As I walked along a sandy path in Badlands National Park, I noticed a sign warning me to “Beware of Rattlesnakes.” The wind stinging my cheeks reminded that even if the snakes decided to brave the cold, they’d be sluggish and unlikely to bite. Still, as I walked, I listened for the tell tale “rattttttttttetattatt” and prepared myself to leap out of the way.
For some reason, I couldn’t get snakes out of my mind as I drove to the Pine Ridge Reservation located south of Badlands. I’d taken this detour to visit the grave of Black Elk, a Lakota Holy Man who is known from the book Black Elk Speaks, which told the story of the first half of his life. While this book has gone on to be a new age best seller, many people don’t realize that Black Elk actually became a Catholic. And not just a Christmas and Easter Catholic either. He spent 40 years traveling different reservations as a catechist, teaching others about the Catholic faith. His cause for sainthood was presented to the Bishop of Rapid City with 1600 signatures.
After a long drive, I finally found St. Agnes Cemetery, located on a hill right beside by BIA Highway 33. I’d searched about three different websites, looked at a few different maps and still drove by it twice. Turning on to the sandy road, I drove up the hill, worried that I might get stuck in my black Honda Civic, not exactly a car designed for uphill climbing even in the best of conditions.
But I made it to the top. Hundreds of graves lay all around me in various sizes and shapes. I found it after a five minute search–marked with an unusual black slab with the words “Chief Black Elk.” As I sat nearby, I took out my pipe and tried to light it, but the wind blew too hard and I gave up. After a decade of the Rosary, I sat near his grave and looked south. Just down the road is Wounded Knee, and I didn’t really want to go there, afraid of the overwhelming sadness I knew I’d feel.
Wounded Knee is where the U.S. Army committed one of the worst atrocities in its history. In 1890, the Ghost Dance gripped reservations throughout the Dakotas. Contrary to popular opinion, this was not a movement to bring Native Americans back to their old ways. Rather, it was an interesting Messianic movement that was a mixture of Native American spirituality and Christianity. In fact, one Jesuit priest described it as a “very Catholic ceremony.” The U.S. government decided this was dangerous and started to arrest any natives who they thought practiced it, including Sitting Bull (who wasn’t a Ghost Dancer), which resulted in his death.
On December 29th, the U.S. Seventh Calvary surrounded a group of Ghost Dancers led by Chief Bigfoot. What happened next isn’t clear, but the result was that the army mowed down 250 men, women and children with four Hotchkiss mountains guns that rattled like snakes as they filled the country side with noise and death.
As I thought about those guns, I realized why snakes kept sticking in my head: the gospel reading from today, Matthew 12:7-12
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.
“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”
The interesting thing about this verse is that when people preach it and teach it, it’s always about God giving good gifts to his people. And, certainly, that’s part of Jesus’ point here. But, what very often gets left out is the commandment Jesus gives us at the end. His words give the verses an entirely different light. It’s not just about God’s gifts for us, but also what we give each other. We’re called to be good and give good gifts as Our Lord would.
These thoughts weighed on me as I finally drove Wounded Knee. Before I took this trip, I read online reviews of the Wounded Knee site. All of them went on about “not much to see,” as if the site were there for their own amusement and entertainment. I realized these reviews are mostly written by white people on a holiday. In fact, there is much to see at Wounded Knee, if you have eyes to see it.
On top of a hill across from the big red sign that tells you about the massacre is the graveyard and memorial. A fenced in area contains the graves of all those murdered by the soldiers, buried together in a mass grave. Prayer ribbons line the fence and gifts of tobacco, food, sacred rocks and other holy gifts lined the foot of the stone grave marker.
From the beginning, Christians in America promised Native Americans the bread of Christ and then gave them rattle snakes. The rattle of guns at Wounded Knee were the sounds of the snakes biting the Lakota. I realized, at the top of the hill, the snakes we gave them are still biting them and filling them with poison, as many Native American reservations are full of crime, addiction, poverty and suicide. Their blood is constantly crying out for justice, and it’s on our heads.
I gripped my rosary. This, I thought, is what happens when a so-called Christian nation picks and chooses what words of Jesus to follow. Bad exegesis and misunderstanding don’t just result in error, they often mean that people are devalued and sometimes murdered. When people manipulate the Bible and the teaching of the church for their own ends, horrible things happen, rooted in a corrosive spiritual pride.
This attitude of superiority is dangerous, especially in light of the crisis in the church and in America. Is it too much to say that our attitude will result in killing people? Killing always begins with our attitude towards others. Wounded Knee happened because of the feelings of superiority, a warped understanding of Christianity and the inability to see beyond the American flag to Christ.
I shivered, remembering the rattlesnakes in my own heart that are ready to strike anyone in range. Anyone could commit the atrocities at Wounded Knee. No one is immune. Only being full of the giving nature of Christ can help us to see this uncomfortable fact.
Black Elk knew this and used his position to be prophetic to white culture, reminding us of what we claim to believe in the teachings of Christ. In the voice of the Other, he reminds us of what we claim to confess, like all saints of the church have done.
May he pray for us always. May the martyrs of Wounded Knee pray for us.
Before it happens again.