On this date… December 29… Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Dakota

A lot happened on December 29th.

In 1790, President George Washington told the Seneca that, at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the US government assured them that “in future you cannot be defrauded of your lands. That you possess the right to sell, and the right of refusing to sell, your lands. That therefore the sale of your lands in future will depend entirely upon yourselves.”

In 1835, a small band of Cherokees, under considerable duress and pressure from white Georgia pioneers and officials, signed the Treaty of New Echota, relinquishing all Cherokee lands. But they had no authority to do so. It is important to understand the context. The Cherokee had built houses, schools, and churches. They had roads and horse drawn wagons. They had their own alphabet, printing press, and newspaper. They had a 90% literacy rate, surpassing that of the whites in the South. Most importantly, they had a centralized government, a representative democracy, and a written constitution. They also had a fifty-year-old treaty defining their boundaries. They had recently won a case before the US Supreme Court asserting their sovereignty. Some of their leaders spoke fluent English and had attended college in New England.  Their Principal Chief, John Ross, was 7/8 white.  If ever there was a tribe assimilated to and living at peace with white society, it was the Cherokee. If any tribe was going to gain enough respect to be allowed to coexist with the US, to farm and engage in business alongside them, it was the Cherokee. But the US Congress jumped at the Treaty of New Echota and used it as an excuse for Cherokee removal, despite the fact that 90% of the tribe signed a petition against it, and Chief John Ross personally delivered the petition to Congress.

In 1890, the 7th Cavalry exacted its revenge for Custer on women, children, and old men for the crime of dancing. They massacred nearly 300 Sioux gathered in the winter snow for the Ghost Dance. It had been over a decade since fighting on the Plains had largely ended, over a decade since their Black Hills had been taken in a contrived war, over a decade since they were coerced into signing away their land in exchange for government rations.

wounded-knee2American Horse described the scene: “There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”

Hugh McGinnis, member of the US Army, was haunted by it seventy-four years later: “The screams of mothers as machine gun bullets tore their bodies apart. The curses of the Indian warriors, fighting machine guns and cannons with old muskets, knives and tomahawks, being cut down in rows by demon-crazed white soldiers. All this happened seventy-four years ago at Wounded Knee Creek where soldiers of the 7th cavalry massacred in cold blood Indian men, women and children. I am now ninety-four, the last surviving member of Troop K, 7th Cavalry. The seventy-four years have never completely erased the ghastly horror of that scene and I still awake at night from nightmarish dreams of that massacre. The news that I am the only surviving member of the 7th Cavalry at that massacre brings back many memories to me.”

In addition to the memories, twenty members of the 7th Cavalry received Congressional Medals of Honor. To this day, the US Army still flies a battle streamer labeled Pine Ridge 1890-1891.

wounded-knee1Black Elk recalled: “I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . . The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

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