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Review: Voices Of Wounded Knee

A look at William S. E. Coleman's work on the infamous massacre

The last of four quotes at the beginning of this book comes from an Indian survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre named Black Elk, who said of it:  “A beautiful dream, a wonderful dream, died there, there in the bloody snow.”

In the pages of this book, William S. E. Coleman takes the reader on a haunting journey in which the voices of truth-speaking Sioux  like Black Elk are interwoven with the fancy rhetoric of white politicians ,opinions and complaints of newspaper scribes, the sanitized claims of officers of the Seventh Cavalry, the more honest views of the enlisted men of the Seventh, and other observers, both white and Indian, to bring to life the events leading up to that senseless butchery of Chief Big Foot’s band on December 29th, 1890 which sounded the death knell of the dream Black Elk spoke of: the “Spirit Dance” (aka “Ghost Dance”) born of a vision of Paiute medicine man Wovoka who swore all the Indians had to do was dance and be peaceful to bring about the return of the Earth to them.

Coleman weaves explanatory text throughout the quotes and takes pains to question the claims of unreliable whites as well as clarifies or adds details when needed.

I only have two complaints.  First, the chapter “In The Corridors Of Power” which chiefly consists of extracts from the 1890 Congressional Record struck me as both cloying and taking the reader out of the developing drama in South Dakota.  Either that, or I am just biased against type of speech transcript that, while not recording if the speaker scratched his nose, burped, or sneezed, nevertheless duly shoves words like “[laughter]” into the text via brackets which has a way of tearing heck out of a reader’s concentration.

More importantly, I felt Coleman’s claims that General Nelson Miles –then in command of the whole US Army- exaggerated the reports about reservation Sioux made militant by Wovoka’s peaceful rituals (which had alarmed Indian Agents to no end who sparked the “crisis” in the process) in order to get leverage for a larger standing Army were somewhat unfair towards the officer who saw Wounded Knee for what it was –a massacre, not a battle- and ordered a Court of Inquiry into the matter. 

However, Coleman says at the end of his introduction: “If my own  opinions enter the narrative, as I fear they have, please accept or reject them as you wish.”  And that, my friends, along with all the other qualities of this book, makes me recommend it to one and all who want to gain better understanding into this hideous finale to the conflict between the United States and her native peoples.