The Mission of Emerson Elk: A Voice for Native Americans
Do the people of the past have a voice? History is written by the victors.
Emerson Elk, a fluent Lakota language speaker and full-blooded Lakota, speaks softly. He is proud of his heritage. With his wife, Jerilyn, he tries to correct the myth of white man’s history.
His is a quiet voice that speaks to any who will listen.
Recently a federal judge in Tampa, Florida, returned treasure that was recovered by salvage in international waters to the Spanish government. The case made headlines, since the salvors used deep water technology to find a galleon that had transported gold and silver taken from conquered peoples in the New World. The vessel sank and was forgotten for centuries until it was discovered by the company Odyssey Marine Exploration and salvaged, and the treasure was brought to Florida.
Descendants of indigenous peoples made a claim that the gold was stolen from their ancestors, but their claim was thrown aside by the court.
This case gives pause for thought. The age of exploration was driven by greed and lust for gold. Columbus went the wrong way, landed on the Caribbean island of San Salvador, and called native peoples who greeted him “Indians.” However, he had not found East India nor the spice trade.
Subsequent voyages of discovery brought the Spaniards even greater wealth. Only 24 years later, Cortez conquered the Aztec people. Their gold, silver, and precious jewels were carried back to Spain. Priests of conquest had Aztecs tortured and burned alive if they didn’t convert to the new religion brought from Spain. The Spanish Inquisition continued in the New World as it did in the old. Mayan and Inca civilizations were likewise destroyed, and people were conquered, enslaved, and subjugated to Spanish domination.
Native peoples further north fared no better at the hands of the Spanish with their incursions from Mexico, nor with English and other European invasions of America’s eastern seaboard. When gold was discovered in the east, tribes were transported in penal conditions over what has come to be called the “Trail of Tears.”
Every place gold was found, native peoples were removed from the land. News accounts bolstered murderers in U.S. military uniforms who slaughtered Indians in their peaceful villages. Some tribes surrendered, and they became known as the civilized tribes. Some resisted. They were hunted down and killed, transported to reservations, and starved to death.
Bison were killed by the millions until none were left in the West. Wild horses were slaughtered to prevent indigenous people from hunting and continuing to live on the lands coveted by the whites for settlement and exploitation.
American history depicts the bravery of cavalry attacks on warrior people in pitched battles against savages. The last great battle was a victory as well as a final defeat for Native Americans. George Armstrong Custer, the ambitious and ostentatious brevet general who gained notoriety during the Civil War, cut off from his main force and supply, thought he could attack a sleeping, peaceful village along the Big Horn River in Montana. He wrote a letter to his wife, Libby, stating that if he killed enough Indians he could run for president.
Arrogance and bad judgment saw Custer, his brothers, and his entire detachment killed by tribal warriors on June 25, 1876. The victory was short-lived. Vengeance followed, as did continued planned extermination of native peoples.
Wounded Knee Massacre
Emerson Elk and his wife keep a roadside stand near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre that took place in the 19th century.
Lakota Ways, a nonprofit organization in Wall, South Dakota, introduces visitors to native peoples’ traditions and culture. Museum displays chronicle events that led up to and resulted in the slaughter of unarmed Indians on Dec. 29, 1890. A video and photographs describe this event, which the whites called “the Battle of Wounded Knee.”
The depiction is vivid; the documentary photographs heartrending. Even judged by the moral delinquency of American politicians and society in 1890, what happened at Wounded Knee will forever be a blight on American history.
A framed museum display on a wall at Lakota Ways contains thirty Medal of Honor citations given to soldiers fighting Indians. One citation is for Private Thomas Sullivan of Company E of the 7th Cavalry. The citation reads that Private Sullivan received the Congressional Medal of Honor for “conspicuous bravery in action against Indians concealed in a ravine.”
The truth is otherwise, a docent at Lakota Ways explained.
