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James Calvin Schaap


Dancing with Ghosts

Wasicu at Chankpe Opi (a white man at Wounded Knee

Think of it as a tawny ocean stopped in time, a vast landscape of grass, here and there mustache-like strips of trees darkening creek beds or running along the ridges like an old headdress unfurled in wind. Today, the place where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place looks very much as it did in the early winter of 1890: a featureless, shallow valley in a seemingly unending field of prairie grass that, on a gray day, weaves itself inconspicuously into the cloudy sky at its reaches.

On December 28, 1890, four Hotchkiss guns—the Sioux called them the guns that fire in the morning and kill the next day—stood on a small, whitecap hill amid this arid ocean, all four aimed down into the camp of a Minneconjou chief named Sitanka, or Big Foot. There, 300 men, women, and children were camped, hoping to reach Pine Ridge Agency the next day.

Today, more than a century later, a single battered billboard offers the only available outline of the story, the word "battle" crossed out and "massacre" scribbled in roughly above it. Otherwise, there is little to mark the spot. It is almost impossible to stand on that small hill and look down into the valley of Wounded Knee Creek and imagine what the place must have looked like so full of people.

But try. Try to imagine with this yawning, empty space, a couple hundred Lakota just beneath the promontory where we're standing, their worn and ripped tipis thrown up quickly, campfires floating thin plumes of smoke. These folks have been hungry for days—and tired, having marched hundreds of miles south toward Chief Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge Agency, where they thought they'd be safe.

But there's more, far more. Across the ravine west, maybe a half mile away on another hill, sits a sprawling encampment of several hundred troops under the command of Col. James W. Forsyth, the largest military encampment since the Civil War. Picture a campground of nearly a thousand people in tents, then cut down all the trees in your mind's eye to take in the sweep ...

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