Layli Long Soldier on Wounded Knee and the Murder of George Floyd

"This country, the structure—if it were a dinner table, I’d flip it."

For George Floyd, his family, and all who are deeply affected

*

Today, after two months of Covid-19 lockdown and four days after the murder of George Floyd, I’m flooded. Tossing in the waves. I have cried many times in the last few days over the injustice and now, I’m strung out. And I don’t trust nobody. Except for my closest friends and relatives, I don’t trust nobody. Except for the land, as I have said before, I don’t trust nobody. Though you and I both know how the double negative works. I do not trust nobody unravels to mean, I do trust some bodies. Yes I do trust some bodies and I don’t trust anyone either. This is paradox: two seemingly opposing truths that exist within a single statement.

*

Under these conditions, I want to share a few things that I’ve been thinking about. Most of those things are memories.

*

First, I remembered something my daughter told me in the car one day, after picking her up from school. As soon as she slid into the front seat she said, “Mommy, we dissected an elk’s eyeball in science class today.” She was beaming.

“No way! Really?”

“Yes,” she said, “And guess what I found out?”

I was feeling the excitement. “What?”

“Guess what was inside the pupil when we cut into it?”

“Oh my God. What?!”

“There was nothing.”

*

The second memory is a collective memory, prompted by a text that Dr. Craig Howe shared with several Lakota artists, myself included, in preparation for an exhibit—Takuwe, which means “why in Lakota— dedicated to the Wounded Knee Massacre. If you do not know about the Wounded Knee Massacre, I kindly recommend an online search to learn more. But what is important to know, here, is that it occurred on December 29, 1890. Dr. Howe organized a day-by-day report of accounts from our Lakota ancestors preceding and following the massacre. Mrs. Mosseau recounted what happened on December 28, the evening before our grandfathers and grandmothers were murdered:

They made up camp at Wounded Knee creek about four o’clock in the afternoon with soldiers all around us. The soldiers brought Big Foot in an ambulance because he was sick. When we came to camp the soldiers brought him from the ambulance and put him into an army tent. After we made camp they gave us coffee, sugar, hardtack and a small piece of breakfast bacon.

About midnight we wanted to get some water but the soldiers refused to let us get it. After refusing to let us get water the soldiers called all the women together and let them go by twos, a soldier with a gun going behind each two women. At this time Joe Horncloud was interpreter, but at daylight Philip Wells was interpreter. At this time (daylight) a herald cried out that the soldiers would take us to the agency and take good care of us. The soldiers marched round in single file round the hill and told us to break up the camp.

Another of our ancestors, Iron Hail (Wasu Maza), recalled:

Some time near evening we arrived at Wounded Knee. When we arrived they gave us rations of sugar, coffee, crackers and bacon. I, myself, distributed these rations to the people. We had supper. While we were doing this, the soldiers guarded round our camp. Then they put Hotchkiss guns where the cemetery is now. There were so many guns all around us I could hardly sleep at all that night. I was rather afraid and worried in my mind about those guns.

Following the distribution of sugar, coffee, crackers and bacon to Lakota prisoners, their evening supper, and a sleepless night, at daybreak the next morning on December 29, the massacre ensued. Sunrise was at 7:22 am. The high temperature that day was 66 degrees; the low was 30. Dr. Howe could not provide a number of texts about what happened that day because, as he explained, they were hard to read. But among those provided, Alice War Bonnet recounted the hours after sunset, in the aftermath:

The soldiers started to get active and the noisy wagons were moving. The sun had set, and the guns seemed to get quiet. In the meantime, we moved to the north, and a child was asking for water. There were dead horses scattered about, and there were wounded crying out, but it was dark and we could see black objects here and there, but we did try to recognize the objects.

And finally, I share one last account from Mrs. Mosseau. This is what she remembered from December 30, the day after the massacre:

In this place of many pines, west of Wounded Knee creek, we stayed that night. I had one blanket and I was wearing several dresses. I had to tear up part of them to make bandages for my wounds. At least I had three dresses on and it was very cold when the storm came on.

I refer to this as a collective memory because, as a people, we remember who we are from our families, from this land, from stories within the community, and from our senses. Yes, from our senses, we remember what’s stored within us already. Maybe, sometimes, I/we cannot put words to it, but we feel something. I might call it instinct. It’s an old sensation that cannot be named, for which there is no textual record or language to help us understand. Yet, it is there just below the skin and just like that. I feel it here, today.

