September 20, 2010

Wounded Knee too sacred for park?

Here's another discussion of a subject raised in July:  Why No Wounded Knee National Monument?

Charles Trimble:  Preserving tribal heritage for future generationsThen-Senator Tom Daschle had proposed legislation that would have established the Wounded Knee massacre site and the cemetery there as a National Tribal Memorial Park. This prototype would have included federal funding for physical restoration of the site and its perpetual upkeep. Although it would be funded under the National Parks Service, the Wounded Knee site would have remained in ownership of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and would have been run by the tribe, creating jobs as administrators, maintenance workers, and rangers. The concept would not only have commemorated that historic tragedy and honored victims of the massacre, but also would have brought visitors to the reservation and revenue for the local economy.

However the Wounded Knee Survivors Association and others put a stop to the legislation. Their reason, I am told, was that they did not want anyone exploiting their honored dead by making money from the sacred site.

Whenever I return to the reservation I usually visit the Wounded Knee massacre site. On my last visit a few years back I was disturbed at the condition of the area, including the cemetery and the mass grave containing the remains of those massacred by the 7th Cavalry on December 29th, 1890. The outer fence of the cemetery was torn away in places, leaving it open to livestock, and the roads to the cemetery were deeply rutted and impassable when it would rain or snow. In the ravine where many of the men, women and children sought refuge from Hotchkiss cannon fire, and where the most wanton slaughter took place, bed springs, old tires and other debris were strewn.

My thoughts were probably typical of many visitors’ impression: “If this site is so sacred to the people, why do they allow it to be trashed so sacrilegiously?”

As we see all across the country, anything that is declared sacred will stifle development, even though the development might help some of the tribe’s own people out of wretched poverty. In such instances, there is usually no room for discourse or negotiation as to how development might take place without offending the spirits of the dead or, more importantly, their advocates among the living. The conclusion is invariably “No; it is sacred: period.”
Comment:  I think Trimble makes a good point here. We hear constantly that Native places and things are "sacred." Whenever something's in contention, it seems to be sacred.

I'm sure many things are genuinely sacred. But I get the impression people declare things sacred whether they are or not. Non-Natives are doing it with Ground Zero, which is too sacred to have an interfaith center two blocks away, and Gettysburg, which is too sacred to have a casino half a mile away. It wouldn't surprise me if Natives did it too.

Here's a key test: How often does someone in a dispute say, "Well, this thing is important to me. I really want to preserve it. But no, it isn't sacred"? That we never hear about near misses on the sacred scale is a clear sign. It tells me things are getting promoted to the sacred level whenever sacredness is needed.

Of course, Trimble offers a more obvious test. If something is sacred, treat it that way. Don't throw trash onto a "sacred" site if you expect people to believe it's sacred. Similarly, don't allow tawdry businesses to operate near Ground Zero if you expect people to believe it's sacred.

"Sacred" changes with times

Trimble goes on to make another good point:Tradition is important to all peoples, especially tribal people. Traditional adherence helps preserve an immemorial heritage of values, beliefs and customs that comprise our cultures. But we Indians should not suspend ourselves in the evolutionary process. Things change as they have throughout our history as Siouan people. In our centuries-long migration from the Atlantic coast to the woodlands of the Great Lakes, and finally to our glory on the Great Plains, our people have adapted lifeways, transportation, lodging, dress, and food preferences. And they have abandoned some customs, beliefs and rituals, and adopted new ones.

Even if the Europeans had never come across the Atlantic to our shores or Asians from the Pacific, we would not be the same today as our tribes were back in pre-Columbian times. We would be different because we are intelligent and we adopt new ways and technologies to meet our changing needs. When Columbus stumbled onto the continent, advances in science, architecture, agriculture, astronomy, and metallurgy were far along among the native peoples of South and Central America, as well as in the American Southwest. And this science and technology would have worked their way up the trade routes to the Plains and farther north.

And even without the relentless pressure of Christianity, our tribes would have abandoned certain traditional beliefs and rituals that were no longer relevant or credible. Our Supreme Being, Wakan Tanka, was not held out as an arbitrary or unbending master. There was no dogma, and no single religious authority, no papal holy man or Ayatollah. We were a spiritual people, not a religious society.

Accordingly, as intelligent people, we should be able to discuss what a merciful Great Spirit would condone for the good of the people. There must be a way to reconcile the human needs of our people with the spiritual beliefs of some. And if it was shown that it could be done with due respect to the spirits of those Dakotas martyred there in 1890, the Wounded Knee Survivors Association should have been willing to remove their objection to plans for a Wounded Knee Tribal Memorial Park. But no civil discourse or debate took place.
This applies to more than just the Wounded Knee situation. And to more than just Indian tribes.

Every society has outdated religious dogma, scientific theories, and cultural beliefs. Nobody should worship the past as if it's engraved in stone. The operating principle should be: Keep what works and discard the rest. I suspect even God would approve of that.

For more on Wounded Knee, see Iron Pony Inter-Tribal Honor Run and Lakota Oppose Copters at Wounded Knee.


Mamalayne said...

I agree with you up to a point (keep what works), but I think that they're right not to want to turn it into a tourist site. Little Big Horn battlefield monument is incredibly creepy and unsettling, with its trail winding through (and over) places where the bodies of cavalry and natives had lain broken and bleeding. I felt like I was walking in a cemetery right on top of the graves. I'd imagine the experience of Gettysburg to be something similar. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I would not want to see Wounded Knee become something similar. Yes we need reminders (constantly, as your posts so clearly illustrate) but if the Lakota don't want a National Park site, they shouldn't be called out by you or anyone else for hanging on to "old-fashioned dogma", as it's their dead who lay buried on the site. Unless I completely misread your comments...

Burt said...

I can see how the people at the battle site could feel about having federal monies being applied there. There always has to be a hint of intrusion and federal input with everything the government spends money on.

It always seems that in America, even the dead have no rights, especially natives. Since this site has predominantly soldiers and warriors buried side by side, I say let the locals decide.

Why can we just let the dead be at peace instead of always trying to turn something into a tourist attraction which leads to profiteering and vendors, and then carelessness from the rude, trashy and disrespectful nature of visitors and tourists?

The place is not a baseball park or an amusement park, its a graveyard and it should be creepy and unsettling, but more than that, it should teach us something about the history of this nation and its people.

dmarks said...

On to some real issues, yes...

There's more than a hint of intrusion with the National Park Service. In the Great Smoky Mountains, they destroyed entire communities. And closer to the subject, the history of Yellowstone's ban on Indians is a matter of record.

Rob said...

The main conflict Trimble describes is between the tribal council, which wants to develop the site, and a veterans' group, which doesn't. That's an Indian vs. Indian battle, not a battle with outsiders trying to impose their views.

Dealing with federal funding and oversight is a separate and mostly unrelated issue. That isn't what this column is about.