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A Prayer at Wounded Knee

The tragedy of the Lakota, an indigenous people crushed and deprived of land and liberty, unable even to grieve their own tragedy, was once the Jewish story, too

Liel Leibovitz
August 07, 2019
Photo: Francis Temman/AFP/Getty Images
The burial site of Lakota Native Americans killed in the 1890 massacre by U.S. Army soldiers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota Photo: Francis Temman/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Francis Temman/AFP/Getty Images
The burial site of Lakota Native Americans killed in the 1890 massacre by U.S. Army soldiers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota Photo: Francis Temman/AFP/Getty Images

“Civilization in America,” Frederick Jackson Turner thundered in 1893, “has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent.”

The mazes of modern commerce are nowhere in sight on the Bureau of Indian Affairs Highway 27, a two-lane road on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the heart of South Dakota. There aren’t a lot of cars here, or at least not the driving kind: There are no repair shops around, and even if there were, 97% of the people here live well below the federal poverty line, which means that once a jalopy breaks down, it’s abandoned by the side of the road. But if you drive just slowly enough, and pay close attention, you’ll see a small shaded area just off the highway, with a hand-painted sign welcoming you to Wounded Knee.

There is no visitor’s center here, no official plaque, nothing solemn to suggest that the ground is sacred. A roadside Wendy’s would’ve been more ceremoniously marked and more visible. There’s just that sign, in white and red, conveying the dry details of what happened here on Dec. 29, 1890. It tells, briefly, of how the U.S. Seventh Cavalry Regiment arrived to disarm the Lakota and tear them away from their land; how one Lakota man, Black Coyote, was deaf and did not fully understand why the soldiers were demanding he surrender his precious rifle; how that rifle went off by accident; and how the Seventh Cavalry, armed with four M1875 mountain guns, opened fire indiscriminately, slaughtering, by most account, about 300 Native Americans, most of them women and children.

All this is conveyed briefly and without emotion. If you’d like to learn more about Wounded Knee, you can go online, perhaps to the image archive of the Library of Congress, where you can find photographs of the victims, lying coatless and lifeless in a blanket of snow. You can also find a snapshot of the massacre’s perpetrators, standing tall beside their cannons, with a caption that reads: “These brave men and the Hotchkiss guns that Big Foot’s Indians thought were toys … sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise, and Gen. Miles with staff Returned to Illinois.” For their service, 20 of these men received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military citation.

Across the road and up a hill, there’s a small cemetery where the remains of Wounded Knee’s fallen lie. A few kids were sitting on the fence by the cemetery’s gate the day I visited; one was selling dreamcatchers she had made, the other a bundle of wilted sage. I walked in to pay my respects, and as I stood by the small monument commemorating the dead, I felt a strong and sudden jolt of recognition. My grandfather’s mother, Bertha, and his sister, Trude, are buried in a similar mass grave. They, too, were hauled from their home and shot by men who believed that the world would be purer if their kind no longer walked the earth. Historical analogies are always tragically flawed and meticulously imperfect, but in the sweltering summer heat on that hill, I felt the residual evil that makes the air heavy to breathe in places like Wounded Knee or Babi Yar, the evil that has been with us since God informed Cain that his brother’s blood crieth unto the heavens from the ground.

I know about Trude and Bertha’s lives and deaths because of an institution called Yad Vashem, which exists to preserve their memory and the memory of millions of other victims like them. And that institution itself exists only because a Jewish state, Israel, exists as well, a solitary example in the modern era of an indigenous people returning to its ancestral homeland, reviving its ancient language, and resuming a sovereign national life. In the shade by the side of the road, I told my hosts about Herzl and Ben-Gurion and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and about how my wounded people, crushed and deprived of land and liberty and life just over a century ago, are now free to decide their own fate and grieve over their own tragedies and practice their own beliefs as they see fit. Maybe some day, I added, I would be fortunate enough to visit the Lakota people again and see, if not an independent nation, at least one busy being born. Maybe someday there’ll be an American Indian Yad Vashem, there to study the stories of the many who were killed or displaced and the world they left behind. Maybe someday there’ll be more than just a hand-painted sign at Wounded Knee.

Until then, all I could offer the dead was a prayer. Finding a quiet spot, I put on my yarmulke and prayed mincha. The familiar lines of the Tachnun, the prayer for divine mercy, seemed particularly poignant: “And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for his mercies are great, and let me not fall into the hand of man.”

As we commemorate Tisha B’Av and the destruction of our Temple, let us remember that new books of lamentations are written in every generation anew. We may not have the power to end suffering, but we do have the duty to obey the old command and remember, especially the sorrow of other indigenous peoples still awaiting redemption.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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