*

I might note that I am especially drawn to women’s stories and accounts, perhaps because I am a woman and I make natural connections. For example, the following day after surviving the Wounded Knee Massacre, Mrs. Mosseau wore three dresses—this image has hooked me, years after reading her account. I think about being a woman in this world, in this country to be specific, and the lengths to which I have been stretched. Yet, our grandmothers, they endured more. I know this so I keep going, sometimes, only, because I can. And I have learned that along the way—en route, when there is time—a dress can be ripped up to bandage.

*

Yet, the older I get, as a woman, I feel unable to endure much. It’s not like when I was younger, when I had more physical strength. I feel fragile and I berate myself, every now and then, for what I perceive as growing weakness. Even mentally and emotionally, I have less tolerance—only because I simply cannot tolerate. Like the sapling that bends and quickly bounces back to form, I could “take it” when I was young. Now, I’m a full-grown tree, a storm comes, and my branches break. I’m all broken up! And it takes so much more time to mend! That’s how it feels.

I have no words for why, though I can say with certainty that George Floyd’s murder hit me to my core, as if he were my brother, my own, my blood.

Throughout my life, intimate relationships with men have broken me the most, I confess. Cracked me right in half. I remember someone I once dated. It was a relatively short relationship. Who he was and when I dated him are not important, so much as what was at work, internally. There were many qualities I loved about him, and I cared about him, deeply. But I did not love him, and this created much confusion and conflict inside me. I felt I had no choice but to end it. I cried and lingered in depression for months, long after he’d moved on. I’d lie awake at night, agonizing, Why? After all the thought I gave to it, even now I cannot say why—except that it was instinct that prevented my heart from opening to his love. I knew something that I could not put words to. And without the words to define and make sense, there was no revelation, no epiphany, no shimmering thought to release me from the pain and let go. It has only been over time, with age and experience, that I have come to accept instinct as the lightning rod through which I know, energetically. Instinct is strong in me, despite all other perceived weaknesses. It is all I have sometimes and it is always, enough.

*

Instinct tells me when danger is here, even when everyone tells me it is not. I remember that man, he was a relative; everyone around me—even, common sense—would say that I was safe with him. Still, I locked my bedroom door automatically, without thinking. Instinct makes me reach for a bag, ready to pack it and leave, when I “know” I should not. As we walk along the sidewalk, instinct moves my hand quickly to my mother’s arm; I think I saw, though I’m not sure, an uneven balance in her step. And you might agree with me—instinct is not the same as intuition, though I believe they are cousins. In intuition, there is room for planning and negotiation. Let’s say, I have an intuition that my nephew has a crush on someone. There is time for me to watch, to talk to him about it; room to guide. Yes, usually my intuition is right about these things. But instinct is much older than me and it will not let me negotiate. I can’t ignore its command, so I frequently submit. I listen to my elder.

*

If you’re like me, you may have a tendency to skim over historical passages. I don’t know why I do this and I don’t like my habit. But I ask you, warmly, to return to accounts from our Lakota ancestors, quoted previously. Take your time. Because, in their words, you may sense an old, yet very present energy when you read, “A herald cried out that the soldiers would take us to the agency and take good care of us.”

You may taste that present energy in, “They gave us rations of sugar, coffee, crackers and bacon.”

You may see it in, “While we were doing this, the soldiers guarded round our camp. Then they put Hotchkiss guns where the cemetery is now. There were so many guns all around us I could hardly sleep.”

Hear it in, “The guns seemed to get quiet. In the meantime, we moved to the north, and a child was asking for water […] there were wounded crying out.”

Feel it in, “It was very cold when the storm came on.”

This is instinct.

*

US President Benjamin Harrison was in office during the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. This is what he had to say, following the murder of nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children. Again, I gently urge you to take your time reading:

That these Indians had some complaints, especially in the matter of the reduction of the appropriation for rations and in the delays attending the enactment of laws to enable the Department to perform the engagements entered into with them, is probably true; but the Sioux tribes are naturally warlike and turbulent, and their warriors were excited by their medicine men and chiefs, who preached the coming of an Indian messiah who was to give them power to destroy their enemies. In view of the alarm that prevailed among the white settlers near the reservation and of the fatal consequences that would have resulted from an Indian incursion, I placed at the disposal of General Miles… all such forces as were thought by him to be required. He is entitled to the credit of having given thorough protection to the settlers and of bringing the hostiles into subjection with the least possible loss of life.

