Interpretations of Wounded Knee 2015

Author: Tim Hoheisel, HMA Cultural

Wounded Knee 1890

On December 28, 1890, Miniconjou Chief Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot) and his band of around 350 Lakota Sioux, 230 of whom were women and children, surrendered to United States troops near Wounded Knee Creek in southern South Dakota.  Fearful for their own safety after Sitting Bull was killed less than two weeks earlier on December 15, Spotted Elk and his people fled the Cheyenne River Reservation and traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to seek shelter with Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud.  

While attempting to disarm the Indians on December 29, a skirmish broke out and the 500 U.S. Army troops surrounding the Lakota, a detachment of the 7th Cavalry Regiment that was at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, began firing at the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa with Hotchkiss guns.  In a matter of minutes more than 150 Lakota were killed.  For several hours after the first barrage, soldiers rode around the area on horses hunting down and killing injured and fleeing Lakota who were seeking shelter from the gunfire.  No one knows the true death toll but some historians put it as high as 300.  The brazen massacre became known as the last “battle” of the Indian wars of the nineteenth century that began with the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which coincidentally involved Dakota Sioux Indians. 

Oglala Lakota Black Elk was 27 at the time of the Wounded Knee massacre.  He recounted the incident many years later, “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.”

Today, December 29th, 2015, marks the 125 anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota.  History can be brutal and horrific.  We have many examples of similar massacres and blatant injustices in our history.  We must not forget them, no matter how terrible.  We must remember the victims and the perpetrators.  We must fight our urge to look away and confront our history head on.  As Elie Wiesel said of the Holocaust, “I believe that a person who is indifferent to the suffering of others is complicit in the crime.”  As we look back 125 years today, we must not be complicit.  We must engage the true history of our nation and crimes of our ancestors. 

Ghost dancers on the Great Plains

Ghost dancers on the Great Plains

I have been a historian and museum professional for 20 years.  I have installed dozens of exhibits, conducted dozens of programs, given hundreds of presentations and lectures, and collaborated with many wonderful people and organizations over the years.  Most of the time when we install an exhibit or conduct an event at a museum we move on to the next one when it is completed.  What we do in museums is important.  It holds great educational value.  Children get exposed to history or art in a unique and memorable way.  Patrons see and interact with objects that they can’t see anywhere else.  To have that kind of impact on people makes us feel good.  We get a lot of job satisfaction from doing something unique and special.  It is a fulfilling profession. 

It is rare, though, when something that we do at a museum has a measurably larger effect on participants, our communities, and historical discourse.  When something that we do transcends the ordinary museum experience it is truly special.  It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen it is more than memorable and worth talking about, even years later.

44th Annual Dakota Conference

I was fortunate to have been the coordinator and curator of one of those rare events.  Well before the event itself, I knew that it had potential to be extraordinary.  In 2011 I had the chance to do something exceptional and I jumped at the opportunity.  I am talking about the 44th Annual Dakota Conference, “Wounded Knee 1973: Forty Years Later,” held April 27 and 28, 2012, and the accompanying art exhibition, “Interpretations of Wounded Knee 1890 and 1973,” which was on display at the Center for Western Studies from March 4 through May 25, 2012. 

As the Director of Outreach and Promotion at the CWS, I had many responsibilities.  Two of those were coordinating art shows in the galleries and coordinating the annual Dakota Conference.  In 2010, I presented a paper at the 42nd Annual Dakota Conference entitled “Interpretations of Wounded Knee.”  It was an examination of the historiography of the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation; how scholars and others wrote about and remembered the event.  Soon after that conference was concluded I proposed holding an entire conference dedicated to the 1973 occupation, the 1890 massacre, and American Indian history and culture in general. 

Planning for the 2012 conference began in earnest even before the 2011 conference.  To start, we initially planned the conference to take place a year before the actual 40th anniversary, which occurred in 2013.  Out of respect, we did not want to hold our event at the same time that solemn remembrances were being held at Wounded Knee. 

We knew that this conference had the potential to be controversial.  We didn’t set out to answer any remaining questions that still lingered or try to solve any problems of the respective historical eras.  That would be futile not to mention arrogant.  We simply wanted to provide a platform for discussion and debate.  Some of the issues that precipitated the 1890 massacre were still the same in 1973—and still remained in 2012.  Planning for a conference of this nature required great diplomacy and attention to detail. 

