Echoes of hope at Wounded Knee

The mass grave at the Wounded Knee Massacre Site. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring of 2008, while I was working as a reporter at The Daily Republic in Mitchell, my editor handed me a large packet of information that he received in the mail.

"It’s from Badlands National Park," he said. "Something about a management plan. There must be a story in there."

I groaned. The last thing I wanted was to spend an hour plowing through bureaucratic techno-speak in search of something I could translate into a news story.

I took the hefty packet, which must have weighed a couple of pounds, back to my desk and began browsing. I expected to find a bunch of scientific analysis about plant and animal species, but it wasn’t long until I saw something that got my reporter’s adrenaline pumping. There was a proposal to alter the management of the vast South Unit of Badlands National Park, and one of the options was handing the management responsibility over to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose members owned the land before the U.S. government claimed it for use as a bombing range during World War II.

Suddenly, I was very excited. After hundreds of years of land grabs by whites, here was the reverse: a proposal to give land back to Indians. I knew immediately that it was a great story waiting to be told and, as far as I knew and later confirmed, nobody had told it yet.

I talked my editor into allowing me and a photographer to make the nearly five-hour drive to the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux. A series of meetings was scheduled there to discuss the proposal, and I planned to attend one. I figured it would be an interesting and efficient way of reporting the story, since I knew the meeting would be attended by both park officials and tribal members. Better yet, I saw that one of the meetings was scheduled in Wounded Knee, near the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. There could be no better place to tell a story of Indians re-taking land than at Wounded Knee, where the last major armed conflict (albeit a one-sided one) of the Indian Wars occurred.

‘It’s how it should be’

Before hitting the road, I researched photo possibilities. I wanted our photographer to capture one of those sweeping views of the Badlands that are so often pictured in promotional materials. While reading about the park and looking at maps, I came across some information about Sheep Mountain Table. There is a road to the top of the 3,200-foot-high table; in fact, it’s the only road of any significance in the entire South Unit of the park. It was early spring at the time, and I read that the road is impassable when wet. I hoped it would be dry when we got there, because I could imagine the kind of spectacular view we’d be treated to if we could make it to the top.

We had to lengthen our trip to include Sheep Mountain Table in the route, but we needed photos, and Sheep Mountain seemed the only way to get off the main roads and into the interior of the South Unit. The unit is a sprawling, 208-square-mile wonderland of undeveloped grandeur, and I was determined to get a view of it from somewhere other than a paved road.

We drove west from Mitchell on Interstate 90 to the Badlands Loop exit and turned onto the Loop Road, which dips south into the Badlands. Where the Loop makes its northward turn back to I-90, there’s a fork in the road. The west-leading fork, which we took, eventually winds southwest to the town of Scenic. The town is sort of a last outpost and an indicator of the wildness to come. Its scant row of structures includes a ramshackle saloon decorated with longhorn skulls.

Driving south from Scenic, it’s only a few minutes to the Sheep Mountain Table Road. The Budweiser packaging, bottles and cans that litter both sides of the road immediately south of Scenic are unfortunate reminders of the proximity of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcoholism is rampant.

We’d eventually continue on to the reservation, but first, we turned onto Sheep Mountain Table Road and looked hopefully at the roadbed. It was dry and in good condition, so we drove onto it. After a short drive across a flat area, the road turns sharply uphill. The long climb brought us out onto one of the most spectacular vistas I’ve ever witnessed. Sheep Mountain Table affords breathtaking views in all directions, with no signs of civilization anywhere. The ravines of the Badlands wind away from the table in interesting patterns broken here and there by grass. Down in a faraway, grass-covered bottom, we could see a group of blackish dots that a telephoto lens revealed to be bison.

Later, while I was attending the meeting in Wounded Knee, I knew exactly what 84-year-old Guy White Thunder was talking about when he described the South Unit this way:

"God has created the scenery there, and it’s how it should be."

Prior to standing atop Sheep Mountain Table, I’d been atop Harney Peak, which at 7,242 feet is the highest point in South Dakota. A year or so after standing atop the table, I stood atop Bear Butte, a 4,426-foot mountain that rises alone from an otherwise flat plain near Sturgis. Both of those views are amazing, but they fall short of what I saw from Sheep Mountain Table. I doubt I’ll ever find another place with such an astounding combination of beauty and privacy. On both Harney Peak and Bear Butte, signs of humanity are readily visible. But on Sheep Mountain Table, it feels as though you’re in a place that the rest of civilization has forgotten, or perhaps never discovered.

‘This is it’

We had a story to report, so we came down from the table after spending as much time there as we could spare and drove to the village of Wounded Knee, stopping for a group of Indian men along the way who were herding wild horses down the highway with a pickup. Their pickup careened dangerously back and forth over the road and into the ditches as they pursued the horses, and the whole party was continuously bathed in a cloud of dust. As we waited and watched, KILI, the Pine Ridge radio station, played traditional Indian drumming and singing. Intermixed with the traditional music that we heard throughout the day were reports of reservation happenings and modern songs, including one that exhorted white listeners to "honor the treaties."

Upon our arrival at Wounded Knee, we made a serendipitous discovery. We had stupidly miscalculated the time change (Mitchell is in the Central zone, and Wounded Knee is in the Mountain zone) and were about two hours early for the meeting. We decided to use the extra time to visit the Wounded Knee Massacre Site.

As we drove near the area where we thought the site was, we saw a sign by a fork in the road. We turned in the direction the sign seemed to be pointing and drove on a few minutes before figuring out we had gone the wrong way. We turned around and drove back to the turnoff, where we saw a young Native American woman selling homemade wares alongside the road. We asked her about the location of the Wounded Knee Massacre Site.