I want to bold or highlight certain moments that speak to me in the above passage to make sure that you don’t miss them. But I know that you will glean and perceive what’s important to you. Mostly, I am thinking about the empowering beliefs among certain Lakota people that created “the alarm that prevailed among white settlers.” Their beliefs caused alarm, not actions. The US President placed into the hands of the General “all such forces thought by him to be required” for the protection of white settlers with the “least possible loss of life.” Those are the President’s words, not mine. This “protection” is called, now, a massacre.

*

Often, when I think of Minneapolis, the first thing that comes to mind is an afternoon ride that I took with my poet-friend, Heid Erdrich, some years ago. I was visiting Minneapolis for just one day and she gave me a mini-tour of the city. We visited Birchbark Books and the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Heid is Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and, as we drove, she shared her knowledge of the area. She told me that several of the old roads running through Minneapolis were originally trade routes (ancient routes, one could say) among our people, inter-tribally. And those old trade routes aligned with our star maps. Not many people are aware of this here, she told me. I was astounded. I felt so humbled and grateful to Heid for sharing this gift of knowledge. And though I hesitate to be so honest—it suddenly felt holy, driving in her car, on those streets, knowing they aligned with our star maps.

I spent considerable time reading and writing about the Minnesota region—or Mni Sota, as we also know it. I wrote a poem titled “38,” in which I unfolded an event referred to as the “Sioux Uprising,” motivated by deprivation and violated agreements with the Dakota people.

And when I think of Minneapolis, I also remember that this is where the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded. Here, I begin to make connections. Among other things, AIM is well-known for the takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973. For 71 days, AIM occupied this site as a push against police brutality and glaringly unjust government policies with Indian affairs.

And now, I just cannot stop thinking about Minneapolis.

I cannot stop.

*

A few years ago, my daughter and I drove up north to the Lakota Summer Institute in Standing Rock, North Dakota. This was in 2016, early summer, and the sun had set. It was very late. We were trying to make it to Prairie Nights Casino Resort before midnight. We had reservations to stay there, along with other students. Though we were determined not to stop, I had to pee. Holding my breath, I finally spotted a little town off the highway. I saw glowing street lamps. I took a right turn onto the town’s main street. I wanted to find an open restaurant or gas station. Nothing. The town was asleep. We drove to the end of the town, which took approximately five minutes. We turned around and drove back to the main highway. Just as I turned onto the highway, a cop flashed his lights and pulled me over. I had no idea why I was being stopped. And now, I’m sorry to say, I cannot remember the reason the policeman gave. Maybe I was speeding? But this is what little I do remember: He came to the driver’s window. He asked for my license, registration, etcetera. I opened my wallet to find my license. And my stomach dropped. I’d just applied for a new driver’s license and I’d forgotten the 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper—my temporary license—on our kitchen counter. I apologized and explained my situation to the officer. I gave him my old license and I knew that if he searched, he’d surely find me in the system. The officer asked me to step out and accompany him to his patrol car. I looked at my ten-year-old daughter in the passenger seat and told her I’d be back. He escorted me to the back of his car. It was pitch black outside on the North Dakota plains, except for his patrol lights. I cannot remember what he was doing exactly—there was an upright computer screen in the front, he was typing information, he was calling things in. Then he began questioning. I can’t remember what he asked, either, except for one particular question: Are you transporting drugs in your car? Yes, point blank, he asked that. I was taken aback. No, I’m not. You’re free to search my car, I said. We’re on the way to Lakota language camp in Standing Rock, I told him, hoping to alleviate suspicion. I was detained in the patrol car somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour. It was strange. I’d done nothing wrong that I could think of. I began to feel a dreadful, sick energy in me. It wasn’t so much because of the cop, but now I know, I could feel my daughter. Finally, I was “released” and allowed to return to my car. When I opened the driver’s door, my daughter was in hysterics. I had no idea what was going to happen to you, she cried. As I write this, I’m asking my daughter what she remembers. The first 15 minutes that you were gone, I was fine, she says. But after awhile, I started panicking. I thought you were in trouble. I started worrying that he was going to drive off with you. I nod my head. I could feel it, I tell her. Maternal instinct. And when we returned home and recounted what happened to our family, they ranted and yelled in anger, asserting that the policeman was not allowed to do that. I did not know my rights, I admitted. Yet, I’m still not sure that I do. After an internet search, I cannot verify whether that procedure was legal. And even had I known, I was alone with my daughter out on the prairie in the dark. The cop was big. Staring up at him, I found myself locked into his power, like a trance. My brain was a walnut. I did as I was told. I’m shaking my head because I know that my story is mild as milk. It’s plain. I’m sorry. Still, there’s one thing I know. From now until forever, I will not drive alone with my daughter past sunset on a road trip. Not because of the black night but because of the Blue.

