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Second Interview With Jerome Greene

Webmaster's Note: Historian and Friends member, Jerome Greene, talks with us about his new book American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890

October 2014

Bob Reece: There is not a subject so difficult to tackle as Wounded Knee. What drew you to what you knew could be a very long project?

Jerome Greene: Wounded Knee has resonated with me through the years, from the time I first learned about it in junior high school through the time I first visited the site in the summer of 1969. It became an eleven-year project (2001-2012).

I began seriously researching and gathering materials in 2001, prompted in part by friends like Eli Paul and Jack McDermott, who generously contributed the fruits of their own previous research on the subject. Others like Tom Buecker facilitated my use of much new material, while during that timespan my Brooklyn friend Marc Abrams offered a plethora of newspaper accounts that he had collected.

B. R. Why Wounded Knee? Why now?

J. G. I felt it was time; the last authoritative treatment on the subject had appeared in 1963 with Robert M. Utley's classic The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (The Lamar Series in Western History). Since that time, many new sources had appeared via the internet as well as in academic repositories nationwide - information and sources that had not previously been used. In addition, my friend Paul Harbaugh introduced me to Michael Her Many Horses, an Oglala historian on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, who accompanied me to places like the Stronghold and Grand River (where Sitting Bull was killed) and who otherwise opened many doors for me.

During the research process, I became determined to learn and to relate the Wounded Knee story in its totality - I wanted to explain objectively not just the massacre but the reasons why it occurred, as well as what followed as the Lakotas worked through what had happened to them to seek compensation for what clearly had been a terrible wrong.

B. R. During a phone conversation, you mentioned the discovery of new material relevant to the story. Of those discoveries, were there any that filled in missing links to the story, and/or were surprising?

J. G. Yes, indeed. Some enabled the further fleshing out and bolstering of background events, besides occurrences during the massacre and aftermath, and particularly the fight for compensation that followed all the way into the mid-twentieth century. Most books, I believe, had not dealt adequately with the events leading to Wounded Knee, particularly the government land takings among the Sioux, and most immediately the results of the 1889 land agreement, the ration shortages, the Ghost Dance as tailored among some but not all of the Lakotas, as well as the differences existing among the diverse elements of those people respecting their reservation existence that influenced societal schisms among progressive and traditionalists during the years and months preceding Wounded Knee.

I've included a wide range of Lakota sources that helped provide a well-rounded Indian perspective throughout the book, including incidents respecting Sitting Bull's death as well as the massacre at Wounded Knee. Documents further strengthened the view that General Miles hoped for a bloodless campaign and directly blamed Colonel Forsyth and other subordinates for what happened. Miles years later championed compensating the victims and their families, and even the hard-nosed Standing Rock Agent James McLaughlin agreed (late in life he took a leading role in the effort on behalf of Sioux families victimized by the slaughter). Yet the Indiansí efforts for remuneration in the end proved futile.

Of particular note regarding the massacre proper was the discovery that the teenage son of a Seventh Cavalry officer was present at Wounded Knee when the fighting erupted, suggesting that most officers believed that the disarmament was to occur routinely, thereby precluding the notion held by some writers that the massacre had been premeditated. Moreover, I found absolutely no evidence to indicate that such premeditation occurred. (Throughout the research phase I was specifically looking for that, too, but I never found it.) Also, the commonly held view that the massacre was payback for Little Bighorn seems to me to be largely unjustified.

There is also much new material describing the role and use of the Hotchkiss guns during the action at Wounded Knee, as well as a practical discussion explaining the award of Medals of Honor to soldiers who took part. Other information that will be new to many people includes the army killings of an Oglala woman and her children at nearby White Horse Creek on the same day that Wounded Knee took place, and a personal account of the head-on train crash involving soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry as they returned to Fort Riley, Kansas, at the close of the Pine Ridge Campaign. In sum, I've attempted to place Wounded Knee in a broad context regarding its background, and to provide a detailed perspective regarding events on the ground as well as its aftermath.

B. R. That is an amazing collection of new material! Those discoveries make your book so incredibly important. You graciously approach the debate about Wounded Knee being a battle vs. a massacre. In my opinion, one of your best comments is found in endnote 2 on page 529. This might seem an odd question, but why did you make that point in the endnote instead of the body of the work?

J. G. I believed that the statement in Note 2 (page 529) is more appropriate as an adjunct to the content in the first paragraph of Chapter 16, though I agree that contextually it fits as you suggest. Either way, however, I hope that readers will consider and contemplate its meaning fully and carefully. I'm glad that it resonated so powerfully with you, and that other readers might view it in the same way.

B. R. I'm sure they will. Is there anything you're working on that we can look forward to reading in the future?

J. G. At present Iím editing and annotating for publication the 1891 diary of a Sixth Cavalryman stationed at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska, just south of the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. The soldier played a role at Pine Ridge during the days following Wounded Knee, including participation in the final skirmish between troops and Lakotas on New Yearís Day 1891. Beyond recording and reflecting on events at Pine Ridge and his army life around Fort Niobrara (near Valentine, Nebraska) during the period of the closing frontier, this soldier witnessed the brief effort by the federal government to enlist Indian men as soldiers in the Regular Army. Iím also researching a book dealing with the breakout of Chief Morning Starís followers from their barrack imprisonment at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in January 1879, yet another tragedy affecting the Northern Cheyenne people.

B. R. That is an impressive body of work for us to enjoy in the future. For me, I'm especially interested in the Cheyenne outbreak from Fort Robinson. Thanks again for your time, Jerry. And, thank you for writing such an important book as American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890.

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