We saw that you can see and face what you’ve done and are doing, America. Perhaps for the first time.
The Smithsonian returned, on loan, for the 150th commemoration of the state of Nebraska, ‘items’ or belongings which were picked from the bodies and from the village following General Harney ‘the butcher’s’ punitive attack on Little Thunder’s peaceful village in September 1855. Official sanitised reports claim 86 people killed, half of them women and children, when 600 cavalry descended upon a village of 250 at five in the morning. Contemporary archaeologists put the estimate closer to 130. Many people had run to find themselves surrounded in a ‘pincer’ manoeuvre and hid in caves along the Blue Water Creek. Dragoons fired into the caves and Harney ordered them collapsed. This butchery went on for hours.
Survivors, some mortally wounded, were marched by their aggressors and captors, ten miles South to Harney’s staging post at Ash Hollow, where we were this past weekend, a place of water and abundance popular with the pioneers and settlers moving West on the Oregon Trail.
I stood with an archaeologist and they looked up at the cliffs and explained to me how the landslides below weren’t naturally occurring. It’s highly likely that bodies were piled there and the loose cliffs were collapsed to bury and hide the extent of the atrocity.
The living and the dead have an intimate pact.
Settler descended residents of the town of Lewellen spoke of childhood memories of surprise at looking in the mirror and seeing pale skin. The land whispered and the strong and compassionate ones heard. They sought the descendants of Little Thunder, who was wounded and survived the massacre. A process of healing was initiated and a cache of dozens stolen ‘artefacts’ was remembered in a drawer in Washington. Members of the Little Thunder family asked for the Smithsonian to return what was taken and they were agreed to be retuned on loan, but for the State of Nebraska’s signature event and to be placed on display in a case in the museum at Ash Hollow. A doll taken from a little girl, a pair of moccasins, a bag. It was also agreed that these ‘items’ would be in ceremony before public display with involved families. I had the honour to be invited to and participate in this ceremony, but I never looked at the belongings, even though they were on display all weekend; I couldn’t find my place in something which feels so intimate and raw. Gawking feels inappropriate.
There is a Lakota word ‘wokinktuza’ (forgive the spelling) which means something like forgiveness. I saw and heard descendants of Little Thunder with that power and I saw that as example of a way to be human. Then I thought about the culture of America and how, now, after this unprecedented occasion, it is gathering the spiritual strength to have a good look at itself and it’s foundation. We can turn it’s military might into spiritual strength for a force for good in the world. The government will catch up but it’s led by the people. We’ve seen how Settler Colonialism has laid waste to vast tracts of land, rendered rivers undrinkable, turned what was, actually paradise- into hell, all in the name of progress. But now it’s going forward to our Indigenous Knowing, as it was and supposed to be. Now we’re remembering Original Instruction.
Spirits of bloodstained belongings of the past are finding peace and restitution. This is rippling through to the present. The people dance and sing on the drum with remembrance and celebration and we're reminded that those forgotten and lost smile and find a way.
Epigenetics is a scientific way of studying historical and ancestral trauma. Healing occurs for those victimised and for the victimisers, whose spirits also know no peace. For the individual and the collective. The USA is founded on untold genocide and in order to continue avoiding facing this fact it looks outward with hidden and suppressed shame and pain, inflicting the only thing it knows on the rest of the world. Invade and colonise. Hidden behind abstract and unconnected rhetorical concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘progress’ and inflicted upon the meek. Then exploit and profit the land and ‘resources’ of those places at the expense of the locals, historically indigenous, in a world where there is more than enough of everything for everyone.
We are coming to the end, one way or another, of this cycle of violence. Everything will and has to be returned to where it’s supposed to be. It begins with the loan of family belongings and continues to place, land. Everything has to return. Wh have to have the strength and find the power to carry this through.