One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing people older than I talking about going to the church or the funeral home because they wanted to “pay their respects”. Usually, that phrase was preceded or followed by something like, “It’s the least we can do.”
That phrase was always curious to me. I knew what it meant to pay for a ticket to see a movie, or to pay the piper when I’d been caught misbehaving, but the idea of “respect” was so amorphous that the entire enterprise seemed so vague to me. And why would it matter if it was your “least”, anyway?
I was, in many ways, a difficult child.
If you’ve known me long, you know that I’ve matured into a difficult adult. Which is why I asked my wife to celebrate my 59thbirthday by accompanying me in a rental vehicle down some of the most mind-numbingly jarring dirt roads that Western South Dakota has to offer. I was looking to pay my respects.
In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to walk with many of our young people on Mission Service trips with the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. As these pilgrimages have taken place, they’ve affected me deeply; in seeking to help the young people hear stories that are “other”, I find myself listening keenly and eagerly. In North Carolina we learned of “the Trail of Tears”; in New York we heard from those whose land had been taken from them for the construction of the Kinzua Dam in my own state. But for years, I’d heard snippets about what happened in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and this Sabbatical gave me the chance to explore.
Here’s a short version: in the late 1800’s, it was clear that the Native Americans were getting put onto smaller and smaller pieces of less and less desirable land all across the nation. A previous post discusses the events of Little Big Horn/Greasy Grass in 1876. By the late 1880’s, most of the Lakota/Sioux people were crowded into a tiny percentage of the land that they’d been promised by earlier treaties. Many of these people began following a prophet called Wokova, who taught a form of worship called “the Ghost Dance”. This was an entirely peaceful dance, but it was tremendously unnerving to the whites. The local press, along with the military and settlers, began to talk about it as a dance that would lead to an uprising and a slaughter of the whites.
As the US Army gets more and more nervous, the local Reservation Agent decides that one way to quell any thought of rebellion would be to arrest Chief Sitting Bull and exile him to the Dry Tortugas Islands off Florida. However, when his men go to do this, they wind up killing not only Sitting Bull, but his teenage sons and six other Sioux. Six of the Reservation Police are also killed.
A few days later, Chief Big Foot learns of Sitting Bull’s murder, and decides to turn himself in to the US Army at Fort Bennet. Before they can get there, however, they are intercepted by the US Army. At this point, Big Foot is likely dying of pneumonia and is carrying a white flag of truce. The Seventh Cavalry surrounds his band, and orders them to encamp at the Pine Ridge Reservation. On December 29, 1890, the cavalry troops, including mounted cannon, surround the Indian encampment. At dawn that day, the Lakota men are ordered to surrender any weapons – and the camp is searched not only so that guns are taken, but knitting needles, awls, and more. Apparently, one Lakota – a deaf man – doesn’t want to give up the rifle he paid so much for – and in the struggle, a shot rings out. When that happens, the worst occurs.
The US Army refers to what happened next as “The Battle of Wounded Knee”. The Lakota call it “The Massacre of Big Foot”. The results are the same: once the big Hotchkiss cannons are employed, within ten minutes most of the Lakota men are killed. Indians are fleeing every which way. The US Cavalry hunts them down, chasing people as far as three miles – shooting men, women, children, and even infants at close range.
Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, Commanding General of the Department of the Missouri, would say,
“Wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee. About two hundred women and children were killed and wounded; women with little children on their backs, and small children powder-burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babies with five bullet holes through them…”
Mario Gonzales, a Lakota author and lawyer wrote in 1980,
“What I mean to say about the Laramie Treaty of 1868 is that it was a treaty for the cession of Lakota territory…What I say about the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 is that it was a crime against humanity for which the United States must be indicted.”
I couldn’t do anything about what happened in 1890. But it was only two years before my grandfather was born. It’s within the realm of my imagination. I know, or have known, people who were alive in the 1890s. Whereas most of the “cowboys and Indians” play of my childhood was related to some distant imagining of an impossibly far-off past, 1890 does not seem so terribly remote.
I am saddened by what happened. I’d change it if I could. I wish that folks were not rounded up and sent to their death by relentless gunfire, misunderstood cultural beliefs, and simple arrogance. But, as I’ve mentioned before, it happens. It happens far too often.
So today I went to pay my respects. It wasn’t the least I could do. It was ALL I could do. And as I sat and looked at yet another mass grave, I remembered the words of the prophets:
The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.
I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (Habakkuk 1 and 2, excerpts)
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21)
So that’s how I spent my birthday, and my wife has loved me long enough and well enough to follow me into some of these places. I paid my respects. It was all I could do.
Except for telling you. If you didn’t know this story, you do now.
There’s a post-script here – and I may invite you to join me in taking a symbolic step of action. Nearly twenty US Soldiers received The Medal of Honor – the highest military award our nation can offer – for their actions on December 29, 1890. Some of the Lakota people have begun a petition calling for those medals to be rescinded in an effort to not only recognize this atrocity for what it was, but to make sure that those who have received it since are recognized as true heroes. You can learn more about this petition by clicking here.