At the end of last summer my wife and I went on a grand tour of the Midwest, visiting a handful of our most sought-after sights to see. I will be guiding you through those locations, in addition to some others, and my future travels, in a column I will be calling ‘JR’s Wild West’.
In addition to being a fading music geek, a major cinephile and a fledging nerd, I am a history dork. Especially the history of the American West/ Midwest/ Old West. So when I go out and about on road trips I’m sure to find something of interest that ties back to that time period. Being from, and living in, Nebraska doesn’t hurt either.
The first stop on our trip was to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. I could write about what happened here but a) it is pretty well known event and b) websites like Wikipedia and The History Channel have already written it better so why waste time? What I want to share with you is the experience of visiting the location.
Now, let it be said upfront that you do not want to visit Wounded Knee Creek if you are looking for a fun time. There is nothing fun about the location where American soldiers executed an unarmed gathering of oppressed people. You only come to Wounded Knee to see a sad piece of American History and to pay respect to those who were killed.
What I remember most was driving a ways into the middle of nowhere (being from Nebraska, I’m used to this, but it’s not usually normal for ‘site-seeing’, no matter where you are) and despite it being summer, it was a dull, dreary day; with storm clouds looming. Which seemed fitting to me considering the history of our location.
When we got there, we almost missed it, other than a few signs there’s not much there to see except for a few run down buildings. There was a friendly, seemingly stray, dog running around greeting visitors and enjoying the attention. My wife refused the leave the car at first, she doesn’t care about history, and there were visibly bugs out and about.
There’s a big sign that tells of the events of 1890. You can note where ‘MASSACRE’ replaces what used to read ‘BATTLE’ on the sign, an indication of the backward thinking of those who originally erected the sign. There was a local man and his daughter selling dream catchers to the people who visited. They told me they crafted the dream catchers out of local materials: beads, wood, animal sinew. They even pointed out the spot where they get the choke cherry twigs. Being that it was the first day of our trip and we had a week to go I did not spend the cash to get one of these authentic dream catchers, and have regretted it ever since.
The local man was courteous and friendly. I was familiar with the history so asked a few questions about the location and he was happy to oblige me with answers. He pointed out a building across the street. He told me a family member used to own it, and it was a museum for the site until younger members of the community broke in and vandalized it.
The sign, the parking area, and the rest area beside it all overlook the valley and the creek where the massacre happened. I stared out across the open field and down into the trees by the creek. I imagined for a second how everything might have been 126 years prior.
On top of a hill across the road sits a church. Just south of the church is a cemetery. Within that cemetery is the Wounded Knee Monument. The monument, which marks a mass grave, lists the names of those who were killed that day and laid to rest there, surrounded by chain link fence.
At the entrance of this cemetery another local offered to sell me a dream catcher. He told me they needed groceries and pointed to the dilapidated trailers in the distance in which they lived. I’ve been to Denver. I’ve been to Omaha. So I’ve heard sob stories from beggars wanting booze money and I rarely believe them. But these were actual people in poverty, not just begging for money, but offering something in return. I was still in ‘don’t blow all your money yet’ mode so I once again did not buy a dream catcher but I did give them some money. I was on vacation, and although I’m still paying the credit card bill that financed most of the trip, I had enough to spare. These folks were just wanting groceries.
From the top of this hill I could once again look out across the open field to where the massacre occurred. Every part of the history buff in me was enthralled to be here but my heart was heavy with sadness for what had happened here and what continues to happen in the area. I knew I wasn’t personally responsible, but what was I doing to stop what was happening now? What could be done? I had no answers. But at least I was aware.
What: Wounded Knee Massacre Site
Who: Serious History Buffs
Where: Wounded Knee, SD
When: Whenever’s clever
How: You will be driving
Check out nearby: Pine Ridge, Red Cloud’s Grave