By DAVID DETMOLD
BARRE, MA – (this article first appeared in the Montague Reporter; 4/7/22)
A famous photograph of the Miniconjou Lakota Chief Spotted Elk’s body lying twisted in the snow at Wounded Knee shows him with a cloth wrapped around his head.
George Trager took the photograph, one among a series of albumen prints he made in the aftermath of the massacre that took place in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. Trager sold those photos to soldiers, newspaper editors, and tourists along with artifacts scavenged from the bodies of the dead.
Chief Henry Red Cloud, the great-great-grandson of the famous Oglala war chief who had invited Spotted Elk to take refuge with him on Pine Ridge in 1890, traveled from South Dakota on Wednesday, April 6, to view and reclaim for the Lakota some of the objects and human remains stripped from the bodies of his slain kindred at Wounded Knee that are kept at the Woods Memorial Library in Barre, Massachusetts. They have been on display there for the past 130 years.
Chief Henry Red Cloud, who is also descended from a survivor of the massacre, told the story of how the corpse of Spotted Elk came to have a blanket wrapped around his head in that searing image.
“You’ll see a cloth draped over his head,” he said. “Before they took the photo, while he laid there dead in the snow, they cut his hair. They scalped him… and took that as a souvenir. Before they took the photo they covered it with a cloth. That [scalp lock] ended up over in Barre.”
In 1999, a descendant of Spotted Elk named Leonard Little Finger came to Barre and retrieved his great-great-grandfather’s scalp, which he brought back to South Dakota for a “Releasing of the Spirit” ceremony.
But Chief Red Cloud, at an afternoon press conference held at the Barre town hall, speaking to a crowd of more than 120 people who had turned out to support the Lakotas’ repatriation claims for the Wounded Knee artifacts, said he estimated that more than 100 items – including more human remains – are still kept on display in the small, privately held museum upstairs at the Barre library.
Robbing the Dead
How these objects – beaded moccasins, children’s dolls, a Ghost Dance shirt with a bullet hole in the sternum, turtle-shaped amulets known as cekpognaka which contain umbilical cords, sacred pipes carved in the shape of what the Lakota believe to be the original pipe given to them by the White Buffalo Calf Woman in time immemorial – came to be housed in a locked collection in the upper floor of the Woods Memorial Library in Barre, 1727 miles away from the killing field in Wounded Knee, is a story that has perhaps grown in the telling over these past 132 years.
But the general outline of events, from sources as disparate as the New York Times and Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke, tells a story of entrepreneurial grave-robbing that took place even before the frozen bodies of hundreds of slain Lakota men, women, and children were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave the army had dug into a hillside just north of the killing field.
That was the same hillside where the 7th Cavalry mounted four Hotchkiss mountain guns on that bitterly cold morning in 1890, and began lobbing 50-pound exploding shells at a rate of two per minute into the melee below.
There, on the open field, Spotted Elk’s band of some 300 Miniconjou, mostly women and children, were camped under a white flag of truce. With them were 38 Hunkpapa Lakota who had fled south from Bull Head to join the Miniconjou after the assassination of Tatanka Iayatoke / Sitting Bull on December 15.
Together they had journeyed over 250 miles from Takini, on Cherry Creek, at the confluence of the south branch of the Cheyenne River, through the Badlands in bitter winter weather, before finally encountering and surrendering to Major Samuel Whitside and his troops at Porcupine, five miles north of Wounded Knee, on December 28.
Whitside treated Spotted Elk for severe pneumonia – the aging chief was coughing blood from his lungs – before force-marching the entire band to Wounded Knee, where more troops under Colonel James Forsyth disarmed and surrounded them on three sides of the field.
With a nearly circular line of fire, and the Hotchkiss guns raining down shells indiscriminately, the 7th Cavalry lost 31 men, primarily to friendly fire, in the process of slaughtering approximately 300 Lakota men, women, and children.
Following the three-day blizzard that descended on Wounded Knee on the evening of the massacre, the army hired local ranchers to gather up the corpses that lay strewn about the killing field and piled against the banks of the crooked ravine of Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála, Wounded Knee Creek. Mounted troopers had pursued survivors of the initial onslaught miles onto the plain, leaving bodies scattered to the south and east.
According to Mark Hirsch, an historian working for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, prior to interring the bodies of the Lakota in the mass grave, looters stripped the bodies of their possessions, which they then sold to collectors and museums. Before the bodies were gathered, he wrote, “Photographers canvassed the corpse-ridden fields, and sold their photos as postcards. Advertisements said they were ‘Just the thing to send to your friends back East.’”
Winona LaDuke, in her 2016 book Recovering the Sacred, quotes renowned Lakota journalist Avis Little Eagle on the aftermath of the massacre:
“Cavalry vultures circling around the people they had just murdered, stealing their finest possessions, going as far as cutting off the foot of a murdered infant, for its beautiful handmade moccasin. Such ghoulish items as skeletal remains, scalps and clothing stripped from bodies that lay on icy killing fields of Wounded Knee are on display for curious gawkers at museums and historical societies across the country.”
Largest Known Collection of Wounded Knee Artifacts
The New York Times reported in 1993 that the cache of items scavenged from the killing field at Wounded Knee and donated to the Barre Library Association was “the largest single group of artifacts known to exist from the incident at Wounded Knee.”
