Wounded Knee Massacre Survivors Run for Their Lives
Lakota run a three-day relay over the 180 miles in South Dakota that their
ancestors used to escape death
KNEE, S.D. — Fingers numb from a lingering freeze, Chase Iron Eyes wrapped a
bandanna around his head Sunday morning and then whisked the curls of sweet,
bitter smoke from burnt sage into his face and body. He turned to the sun
and asked the Creator for protection, light feet, strong lungs and a clear
nod, the first runner was off, quietly setting the pace for a grueling
three-day run down the hill of one of the most infamous swells of land in
the United States — the mass grave site of scores, if not hundreds, of
Native Americans killed during the Wounded Knee massacre.
story is marked in history: On Dec. 29, 1890, a band of Miniconjou Lakota
led by Chief Spotted Elk, renamed Big Foot by the U.S. government, was
massacred at Wounded Knee. But less is known about the survivors, all of
whom witnessed the death and wounding of men, women and children before
scattering across the prairie of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Iron Eyes and Joe Brings Plenty, both descendants of people who died in the
massacre, started the Wounded Knee Survivors
year, asking runners to join them as they trace the route taken by the
survivors — 180 miles northeast to the South Dakota town called Howe, the
location of the
Takini School, a rural K–12 institution
with a name that means “survivor” or “one who lives on.”
don’t run to commiserate,” Iron Eyes said. “It’s a heavy thing and a tragic
thing, there’s no skirting that ... But it needs to be a scar, not an open
for the High Hawk boys
runners turned up this year for what Brings Plenty said is a test not only
of physical endurance but of mental and spiritual strength as well. The
memories of those who were there at the massacre, memories retold by
relatives and community members for decade upon decade, are sobering.
talk about babies being thrown into the mass grave, crying,” Brings Plenty
said. “Last year, I couldn’t talk about this without crying.”
Sunday, the run started with 14 people, the rest joining in over the
succeeding days, with the youngest participant 7 years old and the oldest an
elder of 64.
The runners jumped in
place, wiggling toes already stung with cold. They
began with short distances, each one taking a
traditional staff in hand and moving slowly up and
down hills, past stray dogs and turkeys in a nearby
field. The morning dew had yet to melt and sparkled
in the prairie grass and the mullein stock weeds.
At times they ran in a
group, the dull thump of their feet carrying a
steady rhythm, puffs of their hurried breath rising
into the clear sky and disappearing. When they
tired, they passed the staff to the next runner and
slid into a waiting car.
Their faces burned.
Their noses ran. Their glasses fogged up. They
The run, which takes an
average of 27 hours, tests even the best runners,
and it is then that Iron Eyes reminds them of the
Knee survivors who ran
before them — not in a relay, not with the light of
day, not on paved roads and not with a vehicle to
rest in when it was too much to bear.
They paused at Bull
Creek to remember the three High Hawk boys, ages 9,
10 and 11, who were wounded in the massacre and led
their grandmother back to safety, before eventually
dying from their injuries.
They were buried at the
The original tribal assets
Eyes said he imagines that the survivors were cold, exhausted and even
hidden under the cover of night in deep ravines, terrified of being hunted
stress that to the runners when they get tired,” he said. “This is a little
bit of what our ancestors survived so we could meet our issues head-on
issues for natives here are well defined — the reservations have high rates
of suicide, alcoholism, poverty and diabetes — problems, native leaders say,
that stem from a loss of identity and self-worth as they struggle to
maintain their culture and tradition in an ever-changing society.
taught that we are primitive, uncivilized,” said Iron Eyes, who is an
attorney from the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and often serves
as a voice for native issues in the region. “That wasn’t the case. We just
had different goals. Our goals were a healthy ecosystem and to be caring and
on South Dakota’s reservations may not have material wealth, he said, but
they are working toward reclaiming the original assets of the tribes —
healthy lifestyles, communion with nature and education.
strong families and strong cultures, and that’s the narrative we want to
highlight for our families,” he said. “The purpose of this run is to
re-recognize our own strength.”
The need to reclaim
Buffalo said the survivors’ run reinforced the strength she found from
sobering up 13 years ago, and from a grueling fight with cancer that she
mind is the strongest part of your body,” she said. “I’m so proud to be
here, to be doing this, and to be teaching my kids.”
final day of the run, elders and community members join the participants for
a meal and stories. As a child, Marlene Bear
used to visit her great-grandmother, who was just a child and in her
mother’s arms during part of the massacre. She was injured when her mother
was shot and the gunpowder blew into her eyes.
didn’t talk about it,” Bear Stops said. “She always wore a bandanna over her
eyes, and she would slide it up and look at me.”
Rocky Afraid of Hawk stood to applaud the runners and remind them of the
courage shown by the survivors.
led the U.S. cavalry away from our people,” he said, dipping his head to his
chest so as not to cry. “They were lured away so the rest of us could live.”
Knee was not the end of the road for the native people, he said, and
revitalization efforts for native languages and culture should reflect that.
don’t need to rebuild and restore,” he said. “No, we need to reclaim. I’m
proud of you.”
A new nation of warriors
is doing just that, Iron Eyes said, by birthing a new nation of warriors.
a running culture that has been lost, a warrior culture that has been lost,”
he said. “There are plenty of reasons that Native Americans drink — it’s a
symptom of imposed-poverty culture and its attempts to ruin your dignity. We
become violent with each other when we drink. We have to find healthy ways
to express ourselves.”
He hopes the survivors'
run will grow each year, and eventually lead to
programming that supports youth in healthy
lifestyles. He sees hope in the next generation.
“I would look in no
other place than here for leaders,” he said as he
motioned to the runners following the final leg of
the trek, a seven-mile gravel road, with
temperatures hovering in the teens. Several of the
runners, who slept in school gymnasiums and ate
little during the three days, nursed sore knees,
hips and legs. Some were limping a bit.
fortitude and determination,” Iron Eyes said.
In a final gesture of
the day, the parents of 11-year-old Tatanka Lone
Eagle presented him with a star quilt. The middle
schooler rode a horse with the Big Foot Memorial
Riders, a group that traces the route the Lakota
took from Bull Head to Wounded Knee before the
Hours later, Tatanka started
running the route of the survivors.
“It was physically
challenging for him, but his spirit kept him up,”
said Brings Plenty, standing next to Tatanka, who
was wrapped in the quilt. “When our youngsters do
something good, we need to recognize it and honor
If there is anything to
be learned from Wounded Knee, Iron Eyes said, it is
in the strength of the wounded and traumatized
survivors. The same strength is here now for the
Lakota people, he added: “There are no excuses for
why we can’t be strong and evolved and indigenous.”