From The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, published this month by Riverhead Books. Treuer is Ojibwe and from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.
In 1863, Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk) was born near the banks of the Little Powder River in what would later become Wyoming. His family was an important one: his father was a respected medicine man and they were closely related to the famous war chief Crazy Horse. The world of Black Elk’s youth was an Indian world. But of course his people, the Lakota, had been dealing with—meeting with, trading with, fighting with—white people for centuries. In 1862, one year before Black Elk’s birth, the Dakota in Minnesota had revolted and risen up against encroaching white settlers and corrupt Indian agents in what became known as the Dakota War of 1862. After the rebellion was quelled, thirty-eight Dakota were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history. The world hadn’t held still before Black Elk’s birth, and it would not hold still after. But his world, such as it was, was still a Lakota world, and he and his tribe were its authors.
Black Elk was much like any other Lakota boy at that time. But at age four he began to have visions—uncommonly detailed spiritual visions that came to him at night but also during the day. They scared him, and he spoke of them to no one. Then, when he was nine, as his family was breaking camp, heading west to hunt near the Rocky Mountains, he fell ill. While eating in the tepee in the village his legs were suddenly laced with pain. The next day he was out riding with his friends, and when he jumped off his horse his legs buckled and he fell to the ground. His friends helped him onto his horse and brought him back to the village. His legs and arms were swollen and puffy. He was delirious and feverish. No one knew what to do, and it seemed likely that he would die. A medicine man was sent for, and Black Elk slipped in and out of consciousness.
As his body failed him, he was granted a vision. It was long, ornate, and powerful: the kind of vision most people will never have. In it, Black Elk was shown—by degrees—all of creation and his place in it. He was able to see the past and future of his own people and also the ways in which Indian lives would meet and mix with the American future. As later recounted in Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt, near the end of his vision he stood on a tall mountain and looked down at the world at his feet:
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
And as quickly as his sickness and vision came to him, they began to leave:
When the singing stopped, I was feeling lost and very lonely. Then a Voice above me said: “Look back!” It was a spotted eagle that was hovering over me and spoke. I looked, and where the flaming rainbow tepee, built and roofed with cloud, had been, I saw only the tall rock mountain at the center of the world. I was all alone on a broad plain now with my feet upon the earth, alone but for the spotted eagle guarding me. I could see my people’s village far ahead, and I walked very fast, for I was homesick now. Then I saw my own tepee, and inside I saw my mother and my father bending over a sick boy that was myself. And as I entered the tepee, some one was saying: “The boy is coming to; you had better give him some water.” Then I was sitting up; and I was sad because my mother and my father didn’t seem to know I had been so far away.
Black Elk’s vision had been one of peace and healing, a vision of a world that was one “hoop” made up of smaller hoops: of a nation conceived in liberty and devoted to peace. But more violence was to come. The government chased and harried the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, and other tribes and burned their food and lodges. Meanwhile, in 1876, tribes of the Plains, so long resistant to reservation life, began trickling and then streaming in to agencies and reservations. In 1882, six hundred Lakota and Yanktonai found a big herd of buffalo west of the Standing Rock Reservation. They killed more than five thousand bison. This was the last large hunt of bison by an American Indian tribe. By the 1890s only a few hundred bison remained. The old life was gone.
Black Elk eventually ended up living with his mother near Wounded Knee when on that cold, clear twenty-ninth of December in 1890 the government surrounded Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota at Wounded Knee Creek. Black Elk was not present at the initial assault. He arrived with reinforcements—after the band was surrounded and disarmed, after Black Coyote’s rifle went off, after the soldiers opened up with their Hotchkiss guns and trained their cannons on the men, women, and children running for their lives, down the gully and onto the plain. Armed only with a bow, for which he had no arrows, Black Elk charged the soldiers repeatedly. When they scattered, he helped what Indians he could to safety.
The next day, while riding up White Clay Creek toward another spasm of the fighting that was rippling across the area, Black Elk was shot:
All this time the bullets were buzzing around me and I was not touched. I was not even afraid. It was like being in a dream about shooting. But just as I had reached the very top of the hill, suddenly it was like waking up, and I was afraid. I dropped my arms and quit making the goose cry. Just as I did this, I felt something strike my belt as though some one had hit me there with the back of an ax. I nearly fell out of my saddle, but I managed to hold on, and rode over the hill. An old man by the name of Protector was there, and he ran up and held me, for now I was falling off my horse. I will show you where the bullet struck me sidewise across the belly here (showing a long deep scar on the abdomen). My insides were coming out. Protector tore up a blanket in strips and bound it around me so that my insides would stay in. By now I was crazy to kill, and I said to Protector: “Help me on my horse! Let me go over there. It is a good day to die, so I will go over there!” But Protector said: “No, young nephew! You must not die today. That would be foolish. Your people need you. There may be a better day to die.” He lifted me into my saddle and led my horse away down hill.
Though the fighting was over, life was not. Black Elk married and had a family. He converted to Catholicism and became a catechist at the Catholic church in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Many Indians prefer not to think about Black Elk’s later years and consider his conversion a kind of surrender, a confirmation that the old ways were in fact dead. Maybe, maybe not. Black Elk was determined to live and to adapt. That doesn’t make him less of an Indian, as I see it; it makes him more of one.
