The infant survivor of Wounded Knee spent her life in desperate pursuit of a heritage that always eluded her
By Gene Smith
The baby lived. She had on her little wrist a bracelet, and she wore moccasins. On her head was a hide cap decorated in beads with the American flag. An old woman of the Lakotas named her Zintkala Nuni, “Lost Bird.” To the newspapers, swiftly doubtful about the righteousness of this last act of the long fight between the red and white races—for there would never be another, this was the end—she was the “little heroine,” the “little dusky maid” who was an “Indian princess.” Her situation came to the attention of Leonard Wright Colby, a brigadier general of the Nebraska National Guard, which had been hurried to what was originally termed the Battle of—but soon came to be known as the Massacre of—Wounded Knee. This infant could be, he said, “a most interesting Indian relic.” Colby decided he wanted this “curio.” He would adopt her; she would become his “protégé,” this “Ghost Dance baby.” He appropriated the girl, took her home, made out adoption papers. Then he informed his wife.
Clara Bewick Colby was in Washington, D.C., where she spent half of each year. An eminence in the women’s suffrage movement, the close associate of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was the editor and proprietor of The Woman’s Tribune, a bimonthly many considered the best newspaper the suffragists ever had. She went to the family home in Beatrice, Nebraska, and took charge of their new daughter, Zintka. (“Zintkala Nuni” proved too difficult to spell and pronounce.) Her husband, handsome, flashy, and reckless, a Civil War hero who had served with Maximilian’s forces in Mexico before going to practice law in Beatrice, quickly lost interest in the child.
Mrs. Colby dressed the baby in white, the color of the suffrage movement. She told of her new situation in her paper and, in response to readers’ displays of interest, created a new feature, “Zintka’s Corner,” in which she discussed the girl’s doings. A photograph of Zintka was offered to new subscribers to The Tribune. “All mothers,” said the magazine Trained Motherhood, “will watch with interest the mothering and education of this…child of the prairie. It is one of the most interesting cases of child study to be found in America.”
Everything was done in accordance with the standards of middle-class Victorian life. Lost Bird was given every advantage. But her adopted mother could not close out the world. When she was taken to visit Mrs. Colby’s family, in Freeport, Illinois, the local paper reported “a dark little stranger” had come to town, her hair and features showing the “unmistakable traces of her race.” When children of the family jeered that her real mother was a “dirty squaw,” she attacked them with such ferocity that her elders said she had reverted to a savage.
She knew no Indians, was never closer to one than the wooden statues commonly found in front of cigar stores, and preferred to play with black children. “Zintka’s Corner” offered cheeriness, but the girl suffered from an all-embracing sadness that made her difficult to manage. She liked to ride the circling painted carousel horses in the park for hours and had to be removed from them at the end of the day by force.
Multiply that by a few million and you have what happened to Indians as whole. Their old cultures were destroyed and they were forcibly assimilated into mainstream society--with its rugged individualism, do-or-die economics, and emphasis on wealth and success. Indians did about as well in this environment as modern man would've done in their environment.
For more on the subject, see No Apology for Wounded Knee and Wounded Knee "Delivered the Sentence."
Below: "Gen. L. W. Colby holding Zintkala Nuni (Little Lost Bird), found on the Wounded Knee battlefield."