and turned Wounded Knee into a household name. And as part of the broader fight for Native American sovereignty, participants in the American Indian Movement called attention to the massacre, including during a 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee in which two activists were shot.

Wounded Knee became a rallying cry for activists as they pointed out how centuries of land theft, broken treaties, and forced assimilation affected Native Americans. In 1990 Congress formally apologized for the slaughter.

Calls to rescind the medals have grown louder. In January 2021, the South Dakota State Senate passed a bill that called on the U.S. Congress to open an official inquiry into the medals, and a group of U.S. lawmakers attempted to revive an earlier proposal to revoke the medals. Now, with that bill languishing in committee, they are calling on Biden to do it himself.

 “You have the authority to revoke these medals immediately,” wrote the lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Kansas Congresswoman Sharice L. Davids, in a letter to the president on November 2, 2021. “It is well past time to remove this stain from our nation’s history.”

In the Shadow of Wounded Knee

Almost every historical atrocity has a geographically symbolic core, a place whose name conjures up the trauma of a whole people: Auschwitz, Robben Island, Nanjing. For the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that place is a site near Wounded Knee Creek, 16 miles northeast of the town of Pine Ridge. From a distance the hill is unremarkable, another picturesque tree-spotted mound in the creased prairie. But here at the mass grave of all those who were killed on a winter morning more than a century ago, it’s easy to believe that certain energies—acts of tremendous violence and of transcendent love—hang in the air forever and possess a forever half-life.

Alex White Plume, a 60-year-old Oglala Lakota activist, lives with his family and extended family on a 2,000-acre ranch near Wounded Knee Creek. White Plume’s land is lovely beyond any singing, rolling out from sage-covered knolls to creeks bruised with late summer lushness. From certain aspects, you can see the Badlands, all sun-bleached spires and scoured pinnacles. And looking another way, you can see the horizon-crowning darkness of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

a child bathing in the kitchen of a Pine Ridge home
Three-year-old C. J. Shot bathes among dishes. The Oglala concept of tiospaye—the unity of the extended family—means that homes are often overcrowded, especially with the severe housing shortage on the reservation. In 2008, when this photograph was made, 22 people lived in the three-bedroom house. “These houses aren’t who we are,” says Oglala activist Alex White Plume.

One hot and humid day in early August, I drove out to interview White Plume in a screened outdoor kitchen he had just built for his wife. Hemp plants sprouted thickly all over their garden. “Go ahead and smoke as much as you like,” White Plume offered. “I always tell people that: Smoke as much as you want, but you won’t get very high.” The plants are remnants from a plantation of industrial hemp—low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Cannabis sativa—cultivated by the White Plume family in 2000.

During World War II cultivation of hemp was encouraged in the United States, its fiber used for rope, canvas, and uniforms. But in 1970 low-THC industrial hemp was outlawed under the Controlled Substances Act. In 1998 the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance allowing the cultivation of low-THC hemp, a crop well suited to places, like the “rez,” with a short growing season, arid soil, and weather fluctuations.

Oglala youths holding and upside-down flag
Oglala youths hold an upside-down flag—an international symbol of distress and an act of defiance toward the U.S. government—at a rally to commemorate a 1975 shoot-out between American Indian Move ment (AIM) activists and FBI agents. Two agents and one AIM member died; AIM’s Leonard Peltier was jailed for life.

“The people of Pine Ridge have sovereign status as an independent nation,” White Plume said. “I take that to mean I am free to make a living from this land.” So in spite of reportedly stern warnings from Robert Ecoffey, the superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on Pine Ridge, who pointed out that Oglala Sioux sovereignty is limited and does not include the right to violate federal laws, the White Plumes planted an acre and a half of industrial hemp using seeds collected from plants growing wild on the rez. A few days before the crop was due to be harvested, in late August 2000, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the BIA, and the U.S. Marshals Service swarmed the place in helicopters and SUV s and shut down the hemp operation. The crop went feral. “It was an experiment in capitalism and a test of our sovereignty, but it seems the U.S. government doesn’t want to admit that we should have either,” White Plume said. Then he laughed in the way of a man who knows that he cannot be defeated by ordinary disappointments.

