Editor’s note: This is part 1 of Brad Upton’s visit to CRST. Part 2 will be published in next week’s edition.
Word spread throughout the oyate that a wasicu man named Brad Upton would be visiting Cheyenne River on November 7-8 to meet with the descendants of Wounded Knee survivors. Upton’s fifth great-grandfather was Major General James W. Forsyth who commanded the 7th Calvary and led the troops to massacre over 250 unarmed women, children and men at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. Among the dead was Mnicoujou itancan Hehaka Gleska (Spotted Elk). Those who survived the onslaught of bullets escaped with their wounded and made their way to modern-day Takini, whose namesake means survivor.
The history of the Wounded Knee Massacre and General Forsyth’s involvement was not hidden in the family, said Brad. At age 16, a family member showed him photos of frozen corpses, including Spotted Elk, and even at that young age, Brad said he knew what his grandfather had done was horrific and shameful.
Brad, a Buddhist, said he spent over 50 years of his life struggling with his family’s history and believed that his ancestor’s actions caused generational “karmic debt” which resulted in alcoholism, abuse and loss within his family.
By chance, his daughter knew Paul Soderman, who was a descendant of Brigadier General William S. Harney, who commanded troops to slaughter 86 Lakotas and capture of 70 women and children during the Blue Water Creek Massacre in Nebraska on September 3, 1855.
Paul had worked with Basil Braveheart (Oglala) to change the name of Harney Peak, named after the general, to Black Elk Peak. The pair were successful in their mission and the name was changed in September 2016.
Paul listened to Brad’s story and wishes to start a journey of healing, and told him that the journey would be a lifelong one. The two set out together and with guidance from Braveheart, eventually connected with Heartbeat At Wounded Knee President Manny Iron Hawk.
Plans were made for Brad to come to Cheyenne River to meet with Wounded Knee descendants and to perhaps address the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council. Flyers were posted, announcements were made on the radio, and a story ran in the paper of Brad’s scheduled visit.
Two days before the event, the Sunkwanka Agli Riders began riding their horses from the community of Bridger, the land of Spotted Elk. The ride to Eagle Butte would take two days, and on both days, the weather was brutally cold.
On Thursday afternoon, the temperature was 16 degrees but with 12-mile per hour winds, the air was five degrees. Slowly, Sunkwanka Agli Riders made their way down Highway 63, riding in prayer and meditation. Around 4 p.m., the group arrived at the Veterans Center. There was no big celebration or welcome, just a continued state of prayer.
Community members began to arrive, taking their seats in the chairs that were placed in a circle. The atmosphere was heavy with anticipation and tension of a conflicted people.
Tears were shed, vulgarities were said, and threats were spoken among some as they waited for the stranger to enter the building. But so too were words of encouragement, support and prayer spoken by others. Only time would tell what kind of welcome Brad Upton would receive.
The doors opened and entered Brad and Paul. The room was silent as the men began shaking hands with the people. There were whispers, while some glares were deafening. As the men made their way around the room, chatter began and there was no outburst, only handshakes and unspoken confliction.
Manny Iron Hawk welcomed the men into the center of the circle as he shook their hands. More people began to arrive and more chairs were brought out to accommodate everyone. Brad and Paul took their seat to the north, facing the people as Manny began his welcome address.
“Our history is not written in books. It is not taught in our schools. We descendants know our stories. My mother knew our stories and when she talked about them, she would get sad, and I would feel that sadness too. I don’t want my kids to be sad. I want us to heal. We have been waiting over one hundred years to do this. Now is the time,” said Manny.
Spiritual leader Ivan Looking Horse then spoke. “Brad is very courageous to come here to Cheyenne River where there are four bands. Forgiveness, we lost a lot of relatives down south at Wounded Knee. We lost a lot of people who come from these four bands. Tonight we are going to do a ceremony and share a meal with everyone,” he said before performing a prayer and song.
Paul then spoke, introducing himself and sharing his personal experience and journey of working with Basil Braveheart to change the name of Harney Peak. He also said that he knew the Little Thunder family and acknowledged naca Harry Little Thunder who was sitting in the circle. He called the Little Thunders his family and said that Brad’s journey of wokintunze was just beginning.
Brad then took to the microphone and introduced himself. He became emotional, clasped his hands as he thanked everyone. His speech was brief and there were whispers among the crowd as he sat back down.
The tension in the room was palpable.
Ivan spoke again and talked about how years of genocide and historical trauma have resulted in poverty, loss of land, culture, language and the traditional structure of the tiospayes. But with that loss comes hope and the chance to heal.
“We always come together and say what we want for our future. On Cheyenne River, we have four bands who have gone through a lot. It’s very hard to forgive. It’s one of the hardest things to do in this world. It takes a lot of prayer to get into that frame of mind. These are stepping stones to make the peace. The rest of the world is looking at the Lakota nation. We are the keepers of Grandmother Earth. We can show the world that we can do these things with a good heart,” said Ivan.
Former CRST Chairman and respected elder Melvin Garreau was helped to the center of the circle. There, he sat and spoke in Lakota and then in English. Looking at Brad, he said, “You are very brave. You are not in an encampment of enemies. You are in a camp of a people trying to find their way.”
In an instant, his words uplifted the spirit of the people, and sounds agreements echoed throughout the room. Brad approached Melvin, shook his hand and emotionally thanked him.
Naca Harry Little Thunder also spoke about historical trauma and the failure of educational systems in America to accurately teach history, particularly, history of indigenous people.
