Čhaŋkpé Ópi Owíčhakte Wičhúŋkiksuyapi: We Remember the Wounded Knee Massacre

On December 29, 1890, the United States Army killed 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Frank Waln, an award-winning Lakota music artist from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, discusses the 130th anniversary of the massacre and Native representation in the U.S. education system.

In this op-ed, Frank Waln, an award-winning Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist and music producer from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, discusses the 130th anniversary of Wounded Knee and the erasure of Native histories and stories.

Photo of the Frank Waln, op-ed authorAmerican media outlets and public school curriculums teach U.S. citizens to remember massacres and senseless acts of violence that were carried out on U.S. soil, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11. However, the same educational systems and outlets have all but forgotten about the senseless acts of violence and genocide carried out by the U.S. government.

I grew up within a few hours' drive from one of the largest massacre sites in U.S. history. Most Americans have never heard of it. It has been 130 years since the Wounded Knee Massacre, which took place on December 29, 1890, on colonized Lakota land now known as South Dakota. A photographer documented the aftermath of that day for all of eternity, and I can’t look at the photos of massacred women, children, men, and respected elders piled into a mass grave after being gunned down in the snow. The soldiers who murdered them heartlessly posed next to the bodies as a hunter would with his trophy kill. These service members received Medals of Honor for their participation in the massacre. The photos from that day are in black-and-white but my mind sees them in color as if the unbearable memory is burned into my DNA. What if the photos were never taken? Would the memory only exist amongst my people?

The events leading up to the massacre replay in my mind over and over again, almost as if it’s still happening to us—because in many ways it still is. Under U.S. lawthe Oceti Sakowin, consisting of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, were confined to reservations. These reservations were essentially open-air prison systems created to control every aspect of our daily life as the government colonized our lands for white settlers and westward expansion. Mounting tensions and settler fear of a ceremony called the Ghost Dance resulted in the U.S. government sending troops to the reservations to stop and subdue the rebel groups who were participating in the ceremony.

The Ghost Dance ceremony had been brought to our people by Lakotas who traveled west to the land of the Northern Paiute people (what is now Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and California) where they encountered a Northern Paiute elder and spiritual leader. This leader shared his vision of the Ghost Dance ceremony with us. He said that those who participated in the ceremony and danced would break free from the oppression of the settlers and help end westward expansion and the colonization of our lands.

Even though participants of the ceremony were only dancing and praying, the hope it brought to Lakotas scared the white colonizers. It also scared government officials because the ceremony gave resisting Lakotas a way to organize against settler colonialism. Settler fear was at an all-time high on the reservation and troops were sent to intervene.

During this military occupation, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry surrounded a camp of Lakotas on the Pine Ridge reservation, who were led by an ill Chief Big Foot. The camp had not violated any laws but the settlers were afraid of the Ghost Dance and Lakota resistance. The soldiers circled the camp at gunpoint and forced the occupants to hand over their possessions, including their weapons. A young Lakota man refused to hand over his gun and fired a shot at the soldiers. The troops then opened fire on the unarmed camp at the command of their leaders.

In Luther Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux, he recounts the massacre as told by his brother, who was stationed on a nearby hill and witnessed it all: “The soldiers kept shooting until nothing stirred within the entire camp. Little babies were shot to death right in the carriers strapped to their mothers’ backs.”

Hundreds of women, children, men, and elders, including Chief Big Foot, were murdered with no chance to defend themselves. To deepen the wound, the frozen bodies were then thrown into a mass grave and buried by the same men who slaughtered them, preventing family members from recovering the bodies of their slain relatives. The few who survived fled in the bitter cold and snow to resistance camps off the reservation, leaving behind their beloved and all their worldly possessions.

The Department of the Army called the massacre a “battle." Reporters also failed to mention that these soldiers were killed by their own comrades, who had aimlessly shot across the camp. Public opinion at the time of the massacre was indifferent if not favorable as Americans thought the decimation of Native populations was a necessary action to clear space for the white settlers.

Due to popular anti-Native sentiments in the media, many Americans didn’t believe that Native people were human beings. They saw us as part of nature, existing below the white settler and in the same category as plants and animals. In fact, many Americans believed the U.S. government was protecting them from the wild “savages” of the West depicted in the media and pop culture. Long before I was born, media portrayals of Native people have dehumanized us to a point where our death is framed in a positive light.

The first time that I learned about the Wounded Knee Massacre in the context of the U.S. education system, I was a junior in college. I reluctantly took the course because it was convenient for my schedule and I had to take it in order to graduate. A white man taught the class. The first few weeks of the course covered the “Indian Wars,” including the Wounded Knee Massacre.

[Read: How Native Writers Talk Story: Honoring Authentic Voices in Books for Young People]

During these lessons, the professor would look to me to confirm the accuracy of the material. This happened both figuratively and literally as the entire class would study me to see if I agreed with what the professor said. I’m not a historian; I was enrolled to study audio engineering. However, I had to correct the professor a lot during those first two weeks, which made me resent the class even more. I started to realize that my experience was actually a result of the systematic erasure of Native people in the US education system.

