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The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee

Native America from 1890 to the Present

By David Treuer
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The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee (2019) is a vivid history of Native America since the 1890 massacre at South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Creek. These blinks show that – contrary to popular opinion – in the twentieth century, Native Americans did not slide into obscurity and achieve nothing of note. On the contrary, this was a time filled with momentous and extraordinary events.

Key idea 1 of 8

For many, Native American history ended after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

On December 20, 1890, a group of more than 350 Miniconjou Lakota people left South Dakota's Standing Rock Indian Reservation, headed for the safety of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Miniconjou, a subdivision of the Lakota tribe, were led by their chief, Spotted Elk.

Spotted Elk had decided to uproot his tribe because of tensions in Standing Rock. Earlier that day, police attempted to arrest a Hunkpapa Lakota chief, Sitting Bull. They feared he would stir unrest by promoting the Ghost Dance. This religious dance was believed to have the power to expel the white colonists from the land and return the New World to the Indigineous Americans.

The Lakota were enraged to see their chief forced onto his horse like a common criminal. One man, Catch-the-Bear, loaded his rifle and shot the officer pushing Sitting Bull. In the ensuing fight, eight police officers and eight Lakota were killed. 

Fear of police reprisals against the Native Americans at Standing Rock convinced Spotted Elk to move his people to a different reservation. But, on December 28, part of the US Seventh Cavalry intercepted Spotted Elk’s band and redirected them to a camping spot on Wounded Knee Creek. The next morning, the rest of the Seventh Cavalry arrived and installed four cannons around the Lakota.

Next, soldiers entered the camp to search for weapons. One young Lakota man resisted, and a fight broke out. Five warriors threw off the blankets covering them from the cold, revealing their rifles, and began shooting at the soldiers. The soldiers returned fire, and while the Native Americans fought bravely, they didn’t stand a chance once the cannons roared to life. Women and children fled down the frozen creek, but the cavalry pursued and massacred them. When the fighting was over, 150 Native Americans lay dead. 

Over the next 100 years, Wounded Knee took on huge symbolic importance. Partly thanks to Dee Brown’s influential book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the public came to think of the massacre as the “end” of Native American history and culture – the final victory of the cowboys and European settlers over the Indigenous people. After this, the story goes, Native Americans wasted away in poverty, misery and anonymity on their reservations.

However, despite the best efforts of the US government, Native Americans and their culture haven’t been extinguished. Native American history did not end after Wounded Knee, and these blinks tell the rest of the story.

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