Wounded Knee, December 29th, 1890 is full of meaning. Not just for the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota who were victims and perished in their hundreds, but for the course of imperial America. Its violence an echo of the violence that was the settlement of this country. The expropriation of the land from Native Americans necessarily involved a genocidal struggle, something evident very early in the history of Europeans on this continent. That genocidal war was also bound up with an economy based on private property and in irreconcilable conflict with the economy of native peoples. The Dawes Act of 1887 makes perfectly clear that the struggle against native peoples was also a struggle against native notions of collective property. And look how the land itself reels from that war!
Fly over the country today and you’ll see division imposed upon the land; plots neatly parceled (and at odds with their terrain, with nature) in the interest of sale and of tax. This pattern emerged 100 years before the Dawes Act in the Northwest Ordinance’s township and range system. The way even the land was mapped being determined by the dictates of private property. The Revolution meant the expansion of settlement, first into the Ohio River Valley, and expansion meant the commodification of land; speculation in becoming the source of great fortunes in the early ‘Republic’. For the gentleman farmers of Jefferson’s generation and after, native land use was simply a waste of resources, the exploitation of which they hungered for themselves. From the air private property is clearly visible; from the ground fences frame the story.
The settlement of the Americas was accomplished with as much racism as the slave trade, indeed it can be said to be a source of modern racism. The history of capitalism is entwined with racism and none were the greater recipients of its poison than native Americans. Yet, it would not be the first time that a race war was waged over property, nor the last. It is necessary to dehumanize those you would do to the likes of which you would never tolerate being done to. ‘Primitive accumulations’ are an ongoing, not historical, mode of capitalist appropriation. They didn’t end at Wounded Knee.
It happens now in India, in Indonesia and in Ecuador to name but a few. It was seen in the conversion of the formerly state properties of the East into private hands. It can be found even in the most developed of capitalist economies today; anywhere where sovereignty over land, labor and resources is wrenched from one group or class to another. Where economies are brought forcefully into the market. The closing of the west made gorily real on this day 120 years ago by that bitterly cold Dakota creek signaled the entrance of the United States into international struggle for markets and influence. It is a bloody marker denoting the birth of an empire.
The Seventh Cavalry responsible for the massacre was Custer’s old troop, formed in 1866 with the expressed purpose of pacifying native resistance in the West. A few short years after Wounded Knee, where seventeen men were awarded the Medal of Honor, would see the Seventh in the Philippines putting down a different native rebellion, accompanied by more Medals of Honor. The great wealth amassed from a continental appropriation would now be exported, in the name of democracy, in a manner as rapacious as the violation of the Americas, also under the name of democracy. Today, the whole world lives in the shadow of Wounded Knee.
I have been to the mass grave on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the colored ribbons tied to the surrounding fence snapping in the wind coming off the plains. It is a terribly sad place, a place befitting the terribleness it holds. In my mind the site is this country’s most important monument. Their grave holds not just the remains of the dead, but the reality, the horrible reality of the meaning of America; its birth, its growth, its present.
What would justice, genuine justice, be to the native peoples of this continent? From my perspective as the descendant of some of those settlers and citizen of the state that now strides this land whose birthright was dependent on the historic denial of another’s, the only justice possible is a death sentence on the Empire, whose epitaph will surely contain the words ‘Wounded Knee’. That and a restoration of collective ownership; an irrevocable removal of those fences, those divisions that the geometry of capitalist expansion knifed into a blood-stained earth.
Wounded Knee: Never Forget, Never Forgive.
thanks for the links Jef and George
Hoping that sharing this here, specifically, will help disseminate this information and petition challenging FBI intimidation of Native American scholar Dr. Waziyatawin, PhD. Thanks!
For those who haven’t seen:
Aaron Huey: America’s native prisoners of war
Just want to thank you today for edifying me with the article (and insightful comments)……Q @RR: were you meaning to reference SB1070?
Well, now comes the latest Imperial would-be border on the mind, HB2281, as broken down by one of my favorite AZ’ans:
Jef, thanks for the link and correction. yes, 1070 is the reference. I saw a report on the loathsome PBS Newshour last night on just the subject of the Ethnic Studies fight. Someone needs to rerecord Phil Och’s Here’s to the Sate of Mississippi for Arizona. Why is that next door New Mexico seems downright Social Democratic by comparison?
First, Phil Ochs, RIP!
Why re NM v AZ? Maybe that big balloon fest in Albuquerque each year which carries a lot of the hot air into the stratosphere helps. Anyway, the difference must have a lot to do with the states’ respective histories, though I really wouldn’t know. But obviously Native Americans aren’t having it easy in either state, lots of injustice in both places, and I know lots of enviro injustice in NM.
Happy New Year! Glad to connect and look forward to more good reads from you.
I don’t know the answer to this question but I would speculate about two possible contributions to an answer.
One – The Ranchero system created after Mexican independence from Spain resulted in explicit property claims that were largely recognized by the US in two states – CA and NM. In CA the Mexican rentier class and the old Ranchero system was basically swamped by the gold rush. In NM by contrast it formed a powerful landowning aristocracy, elements of which still exist an wield influence to this day. AZ by contrast was basically an anglo colonial-settler state.
Two – in more immediate demographic terms there has been a large influx of white retirees into AZ and not as much into NM.
“An irrevocable removal of those fences, those divisions that the geometry of capitalist expansion knifed into a blood-stained earth.”
made me think of the epilogue to Blood Meridian:
“In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.”
Strange dave x, I thought of Blood Meridian reading this too. Maybe it is all the murder.
Haven’t read it, though I’ve picked it up half a dozen times with the intention. With rare exceptions I have to be forced to read novels, which is strange because I usually end up enjoying it. Part of growing up in the midwest has meant that I have underappreciated the role the US’s relationship with Mexico has played in history. I certainly agree that that relationship and the development of the border is a defining one for a myriad of reasons– when the 7th Cavalry returned from the Philippines their next mission was into Mexico and after Pancho Villa by the way. Arizona and New Mexico, stolen from Mexico, were territories from 1863 and 1850 respectively until 1912, why sixty years as territories when all around were long admitted as states? The need for a white majority, of course. As 1170 in Arizona shows the definition of the border is an ongoing process, with all of the consequences you mention.
Nice piece RR. I think the connection between US imperialism and the geoncidal ‘frontier’ war with the Native Americans is indeed direct and as a dark undercurrent of US history is on par with the legacy of slavery as a shaping force. I know that the focus of this piece is Wounded Knee on its 120th anniversary, an important symbol, whose ghost haunt us still. But I think there is another dimension to this which cannot be ignored. US imperial ambitions had their precursor in the Monroe doctrine and in particular with the relationship (if such it can be called) with Mexico. There is a real sense in which the ‘Frontier’ became the ‘Border’, a continental division which to this day claims lives in the thousands, divides families, generates untold suffering, a living abomination emanating from the same dark heart that gave us Wounded Knee 120 years ago.
“There is a real sense in which the ‘Frontier’ became the ‘Border’”
– a literal sense too… as in ‘La Frontera’.
Excellent article. I’ve been to Wounded Knee in the Winter when it is even more heart-wrenching than your picture of the memorial site. But it is a holy site as well, not in any religious or mystical way, but as a place of power for future generations to overthrow that history and its present form of empire.
And your assessment of the fundamentally rapacious nature of capitalist accumulation is apparent not only in the unnatural division of the land, but in what has been built upon it … also visible from the air.
Thanks Rick- agreed, what also has been built upon it…