After that we spoke of the treaties made and broken between the U.S. and the Sioux, and that led naturally to a conversation about the Black Hills, which the Oglala consider their axis mundi, the center of their spiritual world. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux possession of the hills, but after gold was discovered there in 1874, prospectors swarmed in, and the U.S. government quickly seized the land. The Sioux refused to accept the legitimacy of the seizure and fought the takeover for more than a century. On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an award of $17.5 million for the value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest, together totaling $106 million. But the Sioux rejected the payment, insisting that the Black Hills would never be for sale.

And then White Plume asked me to consider the seemingly calculated insult of Mount Rushmore. “The leaders of the people who have broken every treaty with my people have their faces carved into our most holy place. What is the equivalent? Do you have an equivalent?” I could offer none. Then White Plume, who punctuates his oddly unexcited view of history’s injustices not only with laughter but also with pauses long enough to roll a cigarette, looked up and asked if I had extra time on my hands and extra fuel in my car.

a candlelight vigil for a suicide victim, on Pine Ridge reservation
A candlelight vigil is held to honor 15-year-old suicide victim Dusti Rose Jumping Eagle. The suicide rate for the Oglala on the reservation is more than three times as high as for the U.S. population as a whole. “No matter how young, they know about suicide on the reservation,” says Eileen Janis, a suicide prevention leader.
an Oglala man consuming a can of malt liquor
a man suffering from a neurological disease and alcoholism sleeps on a living room floor

Top: Possessing alcohol or being under its influence is illegal on the Pine Ridge Reservation. But in Whiteclay, Nebraska (population around a dozen), on the reservation boundary, four liquor stores sell some four million cans of potent malt liquor annually. Alcoholism afflicts eight out of ten Oglala families. The tribe has filed suit against beer distributors for knowingly making alcohol so readily available.

Bottom: A young man suffering from the effects of a neurological disease and alcoholism sleeps in the living room of his home, six miles from the nearest town. Since the photograph was made, in May 2011, the house has been condemned, and he and the other occupants have moved elsewhere.

I said I had both, and we drove out onto his cathedral land. Sitting by a cottonwood-lined creek, in a dark pool of shade, we spoke of the ways in which lives are lost on the rez and about the suicide, earlier that summer, of a 15-year-old Oglala Lakota girl. Partly because time is not linear for the Oglala Lakota but rather is expressed in circular endlessness and beginnings, and partly because many can recite the members of their family trees, branch after branch, twig after twig, vines and incidental outgrowths included, it does not seem to me too big a historical step to go from the bodies piled in the snow at Wounded Knee in 1890 to the body of Dusti Rose Jumping Eagle lying in shiny mannequin perfection in an open coffin in a tepee in Billy Mills Hall in the town of Pine Ridge in early July 2011, a scarf draped over her neck to conceal the manner of her suicide.

“The whole Sioux Nation was wounded at that last terrible massacre, and we’ve been suffering ever since. It’s true we have our own ways of healing ourselves from the genocidal wound, but there is just so much historical trauma, so much pain, so much death,” White Plume said, and he would know. There is a flat plateau in the center of his ranch, he told me, where some of the historic Ghost Dances that precipitated the Wounded Knee massacre are supposed to have taken place. Participants in these ritualized spiritual ceremonies danced themselves into an altered state and claimed to have communed easily with their dead, become mentally untethered from the Earth, and touched the morning star. Then there is the unavoidable fact that three of his relatives were killed on that winter day.

In 1890 a bad drought brought more than the usual deprivation to the reduced reservations of the Great Plains. (The Great Sioux Reservation had been chopped up into six smaller reservations.) At the same time, agents of the BIA got jumpy about an upswing in the number of Ghost Dances being performed by the Sioux, who were gathering with increasing desperation and frequency on the open prairie, petitioning for advice and guidance from their ancestors and spirits.