“Big Foot’s band was intercepted by the 7th Cavalry. Big Foot, the tribal leader, was dying of pneumonia. There were 252 women and children and 106 men. The band made camp in the valley,” said Joseph Shopbell, a tribal member who works at Lakota Ways.
He related that the families of seven Congressional Medal of Honor recipients from the massacre at Wounded Knee returned their ancestors’ medals.
“The Cavalry brought up four Hotchkiss repeating guns and mounted them on a hill in position ready to fire. The tribe gave up their weapons and were disarmed when the soldiers fired down on them,” Shopbell said.
Thomas Tibble, a reporter present with the troops, described the massacre. He reported that the bodies lay three days where they fell. There was only one survivor, an infant girl. Her mother’s body fell on top of her, and she survived the freezing cold. The infant was picked up and passed from hand to hand until General Leonard Colby and his wife, Clara, took her.
Her Lakota name became Zintkala Nuni, “The Lost Bird.” She was transported to California and lived with the Colbys. When she became pregnant, Lost Bird was put in a severe boarding school. Her child was stillborn. Lost Bird married and had two more children; one died, and the other was given up to a Native American woman to care for.
Lost Bird contracted syphilis from her husband. She joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for a time. She died on Feb. 14, 1920, of influenza. In 1991, her body was exhumed in California and buried in a grave at the cemetery that overlooks the place where her mother and band were killed.
Big Foot’s band was shot down in a ravine. A sort of arroyo runs between surrounding hills. At the roadside, Emerson and Jerilyn Elk keep a vigil.
There is a simple covered stand made of wood branches. A few crafts they have made are laid on the counter for anyone to purchase if interested. It is not difficult from this place to visualize the freezing cold winter with snow and ice. Members of Big Foot’s small band, starved and ragged, surrendered to the soldiers surrounding them on the hillside, with Hotchkiss guns aimed at them, helpless below.
“It’s not a battle when you disarm it,” Emerson Elk said. “The sign labeled it a battle. People defaced the sign put up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When the sign was changed to read the Massacre of Wounded Knee, the people left it.”
He gestured toward a large red roadside sign with white lettering that announces the place.
“They are trying to make me a U.S. citizen so they can take the land by eminent domain to get oil,” Elk said. “They are trying to make us impostors. Nobody can change the blood. I am Lakota. There is more than $1 billion in an escrow account in Washington. It is compensation for the white man’s theft of the Black Hills. We cannot accept it. My great-grandfather died for it.”
Elk, also called Sa I Mato, took his Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) identification card from his wallet. He passed it to a couple standing nearby.
“It has Emerson Elk and my social security number and my tribal enrollment number. My Lakota name is not on it. This is my name,” he said.
He produced a business card that bore Lakota language around a red circle surrounding a blue field dotted with seven stars.
“Tell the whole world we are still here,” he said.
This is a gentle man, and his wife is a gentle woman. There was clear definition in his voice, not anger. He spoke with conviction, expressing his thoughts in an English that was itself gentled by his intonation. There could be no mistaking his purpose.
“The president of the United States cannot make a decision for me. Wounded Knee is a crime scene. In 1890, my people were murdered here. The people were disarmed. I am a red man, one of the few left. I am a full blood. On April 28, 2009, they turned them into South Dakota state citizens. That is fraud. I have to make a stand for my people.”
All of the machinery behind the actions of the federal BIA and the state government is a bureaucratic lament. Like the Pope apologizing for past wrongs of the church, the U.S. and state governments at various levels have attempted apology for Indian affairs policy. These bureaucrats would hope the problem just goes away. They are content to funnel money into Indian programs and let tribal governments cope with rampant unemployment, substance and alcohol abuse, health issues caused by improper diets on white man’s foods, and prejudice.
In this, Elk is courageous. He has only words, and those are only spoken to the few who stop along the roadside near the BIA sign to listen to his truths.
“I am an untamable creature,” he said. “Am I going to get justice.”
