This story that I share with you delves into the reasons for the inhumane treatment of Native Americans, not only by our government and those controlled by and allied with our government, but also by the people of our country that are taught to hate those that are oppressed. We’re getting a good taste of that now with the constant Native online streaming of militarized oppression against the Water Is Life movement and with the open racism that came with Trump being elected.
I will tell you that learning anything about Native American history is never simple. What starts out as a statement about an atrocious massacre with a lone surviving baby in a three day blizzard, turns into a history lesson. You were never taught about the real founding of this country. In the process of learning the story of Lost Bird, I found out a shocking twist about my own story, a surprise that left me feeling lost and upset about my own identity and history being stolen from me. But I know that I am not the only one.
Who was Lost Bird?
In order to understand the story of Lost Bird and The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, you need to understand what it meant to live on a reservation and survive a government boarding school for Indians. You must understand the great sadness and desperation.
The 1800’s brought about government run Indian reservations and the advent of government boarding schools for Indians. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was a great American economic success, but for Native Americans it was an unfathomable nightmare.
The Trail of Tears happened in 1838, caused by illegal land surveying by the state of Georgia against the Cherokee Nation. Georgia had discovered a gold vein on Cherokee land. The Supreme Court ruled that it now had legal guardianship over Indian Affairs and that they could be removed. The whole case negated a legal treaty. Proving that Treaties were worthless.
The Trail of Tears started in winter and lasted for five months, spanning 2,200 miles, after the Cherokee were already held in military stockades living and dying among famine and disease. At the minimum, 8,000 Native Americans died from the stockades to the walk, to living on the reservation. The Indian Removal Act set a standard for inhumane treatment.
The horrifying treatment during the Navajo’s own Long Walks in 1864 took place after Kit Carson’s Scorched Earth Campaign. There were over 50 walks and over 11,000 Navajo (including pregnant women, the elderly, and children) who literally walked from sunrise to sunset for over 300 miles through the scorching desert and the Rio Grande river to Fort Sumner and an uninhabitable reservation named Bosque Redondo. If they could not keep up, they were shot in the head. If a woman was induced into labor from the stress, she was shot in the head.
Reservation life was cruel and soulless. Hundreds died on the Long Walks, and once there, thousands died from starvation, pneumonia, dysentery, and smallpox. More often than not, there was just not enough food for that many people stripped of their land. Too bad Kit Carson scorched the earth that was actually feeding them on their own territory.
The Army was rounding up Natives with no clear financial planning as to who was covering the cost. The Navajo at Bosque Redondo had bad water, leaving many dying from dysentery, and the Army could only afford to feed Natives half-portions of rations. This spawned the “Indian Ring Scandal.” A monopoly of traderships that the Secretary of War, William Belknap and Associates, pocketed large sums of government money from contract work for the reservations. They also were supplying reservations with flour mixed with ground plaster, rat dropping contamination, frayed thin blankets, and rancid meat.
All of this under the presidency of Ulysses Grant.
The General Allotment Act of 1887 defrauded 90 million acres of tribal land over the course of 47 years, from 1887 to 1934. These stolen allotments were given to settlers in land rushes and also given to the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management.
The GAA was yet another means of destroying communal land and also made it easier for the US to acquire tribal lands from an “individual” rather than from a whole tribe. Corrupt agents listed ‘allottees’ as a child, dog, and farm animals. Yes, farm animals were given allotments of land. So if you bought one, you also bought land. If you “fostered” or “adopted” a stolen Indian child, you also acquired land. You can see where this corruption is going….
“The Indians’ only safe future can be found in merging their interests with ours and becoming part of the people of the United States. Their safe course is to quit being tribal Indians, to go out and live among us as individual men, to adopt our language, our industries, and become a part of the power.”