There were a few skirmishes after Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Minnesota. But many of the famous chiefs—Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, Bagone-giizhig, Tecumseh, Black Hawk, Cochise, Quanah Parker—were either dead, imprisoned, or had surrendered to a new life. At the time of first contact, around 1500 ce, Indian populations in North America had numbered, according to sober estimates, around 5 million. There were more than five hundred distinct tribes spread over the entire continent—from the Florida Keys to the Aleutian Islands. The deserts of the American Southwest hosted some of the most advanced societies, who built cities that still stand today. At the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi, where St. Louis now stands, was a city of more than twenty thousand. Along the resource-rich eastern seaboard, the coast was populated, without break, from Florida to Newfoundland. But four hundred years of warfare, disease, and starvation had taken its toll. According to the US census, there were only 237,000 Indians in the United States in 1900, a twentieth of the population at its peak.
The story of the land parallels that of the population. The United States comprises 2.3 billion acres. By 1900, Indians controlled only 78 million acres, or about 3 percent. This outcome wasn’t the result of a single regime or episode or factor, and it didn’t happen overnight. But Wounded Knee came to stand in for all of it: the final blow, a full stop to a long sentence of pain and dispossession.
Wounded Knee has been seen not only as the end of Indian life but also as the end of a kind of American life. The frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner posited, had made America what it was. But the frontier was closed, and its memory was already being turned into myth in dime novels, westerns, and Wild West shows. Indians were on the way out, moving from a life in the world to a sort of museum existence. The guns were cleaned and put away, and the dirty work of death by administration and display begun.
But not so fast.
Indians lived on, as more than ghosts, as more than the relics of a once-happy people. We lived on, increasingly invested in and changed by—and in turn doing our best to change—the American character.
It pains me to think about Wounded Knee. What hurts is not just that one hundred and fifty people were cruelly and viciously killed. It is that their sense of life—and our sense of their lives—died with them. We know next to nothing about them. Who among them was funny? Who kicked his dog? Were they unfaithful, or vain, or fond of sweets? They are lost again and again when we paint over them with the tragedy of “the Indian.” In this sense, the victims of Wounded Knee died twice—once at the end of a gun, and again at the end of a pen.
We die, too, in our own minds. And this is perhaps the saddest death of all. We are so used to telling the stories of our lives, and those of our tribes, as a necessarily diminishing line—once we were great, once we ruled everything, and now we rule nothing; now we merely haunt the American mind—that we deprive ourselves of the very life we yearn for. I cannot shake the belief that the ways in which we tell the story of our reality shapes that reality: the manner of telling makes the world. And I worry that if we tell the story of the past as a tragedy we consign ourselves to a tragic future. If we insist on raging against our dependency on the United States and modernity itself, we miss something vital: as much as our past was shaped by the whims and violence of an evolving America, America, in turn, has been shaped by us.
As America emerged from its adolescence in the early 1800s, the question of how the federal government would work with and against the states it united was thrown into doubt by the Indian removals from the Southeast. The modern Supreme Court was shaped by the questions of community and obligation between the government and sovereign Indian nations throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. At Standing Rock, the water protectors reminded us of pressing modern questions that are fundamental not only to Indian struggles but also to our national identity: What, and who, is most important? To what degree does and to what degree should the government privilege private property and corporate interests over the public good? And what, after all, is the public? In order to answer these questions, I think we have to find a new way to think. Black Elk mourned that a dream died in the snow at Wounded
Knee. It is up to us to do the next
thing: to dream a new one.
At the heart of the political convulsions that now grip the country lies a human question: What kind of country do we want to be?
Is this government of ours one that should merely get out of the way so that America can once again be, in Ronald Reagan’s words, a place “in which people can still get rich”? Or is our government meant to be the angel (avenging or otherwise) of our better nature? It has always bothered me that the very idea of paying attention to or knowing Indian history is tinged with the soft compassion of the do-gooder, as a kind of public service, like volunteering at an after-school program. If we treat Indian stories this way, we do more than relegate Indians themselves to history—as mattering only in relation to America’s deep and sometimes dark past. We also miss the full measure of the country itself. If you want to know America—if you want to see it for what it was and what it is—you need to look at Indian history and at the Indian present. If you do, if we all do, we will see that all of the questions posed at the founding of the country have persisted. How do the rights of the many relate to the rights of the few? What is or should be the furthest extent of federal power? How has the relationship between the government and the individual evolved? What are the limits of the executive to execute policy, and to what extent does that matter to us as we go about our daily lives? How do we reconcile the stated ideals of America as a country given to violent acts against communities and individuals? To what degree do we privilege enterprise over people? To what extent does the judiciary shape our understanding of our place as citizens in this country? To what extent should it? What are the limits to the state’s power over the people living within its borders? To ignore the history of Indians in America is to miss how power itself works.
John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1816, urged him to remember that “Power always thinks it has a great Soul, and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak.” If anything, the lives of Indians—our struggles to survive and success in doing so—remind us that our souls have great power. We need to recall the mute agony of the Indian woman, her name lost to history, who was abducted by Columbus, given to Michele da Cuneo, sold, traded, raped, and likely consigned to the sea. We need to remember the strength and dignity of the Otoe chief Medicine Horse, who responded to the federal commissioner trying to take his land in 1873 by saying, “We are not children. We are men. I never thought I would be treated so when I made the treaty.” To remember these stories and all the others is to remain humble in power, and to be called to tend to the troubled soul of the country; it is to remember that our very lives exist at the far side of policy. It is not to capture Indians, per se, but to capture the details of our lives. We are, for better or worse, the body of our republic. And we need to listen to it, to hear—beyond the pain and anger and fear, beyond the decrees and policies and the eddying of public sentiments and resentments, beyond the bombast and rhetoric—the sound (faint at times, stronger at others) of a heartbeat going on.