For Wounded Knee
I wrote this poem while I was sitting in the Cedar Pass Amphitheatre in Badlands NP, watching a red sunset. The air smelled of prairie warmed by the sun. It was beautiful; I couldn’t get Wounded Knee out of my head.
My husband tried to prepare me. The majority of the people there live in extreme poverty. Tourists have complained about locals wanting to share their stories and then asking for money. We need to get permission before we take pictures of anything.
I was immediately uncomfortable, but more because I felt intrusive. And because I’ve studied our country’s history and have—arguably—a more educated, less propaganda-influenced awareness of our country’s origins, I find it hard to swallow the idea of political pride. When my ancestors committed genocide in order to get it. When we praise our freedom from oppression on the Fourth of July yet neglect to acknowledge that we were not only oppressors but thieves, rapists, and murderers, who not only nearly drove an entire culture into extinction but choose to “sweep it under our patriotic rug”. I find it hard being a white person and visiting Naive American reservations, speaking to the people, without feeling the weight of my ancestors’ shame and guilt.
However, the people of Pine Ridge Reservation could not have been more kind, gracious, or endearing. J and I asked politely if we may walk through the cemetery that houses the mass grave where hundreds of men, women, and children were slaughtered, shoveled in, and forgotten. Sound familiar?? The gentleman we spoke to smiled shyly and said of course. Take all the time you want. When we asked if it would be disrespectful to take a few photographs he said no, and most tourists don’t ask anyway.
The grief that hangs in the quiet of that cemetery is nearly oppressive. It is powerful to feel. I have never been to the concentration camps in Europe, nor have I been any other place where such crimes against humanity were committed. I often wondered how people could be moved to tears by just the memory of a place, but the earth remembers. It’s present. And it took all of my self-will not to weep as if my own family had been slain there.
I wrote this poem for the people of Pine Ridge. For their ancestors. For their continued suffering. For all the injustices—least of all my still living on lands my people stole from their people—that can never be righted.
For me, Independence Day is a sober holiday. I hope that if my readers will hear these words and give a moment’s consideration to the true Founding Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children of this country, then perhaps the next time we wrestle with fear or indifference, we will see families not savages, cousins not slaves, fellow human beings not enemies—and remember that we are no different.
For Wounded Knee:
How do you apologize
like that? I think as the
bones click softly in the
desert sun breeze over
the grass ocean once the waves
were only yours to see. You speak
almost apologetically; most people
don’t know what they’re looking at
you say. And I imagine your ancestors
marred in bloodshed
and bloodshed mothers
thought the same
as they watched the last prairie sunrise
the red sky reminded them of their
the earthen wool once kept them warm
His body scattered to four corners
those lifeless masses shipwrecked
in that golden sea
your murderers whaled for them
before making you the trophy of
their Manifest Destiny
the crimson paint on your cheeks
black as trailed tears
black as the hair they cut
black as the homes they burned
black as the bones they buried and
the ground remembers this
Tatonka remembers this with every
stupid white body bearing a camera and
a dream that He gores
a recompense for all those white ghost devils
with dreams of native cries dancing in their
those spirit songs rise, quietly, and linger in the
smell of sage and the rainbow of prayer cloths
and the click of those bones
as quiet with proud dignity
as your gracious air and they ask
what they have always asked: Great Spirit,
Have mercy on us! Take us back to the place
we called home! Restore the hope of our people!
Even as they know
as you know
There is no going back. There is no going home.