Surviving Wounded Knee
The history of Wounded Knee, though forgotten by many Americans, is very much alive on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the lives of the Lakotas are still defined today by what happened on December 29, 1890. On that cold day, the US 7th Cavalry slaughtered more than 300 Lakotas, most of them women and children. The Wounded Knee massacre is known as the event that brought an end to the nineteenth century “Indian Wars” waged by the US government on the native peoples of North America.
My first trip to the Wounded Knee massacre site was on an evening of bitter cold. Dense clouds hung overhead and the dull gray light appeared lifeless. Snow seemed to fly horizontally, while the wind stung like tiny needles poking just beyond the skin’s surface. As day began to fade, the sun appeared through a break in the clouds. The rays of light burned bright, and a red haze soaked the scene around me. The wind seemed to fall silent, like a dancer suspended in a moment of flight. The crimson sky pulled my gaze west toward the Black Hills, “Paha Sapa”—the land that was at the heart of the war between the Lakotas and the United States.
The Black Hills are the sacred spiritual center for Lakota traditions. In 1868, the US government signed a treaty with the Lakotas, guaranteeing them rights to territory that included the Black Hills. But General Custer discovered gold there in 1874, and soon those hallowed lands were invaded by prospectors eager to strike it rich. The Lakotas fought back, and US forces punished them severely—ultimately forcing all Lakotas onto reservations and subjugating the tribes. Over 100 years later, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lakotas, stating that the terms of the 1868 treaty had been violated and the land taken illegally. The Court awarded the Lakotas a cash settlement, but the tribes refused payment, demanding instead the return of the Black Hills. To date, the legal battle is unresolved.
Just south of the Black Hills, in the poorest region of the United States, is the Pine Ridge Reservation (home to Wounded Knee and the Oglala Lakota). Two out of three people on the reservation live below the federal poverty line. Lakotas suffer from rates dramatically worse than the national averages for life expectancy, disease, addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide. These conditions are the continuing legacy of America’s progress in the West—progress attained without virtue or compassion.
My time on Pine Ridge has cultivated in me a respect for the Oglala Lakota that I cannot express in words. That, I do with my photographs. These are my record of the beauty and hardships I have witnessed there, my feelings about a people whose love for their land and their culture remains remarkably resilient and whose determination to maintain their heritage perseveres more than a century after the bloody events at Wounded Knee.
- Danny Wilcox Frazier