On December 15, 1890, U.S. Indian policemen arrested Sitting Bull in an effort to quell the “messiah craze” of the native ceremonies. The arrest turned unintentionally violent in ways that retrospectively seem inevitable. Sitting Bull was killed, along with seven of his supporters and six of the policemen. Fearing a backlash, another leader, Big Foot, fled south with his band under cover of night to seek asylum with Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Nearly two weeks later, on the morning of December 28, 1890, a nervy U.S. Seventh Cavalry unit found Big Foot’s band at Porcupine Creek and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek. The following morning the cavalry attempted to disarm the Indians. What happened next on that frozen-prairie morning isn’t entirely clear. It is said that a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform a dance, throwing handfuls of dirt in the air. A scuffle ensued, a gun was discharged, the Army opened fire, and by the time the smoke cleared, Big Foot and at least 145 members of his band had been killed (the Oglala argue many more), including 84 men and boys, 44 women, and 18 children. A reported 25 U.S. soldiers also died, some possibly as a result of friendly fire.

Testifying to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in February 1891, the Oglala leader American Horse said of that day, “There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce … Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that was especially a very sad sight … Of course it would have been all right if only the men were killed; we would feel almost grateful for it. But the fact of the killing of the women, and more especially the killing of the young boys and girls who are to go to make up the future strength of the Indian people, is the saddest part of the whole affair and we feel it very sorely.”

Oglala men carrying a cottonwood tree to the center of a Sun Dance circle
With the reverence afforded a sacred being, Oglala men fell a specially chosen cottonwood tree and carry it to the center of a Sun Dance circle. Erected in the earth, the tree will become the focus of a days-long spiritual ceremony. Sun Dances and other traditional ceremonies have undergone a resurgence since the 1970s.
a woman praying beneath a sacred Sun Dance tree
SPIRITUAL WAYSA woman prays beside a sacred Sun Dance tree after the ceremony has ended. During the Sun Dance a medicine man guides certain men in making a solemn offering. They are attached to the ropes by bone pegs piercing their chests or backs and must tear themselves free. The colorful ties on the tree contain tobacco and other offerings and represent prayers for the people and for all of creation.

“They tried extermination, they tried assimilation, they broke every single treaty they ever made with us,” White Plume said. “They took away our horses. They outlawed our language. Our ceremonies were forbidden.” White Plume is insistent about the depth and breadth of the policies and laws by which the U.S. government sought to quash Native Americans, but his delivery is uncomplainingly matter-of-fact. “Our holy leaders had to go underground for nearly a century.” It wasn’t until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, in 1978, that any interference in native spiritual practices was made a crime. “And yet our ceremonies survived, our language survived,” White Plume said.

Buried deep within the pages of the 2010 Defense appropriations bill, signed by President Barack Obama in December 2009, is an official apology “to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” The resolution commends those states “that have begun reconciliation efforts with recognized Indian tribes,” but there is no mention of reparations, nor of honoring long-broken treaties.

White Plume lit one of his rolled-up cigarettes and squinted at me through a ribbon of smoke. “Do you know what saved me from becoming a cold-blooded murderer? My language saved me. There is no way for me to be hateful in my language. It’s such a beautiful, gentle language. It’s so peaceful.” Then White Plume started to speak in Lakota, and there was no denying the words came softly.

nine-year-old Wakinyan Two Bulls placing prayer flags in a tree in Wyoming
Nine-year-old Wakinyan Two Bulls places prayer flags in a tree near Mato Tipila (“bear lodge”), or Devils Tower, in Wyoming. The story of the Oglala—their spirituality and their fight to remedy old wrongs—goes well beyond the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Above us, in an otherwise empty sky, two small clouds touched each other and melted into nothing. White Plume got up and walked toward the creek, and then I heard him exclaim in surprise—“Aha!”—as if greeting someone revered, and deeply known. He had found the cottonwood tree for his Sun Dance ceremony. Although most Pine Ridge traditions are off-limits to outsiders, I gathered that the following would occur: The tree would be brought down by White Plume and some of the men in his family and carried to the Sun Dance grounds with the kind of reverence due a holy being. There it would be fixed with prayer ties—bundles of tobacco and other offerings wrapped with cloth of various colors—and set in a hole in the ground, where it would remain until the following year.

In 1974 White Plume joined the Army and was deployed to Germany. (Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the armed forces.) “The year I left to join the Army, there were only three Sun Dances on the whole reservation,” he said. “Now there are scores.” White Plume still holds his own family and extended family’s Sun Dances in the traditional way. “It’s just us,” he said, in a way that sounded less exclusive than it looks in print. “It’s so beautiful, so spiritual.”

