Advent and Christmas with Black Elk: Remembering Holy Innocents at Wounded Knee


Chapters 23, 24 and 25: Bad Trouble Coming, the Butchering at Wounded Knee and the End of the Dream

In these final chapters, Black Elk describes the Battle at Wounded Knee, which was really more of a massacre and “butchering” than it was a battle. Armed US troops shot and killed about 150 men, women and children, many of whom were fleeing. The US troops feared that the Lakota were preparing for war by performing the Ghost Dance so they killed Sitting Bull and subsequently attacked the Lakota. These chapters read almost like the Book of Lamentations, describing the starvation of children and the apparent death of a nation.

Black Elk says, “I saw a little baby trying to suck its mother, but she was bloody and dead” (162) and “It was one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away” (164).

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s poetic words in Lamentations 4 when he laments,

“How the precious children of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter’s hands! Even jackals offer their breasts to nurse their young, but my people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert. Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them. Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets. Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps…Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as a stick. Those killed by the sword are better off than those who died of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field. With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.” (Lam 4:2-10).

In Jewish tradition, the book of Lamentations is read on the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), a day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples. The massacre at Wounded Knee took place on the 29th of December in 1890. About 126 years ago.

As my personal reflections on Black Elk Speaks draw to a close, I feel deeply saddened by this tragic reality, this massacre of innocents, on which the book concludes. During these seasons of Advent and Christmas, Black Elk’s laments remind me of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, observed in the Western churches on December 28th and in the Eastern churches on December 29th. I intend to remember this massacre of holy innocents at the butchering of Wounded Knee, each year I remember our Christian Feast of Holy Innocents.

I am deeply saddened and yet I am also offered tiny feathers of hope as I read about Black Elk’s description of some of the Christians who provided help and who risked their own safety in the process. He says, “There were many of our children in the Mission, and the sisters [nuns] and priests were taking care of them. I heard there were sisters and priests right in the battle helping wounded people and praying” (167). DeMallie adds that the transcript reads: “The priests and sisters were all over there [at Drexel Mission] praying” (Sixth Grandfather, 278). Fathers Craft and John Jutz, S.J., missionaries at Pine Ridge, were present at the battle; the five Franciscan sisters at the mission were not, but all cared for the wounded and refugees from Wounded Knee. (See Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion, 872-874).

I cannot claim to be in the same category as any of these Christians mentioned in Black Elk Speaks. Likewise, none of these Christians can claim to be in the same category as any of the threatened and massacred Lakota people. However, I do feel honored to have played a tiny role in praying and standing in solidarity with the Lakota people, who have been threatened and violently abused today by armed troops of DAPL; and I feel honored that, by doing so, I became part of a Christian tradition of loving self-sacrifice that goes back a hundred years, all the way back to the Massacre of Wounded Knee.

At the same time, when it comes to the holy innocents of the massacre Wounded Knee, I cannot distance myself from the violence of the perpetrators as easily as I can with the violence of King Herod and his henchmen. In many ways, I  likely enjoy benefits today as a result of the massacre of these holy innocents a hundred years ago; and I bear some of the guilt. The Spirit invites me to recognize my culpability and then to stand on the side of the vulnerable, which is where the Spirit always dwells.


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