-Lt. Richard Pratt, Founder and Superintendent of Carlisle Indian School 1880-1904, on the phrase “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” forcefully used for cultural genocide on children
Carlisle Indian Boarding School was a former prison barrack and was located off reservation. Carlisle was based off of a military regiment and used corporal punishment. Students as young as four years old, had their hair cut and their names changed.
The largest native populations effected by Carlisle in 1880 were Lakota, Apache, Cherokee, Ojibwe and many others. Children were taken from their native parents for any number of reasons. Some parents thought that boarding schools and orphanages were their children’s salvation from what their lives had become. They couldn’t have known how cold it was going to be.
“Our belongings were taken from us. Even the little medicine bags our mothers had given us to protect us from harm. Everything was placed in a heap and set afire. Next was the long hair, the pride of all the Indians. The boys one by one would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor.”
-Lone Wolf, Blackfeet
It’s horrifying to know that Carlisle became a model for 26 other Indian Boarding Schools in multiple states with hundreds more religiously sponsored private schools ranging from Catholic to Mormon. These schools imprisoned native children, beat children who spoke their native language, and also sexually abused native children, all while teaching them to hate and erase their own culture.
“We all wore white man’s clothes and ate white man’s food, and went to white man’s churches and spoke white man’s talk. And so after a while, we also begin to say, ‘Indians were bad.’ We laughed at our own people, and their blankets and cooking pots and sacred societies and dances.”
-Sun Elk, Taos
Many children died en route to the schools, at the schools from TB, or starved during an escape from them.
By 1888 The Holy Rosary Mission was founded at Pine Ridge South Dakota to convert the Lakota. The federal government was turning over boarding school systems to churches in order to save money. I will spare you the horrors I have read about The Holy Rosary Mission.
Of all the counties in the United States, some of the poorest are located in Pine Ridge.
This is where I will take you to the story of Lost Bird.
The Great Sioux Reservation was established through the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and was made up of Western South Dakota and a small northern tip of now Boyd County Nebraska. The Great Sioux Nation is comprised of the Seven Council Fires. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had set up Agencies within the Reservations to monitor Natives.
From 1874- 1877 the Lakota battled Custer, Settlers, Miners, and the US Army on their own land when Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills. The Army defeated the Lakota in the Black Hills War and stole the land.
During The General Allotment Act Era in 1877 and the North and South Dakota Union of 1889, The Great Sioux Reservation was stripped down even further to five smaller reservations: Standing Rock Reservation to the North (Fort Yates Agency), Cheyenne River Reservation (Missouri River Agency), Lower Brule Indian Reservation (Fort Thompson Agency), Rosebud Indian Reservation (Mission Agency), and Pine Ridge Reservation Oglala Sioux (Pine Ridge Agency).
Nine million acres of land was stolen by the government for public purchase for homesteading.
Such depressing and perilous times set the stage for The Ghost Dance.
There was talk among the Lakota of a great coming, the hopes of a different future, a call for help during such depressing and perilous times. A dance for freedom. A dance for lost family, to right the wrongs. A dance for the ancestors, to restore the past. Some danced so arduously in prayer, that they died where they danced.
Government authorities became fearful of an uprising.
“The people were desperate from starvation. We felt that we were mocked in our misery. We held our dying children and felt their little bodies tremble as their souls went out and left only a dead weight in our hands.”
-Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota
As The Ghost Dance made the news, the US Government outlawed it.
December 15th 1890, the 7th Calvary started rounding up Sioux leaders, resulting in the death of Chief Sitting Bull. Native groups decided to flee where the agencies couldn’t see them so that they could dance their prayers. It was just after Christmas and Big Foot’s group left Cheyenne River to meet Red Cloud. There were 252 women and children and 106 men. Big Foot was dying from pneumonia in the back of a wagon.
December 28th, the 7th Calvary intercepted them at Wounded Knee Creek and they made camp just ’15 miles from Pine Ridge’. The following morning, December 29th 1890, Big Foot presented a white flag of truce and surrendered weapons near his lodge. Soldiers began confiscating items from the people such as cooking tools while other soldiers set up rapid fire Hotchkiss guns around them.