He made it a declarative sentence, not a question.
“I come to the public. Could you help me. This is artificial,” he said. He held his BIA identification card.
“They gave me an identity on paper. We don’t want the oil pipeline. We object to what they are doing. We got $1,100 out of $3.5 billion in the Cobell lawsuit stealing our resources. The Indian is a monster that could live and walk on the Earth but not own it. The 1851 and 1868 Treaties make this treaty land. It is where the oil is. I’m a scavenger; I belong here. I have my language, I have my thought. We are still here; the Black Hills are still here,” Elk said.
Then Emerson Elk, Sa I Mato, laughed. He has a good sense of humor, and like native peoples everywhere, he can laugh at his own condition.
“By talking like this, they will probably make an endangered species act for me,” he said.
Then, seriously and quietly so that those few gathered around had to listen intently, he said, “What you did to so many people in this land, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
No one moved. No one felt offended by his verbal assault, which had now become a personal affront. It was the truth, but like any truth spoken to modern-day Germans, Italians, Japanese, Soviets, or any of a class of people whose ancestors were once part of a society of violence that embarked on genocide, the generation was removed from the holocaust. It was not apparent, only dimly lit by history. None of the gathered few, and none of their parents or grandparents, were alive when the massacre at Wounded Knee happened. Most of those who listened never even had ancestors on American soil in 1890.
“The 7th Cavalry had been drinking,” Elk said.
If that was the case, then these drunken brutes had little restraint when they finally descended on the dead in the valley and desecrated their corpses for souvenirs, cutting off body parts.
“Relatives of a soldier gave me a belt bag. A talisman. I opened it and saw blood marks. There were beads in it. We had a ceremony. I made a fire and burned it up. I burned the beads into the earth. His blood is still here,” Elk said. His voice was sad.
“I have children and grandchildren. Will they be listed as a gypsy, a landless Indian? We’re not Indian, we are Lakota,” he said.
Elk, who has had bypass surgery, pulled down the top of his shirt. “Today I am a survivor. Here is where I had open heart surgery. They give me medicine. I don’t know how long it will be before they kill me. They don’t like what I say,” Elk said.
That some would silence Elk forestalls his real death, the death of his people; the extermination of their way of life, their language, their traditions, and their society. It has faded away and been killed, murdered in as much a criminal act as the massacre at Wounded Knee. The culprit is indifference: white man’s indifference to some extent, and red man’s indifference to a larger extent. The destruction of societies of native peoples was complete.
What the white man could not completely extinguish were the embers that continued to burn inside the Lakota soul. Not murder, not starvation, not smallpox, not eradication of their sacred bison and “holy dog” (the horse), not boarding schools, nor the impediment of practice and exercise of their religion and the spoken language of their ancestors, could completely douse that spark of life. It continues to glow inside the being of Emerson Elk.
The grave of Lost Bird on the hill above the valley of death at Wounded Knee is marked on a small granite stone: Born May 1890, died February 1919. At the grave, a Lakota woman did not intrude. She stood to the side. When the moment of contemplation at Lost Bird’s grave was done, she spoke quietly.
“I spent a lot of time up here in 1973,” she said. “It started in a little calico building. We came up here in a caravan. Federal marshals were shooting at us.”
It was a modern tragedy that the federal government handled poorly when native peoples occupied a store near the massacre site and protested.
The white man’s word meant nothing. Their written papers were frauds, and their greed unsatisfied even with the extermination of native peoples on the vast land they conquered. The humble grave of the young woman, who was once a tiny infant and the only survivor of an entire band of people massacred at Wounded Knee, keeps silent vigil over the graveyard.
Emerson Elk and his wife keep their own vigil, living memorials to injustice.
John Christopher Fine has authored 25 books, including award-winning books dealing with ocean pollution. He also writes for major magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe. He is a master scuba instructor and instructor trainer and expert in maritime affairs.