The Times continued: “The donor, Frank Root, is said to have bought many of the items from a contractor in charge of clearing the killing field….”
Frank Root was a “farm boy from a local Barre family,” as one member of the Library Association described him on Wednesday. He purchased the Wounded Knee artifacts and took them on tour as curiosities in Boston and other Eastern cities, before donating them to the Library Association in his home town in either 1892 or 1893, just a year or two after the massacre.
But no one catalogued the donated items at the time. Now, 130 years later, there is confusion as to which items in the Woods Memorial Library came from Wounded Knee.
The collection, housed in locked wooden cabinets in a narrow, poorly lit room on the second floor of the 135-year old building, is displayed hodgepodge among collections of stuffed birds, minerals, old coins, and other artifacts of varying epochs and provenance.
The board of the Barre Library Association on Wednesday unanimously expressed willingness to return Wounded Knee artifacts to their tribes of origin. Library Association president Ann Meilus shared that her own ancestors had “come from a place where we also suffered a horrible tragedy.” She said her grandparents escaped from massacres at the hands of the Cossacks.
Manny Iron Hawk, a descendant of a survivor of Wounded Knee, drew parallels with the mass graves being discovered now in Ukraine, and asked when humanity would learn the lessons of Wounded Knee.
“We come here with a good heart,” said Iron Hawk, a descendant of Ghost Horse, who died at Wounded Knee, “to start the process of repatriation. There are some items in there definitely of Northern Plains Lakota tribal origins. The pipes need to be returned; they are carved in the image of the original one given by the White Buffalo Calf Woman to our people. The descendants of survivors of Wounded Knee are adamant on returning everything that originated at the Wounded Knee Massacre.”
A Spiritual Journey
At a sage smudging ceremony Chief Red Cloud conducted for supporters from many Native Nations who had gathered in front of the library’s southeast entrance, where, by noon, news of the Barre Library Association’s willingness to return Wounded Knee artifacts from their collection had already spread, he talked of the spiritual significance of his journey.
“The spirits that have been held here for so many years are hoping they’re going to be able to go home and have a ceremony of release. It’s been a fight to retrieve these items. Today our spirits sing because these items will be returned.”
After viewing the collection, Chief Red Cloud told the Association board members, seated around a table in an adjoining room where a simple meal had been provided, “I represent 58,000 people,” of the Oglala Nation, who had given him a bonnet and the title of chief in 2020. “I didn’t expect you to pack up this stuff today. This has been ongoing for 130 years. I represent the Oglala Sioux tribe: cousins and aunties who are direct descendents of survivors of the massacre, nephews and nieces. We hope this meeting is the beginning of a formal process of repatriation. We cannot change the past. We can embrace it. Then we can work together as human beings to make a better future.”
However, Barre Library Association president Meilus said only six items in the collection are clearly labeled as deriving from Wounded Knee, and she cast doubt on the ease with which even these few items’ tribal origins could be determined.
The 1990 Native American Graves Repatriation Act requires any institution that receives federal funds to adhere to the federal law requiring the repatriation Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Founded in 1885, the Barre Library Association is a declared 501(c)3 nonprofit that relies on private donations to support the Woods Memorial Library, a public institution, according to the Association’s website.
Whether the Association has ever received federal funds, and whether it has recently complied with state and federal regulations governing 501(c)3s, including the filing of annual reports, are matters of present dispute.
In 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a consultative process with Native tribes to update the cumbersome process of repatriation, in part by streamlining the process of determining which tribe of origin particular items of cultural patrimony rightfully belong to.
Members of the board and the visiting Lakota representatives sketched out, in broad strokes, ideas for seeking federal grants to facilitate a process where experts could be invited to view the collection and attempt to pinpoint tribal origins of each of the hundred or more items that appear to be of Lakota provenance.
Despite the good will expressed on Wednesday by both the visiting Lakota and the Library Association board members, the potential for a long, drawn-out process of repatriation looms, as it has since the New York Times first reported 29 years ago on the willingness of the Association to return items taken from the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Renee Fasthorse-Iron Hawk, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux who traveled to Barre with her husband Manny, cautioned against relying solely on the advice of experts, or the availability of government grant funding.
“Remember the survivors, and their descendants,” said Fasthorse-Iron Hawk, who is the secretary of the Heartbeat at Wounded Knee 1890 association on Cheyenne River, the land where Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou originated. She continued, “It was emotional for me to view the items. I just kept praying because I did not want to break down. Please do not forget some of these things belonged to people who were massacred. We want to do the right thing. There are people who live their lives as survivors, enduring intergenerational trauma, compounded by poverty. We don’t live a life of luxury. There is a pervasive sense of sadness on our reservation. We had a way of life as humans. A simple, economical way of life, respecting nature. We’d like to return to that. We are praying for that. We need to keep that in mind when we are talking to the experts. Keep in mind the survivors. When I see human hair on display – scalps – it takes the breath out of me. By doing this process with you I hope that it will teach us never to act that way again.”
Renee Fasthorse-Iron Hawk concluded, “I hope this day is seen as a day of reconciliation between Lakota and Wašíču / White people. I’m happy for that,” she said, speaking slowly and controlling her emotion with difficulty. “I’m also sad that our relatives’ remains were here for so long.”