Despite growing awareness of American Indian issues, history, and culture in South Dakota schools, the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation and siege is still overlooked.  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee remains in print and on college and university syllabi across the state and the nation.  The 1890 Wounded Knee massacre receives more attention in history courses and is more well known than the 1973 event.  Perhaps the 1973 Wounded Knee event is still too recent to be history for some people.  Many of the participants, from both sides, are still living and a sense of animosity between them still exists.  The occupation/siege was a watershed event that spurred a cultural renaissance among many American Indians. 

The conference was organized over two days with 24 total sessions and nearly 90 presenters giving talks on a variety of subjects.  About half of those presenters addressed either the 1890 or the 1973 incidents.  From the outset, the conference drew national attention.  Some of the presenters included: Stew Magnuson, author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder; Kevin McKiernan, a reporter inside Wounded Knee in 1973; scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn who presented a paper on dissent in Indian country; Ann Tweedy, a Hamline Law School professor who works with reservations and tribal jurisdiction; and Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian who gave a presentation on Ghost Dance artifacts at the Smithsonian.  University of South Dakota professor Elizabeth Castle coordinated a panel session on women in AIM that included Marcella Gilbert and Madonna Thunder Hawk and the women of AIM.  David Gienapp, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the 1970s who helped prosecute some of the cases resulting from the 1973 event presented his perspective as did Joseph Trimbach, who was the FBI Special Agent in charge at Wounded Knee in 1973.  Trimbach coordinated a panel that included Paul DeMain, the publisher of News from Indian Country, and Denise Maloney, the daughter of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash.  We also screened four documentary films at the conference including a new film on the life of Dennis Banks and the history of AIM.  Other participants at Wounded Knee 1973 also making presentations at the conference include Senator James Abourezk, AIM co-founders Ojibwe Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks, as well as a special plenary presentation by national AIM activist Oglala Lakota Russell Means. 

Wounded Knee Art

While planning the conference, I had the idea to do a collaborative art show of all new work.  At a conference, participants usually stand behind a podium and read a paper, present some new research, or engage in a panel discussion.  A conference about events like the ones we were going to discuss had limitations.  An art show provided the opportunity to examine the 1890 and 1973 events visually. 

There was a lot of film footage and thousands of photographs from the 1973 occupation, but few photos existed from the 1890 massacre.  Fewer images remain the farther away in time we get from a historical event.  As the curator of the art exhibition I wanted artists to examine either, or both, historical events from the perspective of the present.  An art show about Wounded Knee 1890 and 1973 exhibited in 2012 is a snapshot, an interpretation frozen in time.  If the art show would have been done in 2002 or 2022, the images surely would be different.  The question I was asking was how do we now see the events, 40 years after the occupation and 122 years after the massacre. 

In late summer of 2011, we sent out a call for art to local and regional artists asking them to produce a new piece for the exhibition.  The 1890 massacre remains a prominent event in the history of the Lakota and the 1973 occupation generates a great deal of emotion as well.  We asked artists, Indian and non-Indian alike, for their interpretation of the events.  Coordinating an art exhibition in conjunction with the conference added another level of analysis and understanding.  It also strengthened the interdisciplinary nature of the Dakota Conference. 

The art that we received was indeed powerful.  A total of 22 artists submitted 28 pieces of work for the show.  Curating an art exhibition about Wounded Knee 1973 and 1890 meant we had to walk a fine line between culturally sensitive and controversial subject matter.  There were many images of skeletons, bullet riddled bodies, mass graves, images of death and destruction in the art.  The exhibition was powerful, emotional, raw, compelling, devastating, and sad.  It is not a show that puts a smile on visitors’ faces as they leave but it is a show that they will never forget.  The horror of the 1890 massacre in particular is seen through the years of history by the eyes of artists.  All of the artwork in the exhibition is truly amazing but some artists and individual images merit more description. 

Randall Blaze, an Oglala Lakota from Buffalo Gap, submitted a mixed media piece entitled Phoenix Rising.  The central image of the work is based on one of the oldest images of a thunderbird in the Smithsonian archives.  He writes:

To me it represents the essence of native design and artwork.  In this respect, it symbolizes the continuity of culture in the face of adversity and despair.  I draw inspiration from ancestral designs which address the essence of my existence.  My primal drive is for unity within the orbit of the sun and the moon and stars.  Within my visual journey, I seek to pay homage to my ancestors.  I help record and integrate visual elements of the Lakota tradition into the contemporary mainstream of the world around me.