I was paying my hard-earned scholarship money to be in a class where I had to teach my peers about the massacre of my ancestors while the white professor who was paid to teach the material turned to me for answers.

Tragically, many Native students in the U.S. education system know this experience too well. I can say from personal experience this happens everywhere, from elementary school classrooms to the campuses of our most prestigious universities. It is not hard to understand why many Native students struggle to fit into and feel safe in an education system that consistently places us in uncomfortable and often unbearable situations. Imagine if these classrooms didn’t have the brave Native students to correct the colonial propaganda masquerading as history still being taught in 2020?

One-hundred thirty years have passed since the massacre at Wounded Knee. The silence about it in U.S. classrooms and media is as loud as the silence that lingered in the camp after hundreds of innocent human beings were executed in cold blood. The failure to teach students about these events further perpetuates Native genocide and erasure by ensuring the continuation of collective silence.

Thankfully, we now have the individual choice and access to knowledge to teach the truth about the history of the land we live on. After hundreds of years of systematic erasure and silence, Native people have also had to get creative with how we share these truths and histories with classrooms and the world at large.

As a member of Dream Warriors, a collective of Native artists and educators, we’ve developed ways to bring our histories and the reality of Native communities to schools in the form of performances, workshops, and residencies we’ve taken to schools all around the world. For the last 34 years, the Big Foot Memorial Ride, consisting of mostly Oceti Sakowin riders and organizers, retraces the same 187-mile path through the plains that Chief Big Foot’s camp took before they were surrounded and killed. Every year, they ride through the harsh plains winter, the same way our ancestors did, to honor the lives lost and keep the memory alive.

As a Lakota artist and writer, I stand on the shoulders and work of all the Native people who kept our histories and stories alive despite ongoing efforts to silence and erase us throughout history. There have always been and always will be Indigenous-led movements to share our histories and stories with a country that largely remains indifferent if not ignorant to our genocide. Even if America has forgotten about this act of homeland terrorism carried out by its government, I can never forget, even if I wanted to.

Frank Waln is an award-winning Lakota music artist from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As a Gates Millennium Scholar, he received a BA in Audio Arts and Acoustics from Columbia College Chicago. Frank utilizes music, performance, and writing to share his story with communities in order to inspire others to deepen their understanding of how settler colonialism has impacted us all around the world.

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Dawn Johnson

As a Librarian in Southwestern South Dakota, I am always on the look out for native perspective literature. The world produces millions of 'Diversity' books but Native American books are few and far between. I have seen an uptake of publishing of Plains Indians stories, with a more accurate accounting of events, BUT I need current representations of family life and culture. Indigenous People are Doctors, Nurses, Lawyers, Bankers, Policemen, Teachers, Musicians, Actors. Etc., not just forgotten members of society. Luther Standing Bear sought American Citizenship in the 1920's. Native's citizenship law wasn't passed until after WW II. Some of the Big Foot Memorial Rides take place in sub zero blizzard conditions, they are always on horseback or walking. Natives have an honorable heritage that should always be remembered and celebrated .

Posted : Jan 06, 2021 08:16

Оксана Мордовина

Thank you for the article! For sharing your thoughts and knowledge! I am truly sorry that your people have lived through tragic and difficult times for centuries...

Posted : Jan 04, 2021 10:46

Оксана Мордовина

Thank you for the article! For sharing your thoughts and knowledge! I am truly sorry that your people have lived through tragic and difficult times for centuries...

Posted : Jan 04, 2021 10:40

Patience Cox

Thankyou Frank for helping yo keep us alive, despite their best efforts and lifelong goals too completely wipe us out of every book and memory. That's how they can take our land and continue to get away with it. All these generations later no one evens knows why the hate campaign. The people our age are clueless that we ever existed. The genocide is almost complete, They are as we speak trying to ascertain an actual number of us remaining. I cant imagine what they'll do when they decide finally. How they will proceed. We are still being hunted. And no one cares even less know. Thanks for trying to keep us flesh and blood. Please dont stop. GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR WORK, PLEASE FIND THE ONLY PERSON LEFT THAT CAN AND WILL ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS. IF THERE IS SOMEONE.

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 03:59

Roger Martens

Thank you for your story, Frank Waln. What can we do to promote decolonization in ourselves and American society?

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 05:20

Miguel Sandoval

Loved this well illustrated piece of historic tragedy, sadly I've not know about what happened or people so long ago on this day but thankful to SLJ for providing this platform and to Frank Waln for this excellent piece, which allows for such knowledge to be heard.

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 04:11

Miguel Sandoval

Beautifully done and well illustrated piece of a historic tragedy, sadly I've not know this part of our history but proud and thankful for this article and SLJ for providing this platform.

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 04:00

Amanda Munoz

Thank you for spreading the truth and keeping the memory of our ancestors alive

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 01:54

Jasmine Jasmine

Thank you frank ❤️

Posted : Dec 29, 2020 08:00

Nicole Lybarger


Posted : Dec 28, 2020 05:36



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