"This is it," she said.

For a couple of people who are used to seeing official-looking markers and infrastructure such as parking lots at historical sites, we were stunned. An old, weathered sign along the road, a humble-looking church and a ragged-looking cemetery on a hill were the only things there to mark the place where the massacre occurred. The young Indian woman, whose sweatshirt bore the name “Dakota High Hawk,” said she lived with no running water in a trailer house that stood near the site. I bought one of her craft items — something resembling a bone necklace with a feather-shaped pendant at the end. The young woman said everything on the necklace was shaped by, of all things, a Dremel tool.

We walked up to the burial site and, standing there in the quiet of a breezy, sunny South Dakota day, we had a powerful experience. A marker at the site bears the names of massacre victims. Reading the names and looking at the poverty all around us, I began to feel the weight of the massacre’s impact, and the way in which the impact has echoed down through the generations. Perhaps I’m being overly dramatic or simplistic in saying this, but it seems to me that in many ways, the people of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and High Plains Indians in general have never recovered from the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The massacre

The massacre happened Dec. 29, 1890. A force of 500 U.S. Cavalry troops killed an estimated 200 to 300 Indian men, women and children who were camped alongside Wounded Knee Creek. It’s believed that the troops may have been skittish because of the Ghost Dance movement, which had started among Indians of the Southwest and spread quickly to other tribes. Some Sioux Indians believed the dance would remove white people from the earth so that Indians could reclaim their lands.

The spark that ignited the massacre was reportedly a shot that rang out as a soldier attempted to disarm an Indian man in the camp. Troopers apparently panicked and engaged in a chaotic burst of shooting that included fire from four large artillery guns. The bodies of the dead Indians were left on the ground during a three-day blizzard and were later placed in a mass grave at the site.

The event was the last, large-scale armed incident of the Indian Wars and has come to be viewed by many as the event that finally and completely broke the spirit of Indian resistance to white encroachment. In South Dakota, Indian history since Wounded Knee has been a sad saga of poverty, alcoholism, lawlessness and corruption on many of the state’s reservations. Indians on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, which includes the Wounded Knee site, are consistently ranked among the poorest people in the United States.

That’s partly why I was so excited to report the Badlands management story — I saw it as a glimmer of hope. As of this writing in October 2010, the National Park Service is still working with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to return the South Unit of Badlands National Park to tribal management.

It’s believed that some of the last Ghost Dances of the 1800s were conducted in an area of the South Unit known as Stronghold Table, and some sources say survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre sought refuge in the Stronghold area. Because of those connections between the South Unit and Wounded Knee, I came to see the proposal to return management of the South Unit to the Oglala Sioux Tribe as a highly symbolic endeavor. It’s a chance for the members of the tribe to reclaim some of what was taken from them, to manage it as they see fit, and maybe even to profit from white tourists who want to see the South Unit’s beautiful scenery.

‘Total faith’

During my visit to the Wounded Knee area, I met several highly intelligent and highly motivated Oglala Sioux tribal members who were working to make the management transfer of the South Unit happen. I was so moved by their efforts that I returned to the newspaper, seemingly a world away from what I’d seen at Wounded Knee, and composed probably the best lead to a news story that I’ve ever written:

WOUNDED KNEE — Across a chasm of 118 years, dim echoes of the Ghost Dance are once again rolling through the sweeping vistas of the South Dakota Badlands and reverberating against the starkly beautiful sediment walls.

Some Sioux Indians once believed the dance would return all of their lands. That dream died in 1890 on the blood-stained ground near Wounded Knee Creek, but today a diminished version of the dream — tempered by a hefty dose of reality — is sprouting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, home to the people of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Unbeknownst to many off the reservation, the tribe and the National Park Service are considering management changes for the rarely visited but astoundingly pristine South Unit of Badlands National Park. The options include a greater tribal share of the South Unit’s management, or even a complete return of the South Unit to tribal control.

It’s an apparently unprecedented set of proposals that, at least symbolically, would represent a reversal of the centuries-old tradition of land grabs by the U.S. government.

More than that, the proposal brings hope of economic development, cultural preservation and community pride to some leaders of a reservation that, to the outside world, is known mostly for rampant alcoholism, poverty and joblessness.

“We can manage the South Unit as a park,” a determined Monica Terkildsen, of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, said this week. “I know we can do that. I have total faith that we have enough expertise here to do that.”

I hope, for the sake of her people, that Monica is right. And I hope that one day I’ll visit the South Unit of Badlands National Park and encounter not a destitute people who leave signs of their desperation in the form of discarded alcohol containers along the side of the road, but a proud people reclaiming their land, culture and future.

About Author

Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper was born and raised in South Dakota and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from South Dakota State University in 2001. After college, he worked at a newspaper in Minnesota and then returned to South Dakota in 2003 to join the staff of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, where he is currently the publisher. Seth has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2007 Outstanding Young Journalist award in the daily newspapers category of the South Dakota Newspaper Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Seth's day-job and freelance work have granted him opportunities to meet hundreds of South Dakotans and travel across much of the state. He also spends a lot of his free time exploring South Dakota's state and national parks, hiking trails and kayak-friendly rivers.


  1. Judy Kutyna
    Judy Kutyna 21 June, 2011, 18:03

    I have read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, “In The Spirit of Crazy Horse”, “Killing Custer”, (and all Of James Welch’s historical novels). I was so pleased to find this updating article! You got your time zones confused, and then got a little lost so that this could happen and be shared. Perhaps Wakan Tonka was guiding you. (?) Thank you.

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