“Suddenly I heard a single shot from the direction of the troops. Then three or four, a few more. And immediately, a volley. At once came a general rattle of rifle firing, then the Hotchkiss guns.”
-Thomas Tibbles, reporter at the Wounded Knee Massacre
“The women as they were fleeing with their babies, were shot right through. And after most of them had been killed, a cry was made that all those not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys 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.”
-American Horse, Oglala Lakota
A blizzard came as the evening set in, the wounded soldiers and natives were picked up in wagons. There were 49 wounded women and children that were brought to an agency church. The rest of the bodies were left to freeze where they lay.
“Nothing I have seen in my whole life ever effected or depressed or haunted me like the scenes I saw that night in the church. One unwounded old woman held a baby on her lap. I handed a cup of water to the old woman, telling her, ‘Give it to the child,’ who grabbed it as if parched with thirst. And as she swallowed hurriedly, I saw it gush right out again, a bloodstained stream through a hole in her neck. Heartsick, I went to find the surgeon. For a moment he stood there near the door, looking over the mass of suffering and dying women and children. The silence. The silence they kept was so complete, it was oppressive. And then to my amazement, I saw that the surgeon, who I knew had served in the Civil War attending the wounded from Wilderness to Appomattox, he began to grow pale. ‘This is the first time I’ve seen a lot of women and children shot to pieces,’ he said. ‘And I can’t stand it.'”
-Thomas Tibbles, reporter
“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 still 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.”
-Black Elk, Oglala Lakota
Three days later, the Army dug a trench at the site for the bodies. As they were collecting frozen bodies for the mass grave, a blanket was seen moving on the frozen body of a Lakota woman.
This Lakota woman’s baby girl managed to survive three days in the blizzard, only to be taken by Gen. Leonard Colby, as a means of ‘public relations.’ The tribe’s survivors named her Lost Bird, ‘Zintkala Nuni.’
I would like to tell you that the life of Lost Bird was somehow saved, but it wasn’t. It was a life filled with mountains of sorrow. Maybe I should tell you what happened in her life, but you could just as easily research it for yourself. For some reason I cannot type it here, so I won’t. I can tell you that she wasn’t accepted anywhere except in a strange wild west sideshow. She did not belong in the white world and she no longer belonged to her Lakota world. She truly was a Lost Bird among many other Lost Birds of that time, from many different places. There are so many displaced, some that deny their history, and from them there are many that don’t even know their history.
I was taught the story of Lost Bird after discovering my own lost native story, on the internet of all places, through a document filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
I discovered things I was never told, things my father’s family was ashamed of and hid in order to survive. When I heard about Lost Bird, I thought to myself, there are so many neither here nor there. Lost culture. Lost where we came from. Absorbing another culture. One thing that isn’t lost is the spirit of my blood and I’m taking back my stolen history. Starting here.
The current state of the United States is one that is recognizing how divided we really are between people who truly want human equality and those that are still living in the genocidal, greedy, racism of our past. Long before ‘Not My President,’ was being chanted, we were reading about the Dakota Access Pipeline treading on Native American rights. When DAPL investor Trump became the president elect, it opened our eyes to the racism of those in power and showed exactly how much they think they control.
When we saw the hate openly being spewed in our great nation, we realized that we needed to take action. We were no longer living comfortably in a life where hate was veiled from our eyes. The hate came out in the open and in doing so has inspired a greatness buried in the people that needed to be revealed.
This couldn’t have come at a greater time for the plight of Native Americans. We need to work hard at helping to right the wrongs that this country was founded on. How can we have a great nation that is based off of unacknowledged genocide?! The answer is we can’t, and we do not. We are capable of better. We need to take a stand, we need to educate and get vocal, we need to do better for the people, for this country, and for the world that we live in.
-M.D. “Who Was Lost Bird?” 2016