Honor the Treaties

Stay Out

Apologies Are Useless

Those words were chalked on the crosswalk we crossed before climbing the hill that leads to the mass grave of the Bigfoot Band, killed in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.

How do you stay out?

Maybe through ignorance, or oblivion, looking neither right nor left only straight ahead, maybe even watching lots of TV. On a recent visit to Israel I asked my sister how so many Israelis could be so oblivious to what is going on in Palestinians’ lives day after day, and she answered: “They can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance.”

We want to be good people, we try to be good people. Maybe it was once an evolutionary mechanism to help us survive, to ignore so many of the contradictions in our lives in order to go on, raise our children, go to church, meditate, go about our day calmly.

Showing up at Wounded Knee, and especially bearing witness to testimony and ceremony by descendants of survivors of Wounded Knee, basically means you’re bearing witness to betrayal. And it’s your people who’ve done the betraying.

It doesn’t matter that no one from your family was anywhere near Wounded Knee in 1890. We are members of a society that enriched itself by stealing land from Native Americans and making slaves out of African-Americans, and our culture tops the denial by vapidly admiring rugged individualism and independence, as if everything we have comes from our individual work and achievement.

At the top of the hill we witnessed a ceremony by the descendants of the survivors of Wounded Knee, though for every survivor there were relatives that had been killed there. Some spoke in Lakota, which was good and bad. Good in that the Lakota language is still being spoken (If we lose our language our culture is lost, we heard so often these days), and bad in that I didn’t understand what they were saying except for catching the curious names of those who died: Ghost Horse, Wolf Eagle, Shoots the Bear, Pretty Enemy.

And sometimes we were lucky and heard stories in English, which invariably began this way: “My grandmother told me that her grandmother ran away down to the creek and hid there,” or “My grandfather told me that his grandfather . . .”

They were generous to a fault with us, allowing us to enter that enclosure with them, stand under a 90-degree sun, hear mourning songs and survivors’ songs, listen to the drumbeat. They gave us tobacco to offer the dead.

Down below was written: Stay out. Only I can’t. If I must—because of well-earned suspicion and distrust—then I’ll get as close as possible to the words Stay out, and then withdraw with respect. Always with respect. I will do this again and again and again, withdrawing with respect every time, so that one day one day, not necessarily in my lifetime, I won’t be told to stay out anymore.

But this didn’t happen here. We were invited in, we were permitted to witness their grief. It was a great privilege.

In the end we were also invited to shake hands with all the descendants, which we proceeded to do. A little girl was there who had taken active part in the ceremony, and when I shook hands with her I could feel something in her palm transferred to my palm, and she said quietly to me, “This is for good luck.” It was a small cluster of sage.