Heather Cox Richardson

 

On her book Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre

Cover Interview of June 07, 2010

A close-up

While the final paragraph of the introduction is perhaps the best synopsis of the book’s argument (page 18), my favorite paragraph in the book is on page 277.

This paragraph tells the story of what the men in the burial party found in the council area when they went back to it a day or so after the massacre. What they found was horrific, of course, but the paragraph does more than simply describe carnage; it carries the weight of one of the strongest themes of the book.

Years later, the men who saw the council area before the bodies were removed remained haunted by what they saw: women, girls, and babies, who, torn by bullets, had crawled together to die in each other’s arms.

The story in Wounded Knee is a story of political maneuvering and military campaigns, spheres in which women in 1890 had very little voice.  The men who designed economic policies and fought over patronage, launched military campaigns and supplied troops, did so in a world that they held separate from the world of wives and homes and babies.  Politicians and businessmen insisted they were protecting their dependents, doing what was best for them, but they made decisions according to an economic theory that focused on men.  When writing Wounded Knee, I was careful to keep that focus on the men’s world. Women very rarely appear, and then only incidentally.

But the point of the book is that national policies and national political rhetoric matter, and they matter on a very personal level.  While President Harrison and General Miles and Sitting Bull were arguing about economics and voters and troops, women were trying to feed their children, and to protect them.  For all the righteous language of the midterm campaign, what really mattered in the end was that people died.

Women and children who had had no say in any of the debates that led to the events of December 29, 1890 were murdered.  And in their extremity, fearfully wounded mothers and daughters clung to each other so they could die together.

Women are there throughout Wounded Knee, but they are invisible. The one place they become visible is that paragraph on page 277.  And in that one paragraph, I think, they balance—and trump—everything else in the book.