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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

for something

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

bloodshed brothers

and bloodshed mothers

thought the same

as they watched the last prairie sunrise

the red sky reminded them of their

spirit god

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

smeared black

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

phantom heads

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.