“We all know and grew up with stories of Wounded Knee. Why wasn’t it taught in school? If America taught the real history, there would be no racism. They would have no fear. They don’t know who we are. If you want to know who we are, come talk with us. We are strong people of the land,” said Harry.
Emanuel Red Bear was invited to speak and he said that when Paul and Brad first entered the building, he touched them and counted coup on them.
“When I heard this man was coming, I had thoughts about forgiveness and I had thoughts about madness. You descendants, you deserve this apology. Your relatives didn’t deserve to be killed that day- those women and children and unarmed men, under that flag of truce. Only one man had a conscious to come here to ask for forgiveness. There needs to be more for all the history that was done to our Lakota people,” said Emanuel.
Other tribal members spoke, including Marlis Afraid of Hawk, who shared stories about her grandfather, Richard, a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre who spent his life advocating for the revocation of Medals of Honor given to 20 soldiers who participated in the killing. Continuing her grandfather’s work, she is also one of the proponents of the Remove the Stain Act, legislation which aims to do just that.
Cherry Creek resident Monty Condon also spoke and talked about the annual Wounded Knee Memorial ride and said that in 1990 in the fourth year of the ride, a ceremony was performed and the spirits revealed that was to be the last ride. He encouraged the people to think about the ceremony and putting an end to the annual ride. He then shared a song about Spotted Elk.
Bridger resident and Sunkwanka Agli head man Roderick Dupris then spoke, and unwrapped a bundle, revealing a ghost dance shirt. “This shirt is small, it will only fit a child. This is why they killed us,” he said.
Roderick also talked about the sacrifices that the Sunkwanka Agli Riders make each year as they ride in remembrance and prayer, and shared stories about the group’s late founder, Byron Buffalo.
The time for ceremony was near, and Ivan announced that both Brad and Paul had agreed to give a flesh offering. The drum group sang prayer songs as Ivan prepared his canupa. With the help of Moreno Waloke, flesh was first taken from Paul, then Brad. Both were offered sage to put over their wounds to help stop the trickle of blood. Their offering was wrapped in red cloth and given back to them with instructions to go on a hill and pray.
A wiping-of-the-tears ceremony followed for all who wished to participate. Songs and the beating of the drum reverberated throughout the room as the aroma of burning sage filled the air. The men whooped and the women trilled.
When all prayers were completed and ceremonies ended, everyone was invited to shake hands with Brad and Paul, and a meal was served. After dinner, Brad was presented with a star quilt.
On the second day of their visit, the pair left Eagle Butte and drove to Bridger, the land of Spotted Elk, to meet with the descendants of the Wounded Knee Massacre. They drove through Cherry Creek, touring the homelands of the Mnicoujou and of Spotted Elk’s people.
At the UCC church in Bridger, community members congregated and awaited for the arrival. Some in the audience had been at the Veterans Center the night before and shared with others what had happened there.
In late afternoon, Brad and Paul entered the church and all eyes were on them as they made their way through the room, shaking hands. Bridger resident Debbie Day did a welcome address and opening prayer.
Brad then spoke, introducing himself before he shared his family’s connection to Wounded Knee, and the lifelong struggle he has had with his ancestor’s actions. He said that it was his hope that his visit would be the beginning of healing and wellness for the Lakota people and for himself.
“I was very ashamed. All my life I prayed to heal from the genocide that my ancestor inflicted on you. I realized that I could not forgive my ancestor for what he did to your ancestors and your community. That is why I am here- to say that I want to return many times. I know that there are a lot of people who aren’t ready to forgive and that’s okay. I ask for your guidance. I can’t do any of this without your guidance and wisdom,” said Brad.
The floor was opened for questions and comments. Dena Waloke asked if Brad would go on next month’s Wounded Knee memorial ride, to which Brad responded that he thought it was too soon for that.
“I don’t want to come in a bluster. There are many who are conflicted. I can do something less controversial, and with your guidance, we can think of something,” he said.
Roderick Dupris then spoke about the importance of the ride and said that if the people want this to be the last year or riding, he will respect their wishes and make is so with the Sunkwanka Agli Riders. He also talked to Brad and shared his feelings about his visit to Cheyenne River.
“I can’t accept your apology because you didn’t do it, but I can accept you. I can be your friend. That is more than an apology,” said Roderick.
Dena spoke again about her late brother, Byron Buffalo, and his lifelong work within the community to heal the wounds and fill the void of unhealed sorrows of the massacre.
“Byron would’ve been happy that you have come,” she said before presenting Brad and Paul with necklaces.
A meal prayer was performed and food was served. Brad and Paul sat at a table, visiting with community members and learning about the families who were present, and of families who had lost ancestors in the massacre.
Remi Bald Eagle then spoke, “The loss of relatives who should be here with us, haunts us in the grief and sorrow we carry with us, and in the shame, guilt and grief that you carry with you. We cannot forgive you anymore than we can stop grieving. But you can use your words to address the wounds of history. Tell the truth of what happened and of who we are. Your words and your positions have as much power as your relatives did in those days. Your voice can be a cannon, fired in the defense of truth.”
The room filled with agreeing whoops and trills. After tears were shed among the visitors and community members, Brad passed out braids of sweetgrass with yellow and white prayer ties attached to them. The day wrapped up with photos, hugs, handshakes, invitations to the men to return to Cheyenne River. Before the they left, Brad and Paul said that their drive home would be filled with prayer and meditation of all that occurred during their visit, and they thanked everyone for their words, hospitality and time.