*

Out of curiosity, I Googled the anatomy of an elk’s eye. It’s true, what my daughter said. There’s nothing in the pupil. It’s a hole through which light passes and is absorbed into the iris. And in that tiny space, countless reflections.

*

Horror, fear, anger, terror, outrage, panic—I felt this as I witnessed. Through the pupil to my throat, into my chest. Like an arrow, the images of George Floyd pierced my soul. I have no other way to describe it. I wanted to rage! This country, the structure—if it were a dinner table, I’d flip it. But as I considered how big this structure is, my adrenaline so quickly synthesized to poisonous dread. Timeless dread, older-than-you-and-me dread, from the grave and born again. For days, I could not stop my tears. There was nowhere for this sickly energy to go except back to the source, my eyes. With water and salt, my soul cleanses naturally. But I want to tell you what dread does to me. It makes me feel impotent. Like I have no arms or legs. Not even a mouth to open, cry out, or bite.

But I forgave myself for all those responses, even feeling impotent, because I’m sure it’s instinctual. Iron Hail could not sleep, neither could I. It’s the knowing, without words, that something is here. More is coming. I’ve been so shaken, I even asked my teenage daughter who craves independence, to sleep with me this week. Why? I cling to my child to ensure her safety. I am obliterated, emotionally. Why? George Floyd and I—we are from different communities, different backgrounds, different genders. On this land, our histories overlap, but in some ways, they are distinct. I have no words for why, though I can say with certainty that George Floyd’s murder hit me to my core, as if he were my brother, my own, my blood. His death—along with the recent chain of violations and murders of Black people—makes me feel desperate for the respect owed to them. Absolute respect. Not one more violation.

I must do something, that elder-instinct says. But I don’t know what, I answer. Forgive me, elder, the only way out of my desperation is to write. And forgive me for the gaps in this essay, there’s so much I don’t know and much more to include. Though I believe the adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” I also believe that words are meager. For my paradoxes and contradictions, forgive me. But I empty my pockets—here are personal memories, something from our ancestors words and Lakota history, knowledge about this land, a nod to our modern-day AIM warriors, love for my daughter and family, mention of a pitiful love life, my experience as a woman—it’s all that I have. Even if it’s meager, I give it to Mr. Floyd, his family and anyone affected.

I don’t know nothing but I do know something. I give, knowing that my offering is one of many. What is the opposite of impotent? Capable, potent, or powerful. What is the most powerful thing I can think of? The sun. Its light. Look at its power to reflect in incalculable directions, in the darkest places.

_________________________________

NOTES:

I thank Dr. Craig Howe for providing accounts from the Lakota survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and giving me permission to quote them in this essay. He has noted that Mrs. Mosseau’s account can be found in an article by Arthur C. Parker, “The Truth of the Wounded Knee Massacre,” The American Indian Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1917): 240-252.

I would also like to thank Heid Erdrich for sharing her knowledge about Minneapolis and allowing me to, likewise, share it here.

Featured image: marchers at Wounded Knee, 2014, via Confrontational Media on Flickr.

Layli Long Soldier
Layli Long Soldier
Layli Long Soldier holds a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA from Bard College. She is the recipient of an NACF National Artist Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She is the author of Chromosomory (Q Avenue Press, 2010) and WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017), which received the 2018 PEN/Jean Stein Award and the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award and was named a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. She resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.





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