The Wounded Knee Massacre and Children’s Books
Wounded Knee, by Neil Waldman. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001). 48 pp. Illus by the author.
On Dec. 28, 1890, the remnants of Big Foot’s band of the Lakota Nation were camped not far from Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. They had been on their way to join Red Cloud at Pine Ridge when they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry, Gen. Custer’s division. It was 40 degrees below zero, they had no proper dress for the weather, and the people were starving. The band at this point consisted mostly of women, children, and older people. They had been herded by the soldiers into a ravine and were completely surrounded by military and armaments. Their leader, Big Foot, was dying of pneumonia. No people could have been less capable of defending themselves, let alone of posing a threat.
The band expected or perhaps hoped to continue their journey the next day. The next morning, when the cavalry opened fire and the people realized what was happening, they grabbed up the children and babies and fled in terror. Only a few escaped. The rest – some 300 women and children and old men – were mowed down.
The men of Custer’s division were out for blood and revenge, and on December 29, 1890, they got it. Black Elk, who witnessed the massacre as a young man, later said:
The tragedy, which became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre, is symbolic of the brutality and killing that went hand in hand with the U.S. government’s conquest of the Native peoples. Yet the Wounded Knee massacre is consistently portrayed in children’s books and texts as a battle arising from a series of unfortunate cultural misunderstandings. Neil Waldman’s Wounded Knee continues this dismal pattern.
Waldman adopts the view of Wounded Knee as the deadly result of an unavoidable clash of cultures. In Chapter 1, which is called “Massacre,” he says,
Waldman’s book has been praised as “sympathetic” and “balanced” and “nonjudgmental.” Yet how can one present a “balanced” picture of a tragedy that is still being mourned more than 110 years later? On the scale of justice, some things are heavier than others, and genocide is one of them. The basic struggle between the Native peoples and the encroaching Europeans is not difficult to summarize: while Indian peoples were struggling to maintain land, culture, and community, the whites were trying to take it all away – which they did, by murder, germ warfare, and wholesale kidnapping of children. How can anyone with integrity give a “balanced” account of that reality? (For teachers who want a serious, detailed history of the conquest of the Native peoples, read the classic history by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.)
THE SANTEE REBELLION
To achieve his desired “balance,” Waldman creates a false context for white attitudes toward Native peoples by highlighting and distorting the Santee Rebellion in Minnesota in 1862.
To understand Waldman’s distortions, it is important to have some background on the Santee Rebellion. There is no dispute that hundreds of white people, including settlers, were killed during the rebellion. This is Waldman’s version of the rebellion (italics ours):
The Santee decision to go to war against the whites was not easy, and had been deliberated in council for a long time. After a small group of young Santee men killed a settler family, it was argued that no Santee was safe from the whites, and that a preemptive strike would be more effective than a defensive battle. Little Crow argued against warring with the whites at this time, because the whites had a stronger military presence. But in the end, he reluctantly agreed.
While groups of undisciplined young men picked off the settlers and burned their farms, Little Crow led Santees, united with their Wahpeton, Sisseton, and Mdewakanton cousins, in war against the army. A month later, as Little Crow had predicted in council, the Santee were defeated. When the war was over, the cavalry rounded up some 600 prisoners of war, and in military trials that lasted frorm five to 15 minutes each, found 303 of the prisoners guilty and sentenced them to death. Of these, President Abraham Lincoln ordered 38 executed.
The Santee Rebellion was a bloody war, with many killed on both sides. It resulted in mass trials and the largest mass execution in U.S. history, neither of which Waldman mentions. Instead, he simplistically portrays the Indians as “reverting to their traditional methods of warfare,” galloping off to slaughter helpless settlers.
It is not just Waldman’s sense of history that is lacking. His choice of language is equally problematic. Throughout his book, for example, Waldman peppers his text with dramatic scenarios and descriptions such as this: “As the earth was littered with their belongings, the braves glanced nervously at one another, sensing that a bloody confrontation loomed just ahead.”
While appearing to be sympathetic, Waldman’s choice of words – “braves” and “warriors” instead of “men,” “chants” instead of “prayers,” “nomadic hunters” instead of “people” – distances the non-Indian child reader from the real people about whom Waldman writes.
Here is another example (italics ours):
This kind of writing encourages the non-Indian reader to think in limited ways about Indian people – that they were a threat to white society, that they were nomadic hunters who had become anachronistic and couldn’t keep up with civilization. While the writing elicits a sort of sympathy, it discourages real empathy. Rather, it gives the non-Indian child reader a reason to feel that some of what happened was too bad, but it was inevitable, given the march of civilization.
Young readers – both Indian and non-Indian – will do better reading Black Elk Speaks and Amy Erlich’s adaptation of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
And be it noted: 28 members of the Seventh Cavalry received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their work at Wounded Knee, “the last great battle of the Indian Wars.”