Oglala men and women emerging from a sweat lodge after a ceremony
SPIRITUAL WAYSAfter intense communication with the spirits, participants emerge from a steaming inipi, or purification (sweat) lodge. This ceremony was held by Rick Two Dogs, a medicine man descended from American Horse.

The vigorous resurgence of Sun Dance ceremonies owes much to the passage of the 1978 act but also to the widespread Indian activism that began earnestly in the early 1970s. Now every year during the summer there are more than 50 separate Sun Dances across Pine Ridge, up from the few held in secret decades ago. At each ceremony scores of invited participants dance, meditate, pray, are purified in sweat lodges, and fast for days at a time. Men who are deemed spiritually equipped to withstand this symbolic act of communal self-sacrifice are pierced with bone pegs at the end of ropes tied to the branches of ritually harvested cottonwood trees. They then jerk themselves free, tearing their skin in the process. A mantle of ancient-feeling, sacred humidity settles over the rez.

It says a lot of what you need to know about Alex White Plume that an imperfect yet contagiously optimistic 38-year-old woman named Olowan Thunder Hawk Martinez considers him a mentor. At one time or another, Martinez has been almost everything you might despair of in a person, but she is also an irrepressible spirit and a courageously outspoken, self-appointed youth leader. “You want me to be that drunk Indian woman in the corner?” Like her mentor, Martinez has an unsettling habit of laughing when she is most serious. She laughed now. “I’ve been there, done that. I snapped out of it.”

On the night she heard of Jumping Eagle’s suicide, Martinez said, she could feel the victim’s pain—as if the body of the dying girl had briefly broken its bounds and inhabited her own. “I know why a lot of young girls try to kill themselves on the rez,” Martinez said. “We’re all in constant danger of losing ourselves, losing our identities. It’s a daily struggle for each and every one of us to be fully Lakota. And sometimes we lose the struggle, and then the men take out their feeling of worthlessness on the women, the women take out their feelings of worthlessness on themselves, and everyone takes out their feelings of worthlessness on the children.”

In Martinez’s case, an uncle had molested her when she was six and again when she was ten. “Afterward he used words—he told me I was useless. I remember feeling such a deep pain that nothing and nobody could reach inside to take it away.” Soon after the second defilement Martinez found herself standing alone in the kitchen of her mother’s house. “Just like today, it was hot outside and building up for rain,” Martinez said. “I remember looking down at the kitchen counter and seeing a knife. And suddenly that knife seemed like the only way to cut out every pain inside me. So I picked it up and started to saw through the skin on my wrist.”

As Martinez was telling this story at her kitchen table, there was a rumble out of the sky, as thunderclouds massed—Wakinyan, the Oglala Lakota call them, Thunder Beings. “The sixth time I was trying to cut, the floor beneath me rumbled,” Martinez said. “Wakinyan were speaking to me. They were telling me I had to live. I dropped the knife.”

Stanley Good Voice Elk burning sage in Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Stanley Good Voice Elk, a heyoka, burns sage to ritually purify his surroundings. In Oglala spirituality, heyokas are recipients of sacred visions who employ clownish speech and behavior to provoke spiritual  awareness and “keep balance,” says Good Voice Elk. Through his mask, he channels the power of an inherited spirit, which transforms him into Spider Respects Nothing.

For a moment we sat in the sultry, fly-buzzing silence. She lit a twist of sage, and we took turns wafting the cleansing smoke around our hair. A small commotion erupted outside. Although money is always tight, and Martinez has three children of her own (who are 19, 11, and 5), there is often a posse of unrelated or half-related youngsters hanging around, participants in Martinez’s somewhat haphazard youth-leadership endeavor. Today was no exception. Several boys, ranging in age from 14 on up, were running in circles around her humid, overgrown garden, shooting at each other good-naturedly with pellet guns. One of them had been shot in the rear and was wailing. Martinez laughed and got to her feet. “Oh my warrior youth,” she said. “Let’s find out who did what to who.”

