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American Carnage: Wounded Knee

American Carnage

By Jerome Greene

Book Review by Bob Reece, October 2014

All excerpts from American Carnage, copyright by Jerome Greene and University of Oklahoma Press.

"What happened next took but seconds but would mark memory and history forever. A single gunshot pierced the air."

          American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890

Written from a strikingly fresh perspective, Greene's masterful new interpretation of the Wounded Knee Massacre - yes, it would evolve into a massacre and Greene explains why we should refer to it as such - is an epic tome of breakthrough revelations.

The first act is an accounting of reservation life immediately after the Sioux/Cheyenne War of 1876. The government eroded reservation boundaries and cut rations, which resulted in the Lakota living in complete despair. These were perfect ingredients for the Ghost Dance religion, which promised the Lakota people escape from their deplorable existence. The reader will be surprised to learn that in its original form, the Ghost Dance Religion preached a message of peace, and that the whites would disappear from the face of the earth. The Ghost Shirt evolved from a beautifully decorated ceremonial garment into a bulletproof vest only after thousands of troops arrived onto the reservation. Moreover, Greene expounds that it was the whites who envisioned the dance as a sign of future conflicts of bloodshed, and the Ghost Shirt fed into those fears.

There is tension as the massive mobilization of the countless army units made their way to Pine Ridge Agency. Greene builds life into these units, commanders, and private soldiers, as well as with the people and the ranchers living on and around the agency.

A pivotal arc of the book deals with brutal force in the killing of Sitting Bull. The Lakota call this tragic episode the Battle in the Dark, and Greene delivers it with the weight of its dead: six Indian police and eight Indians, including Sitting Bull and his 14-year-old son, Crowfoot. Although Sitting Bull's death ended the Ghost Dance on the Standing Rock reservation, Greene explains further, "The bloody violence that erupted in the dark that morning along Grand River was but a prelude to something altogether worse."

The first act ends on the eve of the massacre. Greene paints a vivid portrait of the soldiers and the Indian camps that night. The sounds from the Indian village traveled far and wide in the bitter cold night air. Soldiers described a tranquil Lakota camp, yet found it difficult to sleep because of the cold. Fellow captains Godfrey and Wallace spent the night in the same tent. One can almost imagine hearing them discuss the horrors they had seen on the Little Bighorn 14 years previous. It would be Wallace's last night on earth.

At the heart of the book lies the massacre, whose causes - as Greene explains - will forever be questioned. Drawing on his careful study of primary sources and the Indian community, Greene provides - beyond anyone previous - the most comprehensive analysis as to those causes. No one has approached it like Greene: true to the events – and the events as they were perceived – are the key criteria that he fully documents. This simple, yet complex storytelling is mostly what has been missing in previous works on this subject. It is just one component of many that make American Carnage an American masterpiece.

As events in the Indian camp unfold the morning of December 30, 1890, Greene builds suspense until it all snaps because of one gunshot. What began as a battle and the defensive reaction of the soldiers changed into "the unchecked and devastating slaughter of innocents." The reader is reminded that many of the Lakota in this village were a generation who did not come from the wilds of early Montana or Wyoming. Reservation life was all large numbers of the people had experienced. They could speak English, attended schools, and experienced daily life with their white neighbors. Greene explains, "Although one might hesitate to use the word 'bloodlust' to explain what happened [among the soldiers] at Wounded Knee, the term is a clear reflection of how the events must have seemed to the Indians involved, particularly noncombatant women, children, and elderly men." The massacre in American Carnage is ferocious and heart wrenching. No glory is found anywhere on this field or in the shadows of its dark ravines, only mangled human beings.

Most books about Wounded Knee conclude with the last shot fired; however, Greene's narrative continues from the final act into the present. There are the accounts of the troops returning home, including the head-on train collision involving the 7th Cavalry (Godfrey leapt from the train to cheat death, but was badly injured). Regarding the Lakota survivors at Wounded Knee, their story is well told: their work to place a memorial at the mass grave was rewarded on May 28, 1903. Decades of political struggle to attain restitution for the dead and injured continued well into the 20th century, but were fruitless. There is also the story of a movie based on the massacre that was filmed on the site using survivors who played themselves. Greene deserves special recognition for his superbly reasoned section regarding the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to members of the 7th Cavalry and 1st Artillery. This subject likely will not be resolved soon.

American Carnage is evidence for Greene’s inclusion into the fraternity of genius American historians. It is a remarkable account of the passing of the Buffalo culture of the Lakota people. Like Utley's Last Days of the Sioux Nation, Connell's Son of the Morning Star, and Gray's Custer's Last Campaign, Greene will be remembered for American Carnage.

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