Randall Blaze,  Phoenix Rising

Randall Blaze, Phoenix Rising

Another moving piece is entitled Medal of Dis-Honor by Oglala Lakota artist Kevin Pouirer.  In his artist statement he writes:

Sickened, saddened, disgusted, angry—as a Lakota person this is how I feel when I think of the U.S. Government when it awarded twenty medals of honor to their soldiers for the wholesale slaughter of my ancestors.  As an artist, I can speak out about this and many more injustices that indigenous peoples from around the world have had happen to them.  My work usually addresses issues surrounding behaviors that people don’t want to deal with: racism, identity, injustices, taking of land, and stealing of culture.  In creating art like this I hope to bring about discussion, education, dialog, and healing.  After all, isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

Medal of Dis-Honor is a carved buffalo horn spoon, inlayed with gold mother of pearl.  The blue is inlayed lapis and the white stars above the medal is inlayed mother of pearl covered with dripping blood—pipestone, the blood of the People. 

Kevin Pouirer,  Medal of Dis-Honor

Kevin Pouirer, Medal of Dis-Honor

One of the most striking images in the show is, I La Lin Kte Lo, an acrylic on canvas diptych by Oglala Lakota artist Gerald Cournoyer that was 12’ wide.  The translation of the title is, “You are leaving now,” and it is part of a song that is sung when someone in the tribe passes. 

I la lin kte lo (You are leaving now; your spirit is leaving)
I la lin kte lo
I la lin kte lo hey hoy
Aka win ga i lu stan pi na (You finished your circle; your life circle)
I la lin kte lo

Cournoyer, an art professor at Oglala Lakota College writes in his statement:

The painting I submitted for the show and the song go together.  Nobody sung for the people who lost their lives that cold day in December 1890.  The ravens that are throughout the painting represent the Medals of Honor given to the U.S. soldiers.  Ravens are a messenger, scavenger, adapter to their environment.  When the Ghost Dancers went into their trance-like state, the raven came to them, giving messages to the people, telling them of coming events, relaying messages from their deceased relatives. The eyes represent the “witness” to what has happened.   There are songs that have been composed specifically for the Ghost Dance that reference the raven communicating messages from deceased relatives.

The large non-figurative expanses of color and form offer the viewer an opportunity to explore the depth of stimulating color.  The use of color in my paintings is similar to the traditional spirituality of family history.  In accordance with Lakota perspective, the repetition of song and prayer brings our people closer to the supernatural beings, which guide us throughout our lives.  In the paintings, I transmit the importance of repetition in my compositions to induce a trance-like state in the viewer, bringing the soul closer to this particular enlightenment. 

As an artist, I strive to bridge the gap between traditional Lakota art and contemporary movements by incorporating traditional symbols in a contemporary fashion.    

Gerald Cournoyer,  I La Lin Kte Lo

Gerald Cournoyer, I La Lin Kte Lo

A mixed-media piece entitled Archive submitted by Ihanktowan Nakota Sioux artist Jerry Fogg (Wanagi Tatanka) is loaded with cultural meaning.  Fogg writes,

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 is shown with the names of the dead and wounded on each side of the piece.  In the center there is a hoop, which is broken, to show the end of a people’s lifestyle and freedom of choice.  Inside the hoop is Spotted Elk (Big Foot) frozen in the winter cold.  Several metal pins representing the 7th Calvary, along with blackened arrowheads, surround the lodge of Spotted Elk, who flew a white flag of truce at the time of the massacre.  On the edge of the hoop is a small pair of moccasins with a hair plume in honor of all the children massacred.  Along the center of this piece are U.S. military pins atop a snake skin representing the women who were running from the gunfire yelling “There’s a snake in the snow we cannot see,” the snake being the U.S. Cavalry soldiers. 

Along the bottom of the frame are thirty-eight 1890 Indian head pennies that I’ve included to honor the Dakota warriors who were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, in the winter of 1862.  A Morgan silver dollar from 1890 is centered to give attention to a dreadful time that should never be forgotten or repeated.  

Jerry Fogg,  Archive

Jerry Fogg, Archive

Despite the graphic nature of some of the paintings, the art exhibition was a tremendous success.  Tour groups and students from schools around the area came to see the exhibition.  Augustana University professors from several different disciplines used the art exhibition in their courses to teach everything from writing to social justice. 

