On December 29th, 1890, a group of roughly 300 Lakota Sioux Native Americans were massacred in an encampment after a small skirmish. The skirmish ensued after the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, which had intercepted chief Spotted Elks band of followers and escorted them 5 miles to Wounded Knee Creek, arrived to a U.S. encampment. On the morning of the 29th, the 7th Cavalry Regiment entered the encampment to disarm the Lakotas, and according to legend a deaf Lakota tribesman named Black Coyote was asked for his gun but refused to give it up either through reluctance or confusion. This scuffle quickly escalated into the massacre we now know as the Wounded Knee Massacre. In 1990, Phil Dutton, Gunnery class of ’81, travelled to South Dakota with fellow classmate Hilary Cousins to document and observe a commemorative ride by the Lakota Sioux, in remembrance of the Wounded Knee Massacre. The photos Mr. Dutton took while observing the ride and spending time with current members of the Lakota tribe are on exhibit in the Tisch Library this fall. Mr. Dutton was kind enough to share his experience with us, and gave tours of his fascinating exhibit to several classes. Mr. Dutton was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions I had about the exhibit.
Why is it that you decided to travel to this reserve to watch and document this? My great friend from the class of '81 at The Gunnery, Hilary Cousins, had heard that this event was taking place at the Pine Ridge Reservation near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Hilary was working on a screen play involving some of the events that have transpired at Wounded Knee and we both had always been interested and sympathetic to the plight of the Native American people and their mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. Government since the "first contact" between white settlers and the native people of our country. So, it sounded quite interesting and we decided to just drive out and see what it was all about. I had completed a major documentary project in 1987, after graduating from The University of California, and have always been deeply interested in other cultures.
Were the people still very much involved in their original culture and religion? This trip was in 1990. The original Lakota culture-that of the great plains Indian horse culture-has long been subsumed by modern Western culture and some of its values. The U.S. Government, military and settlers simply didn't care about the native culture and made every effort to wipe it out. That being said...the Lakota people like many native American cultures have resisted full assimilation. This has been a constant source of conflict and continues to this very day. There has been an effort to build a pipeline through sacred burial ground on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota that was just halted after weeks of protests by native people. Standing Rock was where the original ride began in 1890 and where the memorial ride began in 1990. One of the purposes of re-creating the ride was to bring awareness of the tragedy that had been visited on their ancestors and to raise awareness within the tribe that their culture, religion and strength of spirit was still intact. As visitors and witnesses to the ride, the pow-wows, the feasting, the prayers, speeches and ceremonies Hilary and I could sense, very strongly, that the modern Lakota people were very much in touch with their culture and religion.
What was the atmosphere of the ride like? We were there only at the actual conclusion of the two week ride but we spent a full day with the riders as they rode into Wounded Knee. This is where many of my photos were taken. We spoke with many riders as they gathered their horses and as the ceremonies began. We also camped for two nights near the site of the massacre. In a word..the atmosphere was cold. Bitterly, bone-chilling inescapable cold. The riders came in and it was about 20 degrees below zero. At night it would drop to 30-40 below zero. We had all sorts of winter camping gear and were cold all the time. The riders, some of them quite young, had willingly endured this suffering for nearly two weeks, every day, on horseback. We were deeply moved by the native people's serious commitment to enduring these conditions that their ancestors had endured. It was a pilgrimage in a way that involved great suffering. The most amazing thing was that nobody complained. All the riders could speak of was the great honor it was to participate in the ride and the heroism of their horses and family members who supported them. You'd have to spend some time in that type of weather to fully grasp what it takes to survive a trip like this. And from a purely technical standpoint, shooting film under those conditions presents serious challenges. I felt very fortunate to have come away with a decent body of work from this experience.
From an outsider's perspective, was it difficult seeing and accepting the harsh reality of what these people's ancestors went through during the United States' migration westward? Yes. I'm not sure any decent human being could fathom what we did to an entire race of people and not feel an enormous sense of shame and disgust toward our own ancestors treatment of the Native Americans. My great-great x 12 grandfather came to America in 1630 with Captain Winthrop's fleet. His grandson, Thomas, born in 1648 fought in what is called "King Philip's War", "The First Indian War" or "Metacom's War". Thomas Dutton was wounded in "the Great Swamp Fight" near Narragansett, Rhode Island in 1675 and eventually made it back to his garrison. He eventually was given a small military pension for his service to the colonies. This is just not something I can be really proud of. While I understand the context within which History occurs, I'm consistently astounded and repulsed by the human capacity to commit genocide.
Did you go into this ride knowing anything about what had happened at Wounded Knee, and did the people taking part give you different perspectives on what had happened? Yes and no. Reading history is a good start but one can never really know the veracity of the story or the storyteller. But I had read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown, and growing up in the 1960's and '70's it was hard not to be aware that there was activism and protests occurring in Indian country. As I stated in my written piece that accompanies the show, Wounded Knee was the site of numerous protests. Even as a 10 year-old in '73 it was hard to miss the fact that a group of AIM (American Indian Movement) and Oglala activists had occupied the town of Wounded Knee for more than 70 days. It was in the news frequently and with that news coverage would come explanations of why the Native people were choosing that particular place to stage a protest-namely that 200 of their ancestors had been brutally gunned down there in 1890. There was not a lot of discussion of the events of 1890 during the ceremonies we partook in in 1990. It was pretty clearly understood that mass murder had been committed against their ancestors.
Seeing as this is a low point in both Native American and US history, how have you, along with the descendants of those killed in the massacre coped with this dark moment? I really can't speak for our Native brothers and sisters but I have tried to follow events that occur and examine how the Native people continue to maintain their way of life, their dignity and their right to sovereignty. The protests over the proposed pipeline at Standing Rock were simply awesome to behold and I was thrilled to see that the three Federal agencies forced the halt to the pipeline. Personally, I waver between simply not watching the news-which is impossible-and trying to understand and promote any positive, constructive dialogue that might move the meter in our collective understanding of our moment in History now. My father, born in 1928, was witness to great social upheaval in this country. His father, born in 1894, was raised by grandparents who fought in the U.S. Civil War. I knew my grandfather well and recorded his life's story before he passed in 1988. It's sometimes hard to fathom that the man who raised my grandfather fought in the "war between the states" that ushered in an entire new era of race relations in this country. An era that is still actually unfolding. We have elected a black man to be the President of our great country and 151 years after the end of the civil war the country still seems divided by the color of a person's skin. If you look at my Senior yearbook page, I quoted Bob Marley whose lyrics in the song "War" stated "Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes, there will be war."