It is perhaps only natural that Martinez, who grew up on the rez in the 1970s and early ’80s, has radical tendencies. “Those were crazy times,” Martinez told me. Unseen people walked at night, heavily armed; houses in the more remote towns were frequently shot at after dark; there were scores of killings. “You can dance words around it, but what was happening back then felt a lot like a war to the people who were in it,” she said. In February 1973, 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a pro-native group that included Martinez’s young parents, occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre to protest broken treaties and corrupt tribal governance. In response the tribal government formed its own private militia—Guardians of the Oglala Nation, they called themselves (GOONs for short)—and along with dozens of National Guard troops and FBI agents, faced down the activists. By the time the siege was over, 71 days later, 130,000 rounds had been fired, and authorities had made more than 1,200 arrests.

Martinez and I were talking about this one late afternoon at the Wounded Knee Cemetery, not far from her house. “I am a direct result of that revolution,” she said. We had spread out in the shade of a tree that also sheltered her father’s grave. Angelo “Angel” Martinez had died in a car crash in 1974, when Martinez was a baby. It is a measure of the esteem he was held in by AIM members that his funeral included an elaborate procession from the village of Porcupine and burial in this highly significant cemetery. “Right here at Wounded Knee,” Martinez said, digging her finger into the ground. “This is where the idea of me happened.”

Oglala horseback riders in Evergreen, South Dakota
teenagers in Wounded Knee, South Dakota

Top: Bareback riders Carey Rouillard (left) and Travis New Holy stop for a neighborly chat in Evergreen. Oglala have a traditional reverence for the horse, which they call sunka wakan, or sacred dog. Evergreen, one resident says, is “a good community. Everybody gets along. Neighbors help out neighbors.”

Bottom: Teenagers disregard the threat of a summer storm in the town of Wounded Knee. On December 29, 1890, at least 146 Indians were killed by the U.S. Army near here. For the Sioux and other Native Americans, Wounded Knee remains a potent symbol—geographically and politically—of historic injustice.

Looking at it head-on, the 1973 siege did not achieve its goals. Broken treaties between the U.S. and the Oglala Sioux remained broken, the tribal government remained as corrupt as ever, and those rebellious days had a long and violent afterlife. Between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation was more than 17 times the national average. But the AIM activists had made two things abidingly and indelibly clear. The U.S. government could never again dismiss Indian people as a bothersome obstacle to an otherwise perfectly executed manifest destiny, and being native, resisting colonization and assimilation was something to which people could proudly dedicate their lives.

One afternoon a few weeks later Martinez and I drove two hours northwest to deliver a birthday cake to a niece by marriage, who had recently been raped on the rez and had fled to a women’s shelter in Rapid City, South Dakota. On the way Martinez pointed out several unmarked state police cars. When I asked her how she could tell, Martinez said, “I can spot a pig a mile off. It’s the way I was raised by my mother.”

It’s true that Victoria Thunder Hawk had presciently prepared her child for jail, because whatever else was up for grabs in Martinez’s future, incarceration was inevitable. “I grew up on marijuana money,” Martinez said. “It’s how my mother took care of us and funded her work in the resistance. So she always used to tell us, ‘Just remember, when they come for you, keep your head up and mouth shut.’” Martinez said the whole rez community seemed to come through their doors to buy marijuana when she was a kid, “teachers, cops, neighbors. I thought everyone smoked.” But Thunder Hawk never got rich on the trade, sharing her profits liberally with the community. Also, she viewed marijuana as a medicine that would allow her people to heal from oppression and to tap into a creative, contemplative frame of mind. By the time Martinez was 30, she had been involved in selling drugs for most of her living memory. “It was just a matter of time,” Martinez said. “You know? You get selfish, you get careless, you get caught.”

By now we had delivered the birthday cake and were driving through Rapid City’s downtown, with its once-we-were-cowboys-and-Indians public art. But as Martinez kept insisting, the past wasn’t neatly done and dusted, as the bronze statues of cowboys would suggest. It was here and now. A day earlier, on August 2, a 22-year-old Indian man originally from the reservation, Daniel Tiger, had shot and killed a police officer in an altercation at a bus stop in the city. Tiger too had been shot and died of his wounds, another officer had died, and another was recovering in a hospital. “White people always say there’s nothing racist about it,” Martinez said. “But that’s because they’re not native. Maybe it’s time we made the boundaries around the rez impenetrable. Keep the Indians in, keep the crackers out. Then we can just get on with it. No more cowboys and Indians.”