Lasting Impact

As a museum professional, not just the conference coordinator and art show curator, the conference and exhibition were overwhelming.  With more than 450 people in attendance, the conference was the largest one ever held at Augustana.  The art show is still being talked about today, almost four years later.  We were not aware of any other gallery creating an exhibit or organization conducting a conference, or any other type of event, recognizing the anniversary of the 1973 Wounded Knee incident. Visitors to our gallery as well as artists in the show all have praised the Center for engaging the subject with professionalism and respect. 

Our event truly was special. It was so unique that C-Span sent a team to the conference to record the keynote presentation by Russell Means. The recording can be viewed by visiting the C-Span website here. Means died in six months after the conference in October 2012. His presentation at our conference was his last major public appearance. 

One of the conference presenters, Stew Magnuson, a free-lance journalist, was so moved by the conference that he wrote a book about it.  Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past, was published in 2013, less than a year after the conference.  In 2014, conference presenter and journalist inside Wounded Knee in 1973 Kevin McKiernan, released a documentary film about Wounded Knee using footage from the conference.  Just last month, South Dakota Magazine released its November/December 2015 issue, which was all about Wounded Knee 1890.  The cover story was featured art from the exhibition and included many images from our show.

Go out and and get a copy of South Dakota Magazine and read the articles.  Get a copy of Stew Magnuson's book.  Read about the history of Wounded Knee 1890 and 1973.  Keep the historical memory alive.  Don't let it disappear.  It is something we should never forget. 

Once in a while we get to be a part of something that is much bigger than ourselves.  The highlight of my career to this point was coordinating the 2012 Dakota Conference and art show.  As a historian, I thought that I knew a lot about both the 1890 massacre and the 1973 occupation in 2012.  I got an education coordinating these two events.  It was a sobering and humbling to work with Oglala Lakota who had ancestors killed in 1890.  And it was a privilege to talk to people who had been at Wounded Knee in 1973.  Seeing the images and hearing the passion still strong in the voices of participants in the 1973 event was incredible. 

It is a good reminder that history is sometimes messy.  All we know about historical events are the traces left to us in the present.  It is up to us to make interpretations based on that evidence.  In his novel Waterland, British author Graham Swift writes, “history is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge…by forever attempting to explain, we may come not to an Explanation but to a knowledge of the limits of our power to explain.  We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson.” 


I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmédy.
I shall not be there.  I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

From American Names, by Stephen Vincent Benét


Below are clickable links to websites, documents, and photographs from the conference, art show, and both the 1890 and 1973 events. 

Interpretations of Wounded Knee Call for Art

Interpretations of Wounded Knee Press Release

Wounded Knee 1973: Forty Years Later Conference Program

Wounded Knee 1973: Forty Years Later Russell Means Presentation on CSPAN

Wounded Knee 1973: Forty Years Later Conference Papers

Book written about the conference, Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past, February 2013

Documentary film about Wounded Knee 1973 by Kevin McKeirnan, using footage from the conference, November 2014

Film trailer

South Dakota Magazine cover story, Wounded Knee 125 Years Later, November 2015

Historic photos from 1890

High quality images from both events

For further reading:

Banks, Dennis and Richard Erdoes.  Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American
Indian Movement.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. 

Brown, Dee.  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.  New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1991.

Clow, Richmond L.  The Sioux in South Dakota History: A Twentieth-Century Reader.  Pierre, SD: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2007. 

Dewing, Rolland.  Wounded Knee II.  Chadron, NE: Great Plains Network, 1995.

Flood, Renee Sansom.  Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota.  New York: Scribner, 2014. 

Greene, Jerome.  American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. 

Grua, David W.  Surviving Wounded Knee: The Lakotas and the Politics of Memory.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 

Magnuson, Stew.  The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns.  Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2010. 

Magnuson, Stew.  Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past.  Arlington, VA: Courtbridge Publishing, 2013. 

Matthiessen, Peter.  In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.  New York: Viking, 1991. 

Means, Russell and Marvin J. Wolf.  Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means.  New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.

Ostler, Jeffrey.  The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Richardson, Heather Cox.  Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre.  New York: Basic Books, 2010. 

 Sayer, John William.  Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 

Trimbach, Joseph H. and John M. Trimbach.  American Indian Mafia: An FBI Agent’s True Story about Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, and the American Indian Movement (AIM).  Parker, CO: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2007. 

Utley, Robert M.  The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. 

Wilson, James.  The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.