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To Sioux, Wounded Knee Seems 'Like Only Yesterday' : Indians: Anger and despair over incident that finally broke a proud people remain real after 100 years.

December 26, 1990|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was in this atmosphere that Indian policemen were dispatched to arrest Sitting Bull, a strong opponent of government policy. "You must not let him escape under any circumstances," their orders read. When a violent mob tried to stop them, gunfire erupted. A policeman named Red Tomahawk shot Sitting Bull in the back of the head.

This all happened 100 years ago, but the events are so near, said Carole Barrett, an instructor in Indian studies at the University of Mary in BismarckD., that even today the descendants of Sitting Bull and the descendants of the Indian policemen who killed him bear grudges.

"It was a colossal tragedy for the Sioux people," she said.

The families symbolically laid their differences to rest just this month, in a "wiping of the tears" ceremony on Dec. 15 that marked the end of 100 years of mourning for the Lakota chieftain's death and the bloodshed that ensued.

After hearing of Sitting Bull's death, Big Foot, whom the authorities also wanted to arrest, sought refuge at the Pine Ridge, S. D., reservation. He and his band were intercepted en route.

As soldiers searched tepees for weapons at the camp at Wounded Knee, Yellow Bird, a medicine man, started to chant. Another medicine man sang a ghost song. Lakota witnesses said later that the first shot was fired when soldiers tried to disarm a brave described by some as deaf, by others as a troublemaker.

Some have charged that the band was massacred by soldiers who sought revenge for the bloody defeat of Custer's 7th Calvary at the Little Big Horn 14 years earlier. Whatever the motive, when the firing ended, 25 soldiers were dead. The number of Lakota men, women and children who died either on the field, in a nearby ravine or later from injuries was been put at 170 to 300.

Years later, Lakota medicine man Black Elk would say: "When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . ."

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