Martinez pointed to a stark, square building to her right. “Pennington County Jail,” she said. “That’s where I spent my 11 and a half months in hell.” She looked over at me. “They got me for conspiring to distribute. But I didn’t snitch on anyone. I did my time. Head up, mouth shut, just like my mother told me.”

a passenger crammed into a tightly packed car
A passenger barely has room for the journey home as a car is loaded with used clothing donated by a Colorado-based Native American charity. Contrary to popular myth, Native Americans do not automatically receive a monthly federal check and are not exempt from taxes. The Oglala Lakota and other Sioux tribes have refused a monetary settlement for the U.S.’s illegal seizure of the Black Hills, their spiritual home.

Martinez said the worst part of her died in that jail. “The greedy, selfish Martinez died in those walls. She’s buried there.” She reached over, patted my arm, and laughed. “Don’t you think that’s a good place to bury a colonized Indian ass? In a white man’s jail.” Encouraged to participate in sobriety classes, Martinez was unequivocally clearheaded for the first time in decades. “Then when I was having revelations, when I was feeling the spirits, I knew I wasn’t hallucinating. I started to trust my visions.” Sitting in a windowless cell, Martinez said, she saw her future. “I could see dozens of tepees set up in a meadow and young warriors everywhere, flags and braids and camouflage flying. I was in the middle of them, and my children were with me.” Martinez shut her eyes, and for a moment all the hurt and the fight went out of her face.

In the early spring of 2011 Olowan Thunder Hawk Martinez briefly caught the edge of the vision she had had in jail. For a few weeks in that unkind South Dakota season, she borrowed a tepee and set it up on land she had inherited from her mother, who had died while Martinez was incarcerated. Martinez was not permitted to attend her mother’s funeral. “She died with an outstanding warrant for her arrest hanging over her head, for the same thing that landed my ass in jail,” Martinez said.

By conventional Western mores, Martinez’s vision would seem unambitious to the point of meaninglessness. Still, her mother would have approved of Martinez’s setup on her land. And it’s something Alex White Plume would respect too. “Everything in the U.S. is designed around money,” he had said to me. “So how do we live in that mode—with the white man’s houses, the white man’s pickup, the white man’s currency—and still keep our traditional Lakota culture?”

In the tepee Martinez heated baked beans over an open fire surrounded by her two young daughters, her son, and half a dozen coming and going Oglala Lakota youth. As in her vision, the youngsters were dressed in camouflage, many of them wore their hair in long braids, ribbons were flying. For a few sacred weeks Martinez wasn’t in mold-infested, government-issued housing. She was off the grid. (She can rarely afford her electricity and water bills when she isn’t.) She woke up early and walked out of her tepee and directly into the grace of the morning star, to which she gave her Lakota thanks.

Lenny Jumping Eagle riding in a celebration of the defeat of Colonel Custer
Lenny Jumping Eagle rides in a celebration of the defeat of Colonel Custer in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (the Battle of the Little Bighorn), June 25-26, 1876. Every year dozens of long-distance rides or horse races on and beyond the reservation commemorate great leaders, sacred lands, and historic events.

And outside the tepee, against the restless Great Plains sky, bleak with heavy spring snow clouds, Martinez raised an American flag, union down. According to the Flag Code of the United States of America, the flag should never be displayed union down, except as a signal of dire distress or in instances of extreme danger to life or property. “That’s almost right,” Martinez said. “We’re in dire distress, but we don’t need anyone to come and save the Indian. When we honor our customs, and when we perform ceremonies, and when we listen to our ancestors, then we have everything we need to heal ourselves within ourselves.” Martinez thought for a moment, and then she added, “Write this: When the lights go out for good, my people will still be here. We have our ancient ways. We will remain.”


nationalgeographic.com, “What really happened at Wounded Knee, the site of a historic massacre: In 1890, U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children in an attempt to suppress a religious movement—and were awarded medals of honor for their acts of violence.” By Erin Blakemore; nationalgeographic.com, “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee:After 150 years of broken promises, the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are nurturing their tribal customs, language, and beliefs. A rare, intimate portrait shows their resilience in the face of hardship.” By Alexander Fuller;

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