Manataka American Indian Council

Proudly Presents








Wounded Knee Massacre Survivors Run for Their Lives



The Lakota run a three-day relay over the 180 miles in South Dakota that their ancestors used to escape death


WOUNDED 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 mind.


With a 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.


The 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.


Chase Iron Eyes and Joe Brings Plenty, both descendants of people who died in the massacre, started the Wounded Knee Survivors


Run last 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.”


“We 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 wound.”


A run for the High Hawk boys

Forty 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.


“They talk about babies being thrown into the mass grave, crying,” Brings Plenty said. “Last year, I couldn’t talk about this without crying.”


On 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 ached.


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 Wounded


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 creek.


The original tribal assets

Iron 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 down.


“We 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 today.”


The 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.


“We were 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 compassionate.”


Families 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.


“We have 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

Jessie 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 still wages.


“Your 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.”

On the final day of the run, elders and community members join the participants for a meal and stories. As a child, Marlene Bear

Stops 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.


“She 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.”

Elder Rocky Afraid of Hawk stood to applaud the runners and remind them of the courage shown by the survivors.


“They 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.”


Wounded 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.


“We don’t need to rebuild and restore,” he said. “No, we need to reclaim. I’m proud of you.”


A new nation of warriors

The run is doing just that, Iron Eyes said, by birthing a new nation of warriors.


“We have 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.


“They understand 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 massacre.


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 it.”


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.”