I stood in front of the monument to those massacred at Wounded Knee in 1898 and tried to read the faded names on the square obelisk inside a chain link fence. The first name was Big Foot; I could read it only because I remember the chief’s name from years ago when I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” A few years later I read the newspaper reports of the stand off at Wounded Knee that marked the beginning of the American Indian Movement. I was alone with my thoughts as I turned from the monument to walk among the graves.
The graveyard reflected the paradox of the Native American experience. Buried beside ancestors massacred by American soldiers were the bodies of those who served in World War II. These graves were filled with bouquets of cut flowers and small American flags hardly moving in the quiet, still air. The carefully carved tombstones commemorated heroes who served to “protect our freedom.” Other graves were decorated with weeds and broken down wooden markers bearing no names. In the distance I heard a female voice.
I turned and saw a dark skinned woman with sleek raven hair shining brightly against the sunlight. She was with a blonde woman and tall man. The couple was from Norway and the Native woman was showing them her ancestors’ graves. “The graves are maintained by the three families of descendants from the massacre at Wounded Knee,” she said. “You can see some of the graves are kept better than others. I can’t believe someone from so far away would come to visit me and be interested in what I have to say. We are poor and have little but our traditions. We do the best we can to honor those people who fought to make our way of life possible. We maintain this site to honor our ancestors – not for profit.”
She then showed the couple three grave sites. One was the grave of an ancestor killed at Wounded Knee. The other two were killed in World War I and World War II. “Three generations of ancestors whom I honor for fighting to make it possible for our culture to continue,” she said. “I will say a prayer and then sing my death song,” she said.
She began the prayer in Sioux. The only word I understood that was repeated several times was Wakantanka – the Lakota word for buffalo and also for Great Spirit. Having taught American history, I knew the buffalo was highly revered by the Lakota and was the basis for the whole economy providing food, clothing and shelter. The massive killing of the buffalo by American bounty hunters had led to the extermination of the Lakota culture. As she continued to pray, she began to mix Lakota with English. Her prayer became more of a description of the sad state of the Native American youth – especially the males.
“Our boys are lost to violent gangs,” she said. “We wonder why young boys have to be molested. No young boys should have to suffer this.” She then returned to the Sioux language and started to sing – or chant – a mournful song. The three of us with her started to cry even though we didn’t know the words. When the song ended, no one had anything to say. The lady from Norway stroked the lady’s arm and tried to comfort her. I thanked her for letting me listen and walked silently away my mind numb. I got into my car and began the drive through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. What could be done to help? I wondered. I remembered a sign I had seen on the visitor’s center information board when I first entered South Dakota. The sign encouraged visitors to support the local economy as we traveled through the state. I remembered watching an NBC special about the Pine Ridge Reservation and seeing something about the sale of buffalo jerky and other buffalo products. I had a sudden inspiration.
What if the boys who were into gang activity could be recruited into “gangs” of traditional buffalo hunters? They could learn to ride and shoot the bow and arrow again and slaughter the buffalo used in the production of jerky and other products. Not only would this provide jobs and monetary resources, this seems to be one way to restore the cultural ties of the Lakota to their way of life that was destroyed in the 19th Century. The traditions and stories need to be revived if the Lakota are to become strong once more. When the roots of a culture are destroyed, the culture withers away. I hope the Lakota people will stand tall and proud once more and reconnect with the Great Spirit that will lead them to a sustainable and joyful way of life.