Wounded Knee And The Bloody Birth Of Empire

Posted December 29, 2010

Wounded Knee, December 29th, 1890 is full of meaning. Not just for the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota who were victims and perished in their hundreds, but for the course of imperial America. Its violence an echo of the violence that was the settlement of this country. The expropriation of the land from Native Americans necessarily involved a genocidal struggle, something evident very early in the history of Europeans on this continent. That genocidal war was also bound up with an economy based on private property and in irreconcilable conflict with the economy of native peoples. The Dawes Act of 1887 makes perfectly clear that the struggle against native peoples was also a struggle against native notions of collective property. And look how the land itself reels from that war!

Fly over the country today and you’ll see division imposed upon the land; plots neatly parceled (and at odds with their terrain, with nature) in the interest of sale and of tax. This pattern emerged 100 years before the Dawes Act in the Northwest Ordinance’s township and range system. The way even the land was mapped being determined by the dictates of private property. The Revolution meant the expansion of settlement, first into the Ohio River Valley, and expansion meant the commodification of land; speculation in becoming the source of great fortunes in the early ‘Republic’. For the gentleman farmers of Jefferson’s generation and after, native land use was simply a waste of resources, the exploitation of which they hungered for themselves. From the air private property is clearly visible, from the ground fences frame the story.

The settlement of the Americas was accomplished with as much racism as the slave trade, indeed it can be said to be a source of modern racism. The history of capitalism is entwined with racism and none were the greater recipients of its poison than native Americans. Yet, it would not be the first time that a race war was waged over property, nor the last. It is necessary to dehumanize those you would do to the likes of which you would never tolerate being done to. ‘Primitive accumulations’ are an ongoing, not historical, mode of capitalist appropriation. They didn’t end at Wounded Knee. It happens now in India, in Indonesia and in Ecuador to name but a few. It was seen in the conversion of the formerly state properties of the East into private hands. It can be found even in the most developed of capitalist economies today; anywhere where sovereignty over land, labor and resources is wrenched from one group or class to another. Where economies are brought forcefully into the market. The closing of the west made gorily real on this day 120 years ago by that bitterly cold Dakota creek signaled the entrance of the United States into international struggle for markets and influence. It is a bloody marker denoting the birth of an empire.

The Seventh Cavalry responsible for the massacre was Custer’s old troop, formed in 1866 with the expressed purpose of pacifying native resistance in the West. A few short years after Wounded Knee, where 17 men were awarded the Medal of Honor, would see the Seventh in the Philippines putting down a different native rebellion, accompanied by more Medals of Honor. The great wealth amassed from a continental appropriation would now be exported, in the name of democracy, in a manner as rapacious as the violation of the Americas, also under the name of democracy. Today, the whole world lives in the shadow of Wounded Knee.

I have been to the mass grave on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the colored ribbons tied to the surrounding fence snapping in the wind coming off the plains. It is a terribly sad place, a place befitting the terribleness it holds. In my mind the site is this country’s most important monument. Their grave holds not just the remains of the dead, but the reality, the horrible reality of the meaning of America; its birth, its growth, its present.

What would justice, genuine justice, be to the native peoples of this continent? From my perspective as the descendant of some of those settlers and citizen of the state that now strides this land whose birthright was dependent on the historic denial of another’s, the only justice possible is a death sentence on the Empire, whose epitaph will surely contain the words ‘Wounded Knee’, as well as a restoration of collective ownership. An irrevocable removal of those fences, those divisions that the geometry of capitalist expansion knifed into a blood-stained earth.

Wounded Knee: Never Forget, Never Forgive.