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On "December 29, 1890"

"December 29, 1890": Revisiting Wounded Knee
by Angela Feggett

The massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890 is now recognized as one of the most significant and tragic episodes in the history of white and Native American relations. Nearly 300 men, women and children of Big Foot’s band of Minneconjou Sioux were killed by the U.S. Army with Hotchkiss guns (Brown 1). As the band fell dead that winter morning, so too would a people’s dream. The dream of unity, harmony, and continuity in tradition; and thus December 29, 1890 heralded an end of one phase of an indigenous people’s way of life. Momaday, intrigued and disturbed by this history and its ever present effect on Indians, responds in his poem titled after the massacre’s date. In his collection In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 the poet uses the famed photograph of the slain and frozen corpse of Big Foot as his touchstone for his lament. That image and many others of the massacre and genocide of thousands of Indians at the hands of whites during the late 1800s, continue to inspire the recurrent theme of annihilation in Momaday’s work and in the work of other contemporary Native American poets and novelists.

It has been said Momaday’s poetry is not easily generalized. Those who attempt to do so only find that his work cannot be pegged solely Indian or European because the range of poetic topics, voices and forms he uses is as wide as the Plains his ancestors roamed. In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems is one of his collections that displays that range. Momaday’s stories and poems in Presence revisit and exhibit Indian oral traditions using European modern poetic methods. The free verse and repetition we find associated with Native American chants and songs is present, as is the Standard English poetic form of the couplet, in which "December 29, 1890" is written. His varied use of paintings and drawings in Presence, some with smoothed, muted, edges (a self portrait) and others with striking, sharp outlines (a buffalo), also show his artistic influence and expression from both worlds. Schubnell comments on the subject:

Momaday’s work, however, reflects the multiple cultural contexts and traditions into which he was born or that he explored later as a student of literature and painting. It thus poses particular challenges, for Momaday writes out of the tension between these ethnic worlds,  assimilating and synthesizing a wide variety of elements from Native American, European American, and European oral, literary, and artistic traditions. (Schubnell 175)

The repetitive theme of European dominance is one that emerges from many different ethnic literatures and Momaday’s poem is not unique from this fact.

"December 29, 1890" suggests both political and social issues regarding the relationship Native’s had with the government and its military. The lines do so vividly by recounting what was with what is. For example the first line, "In the shine of photographs," lets the reader know that photographs were taken of the dead, which was an act that would have been considered sacrilegious to many Lakota. Death and the dead are spiritually revered. Whites photographing the slain was yet another manifestation of dominance. Although some contemporary Indian poetry addresses this theme overtly, Momaday’s poem does so subtly.

Although "December 29, 1890" discusses the tragic implications of the photographs, his drawing/sketch of deadly images in an expressionistic style that is placed next to the poem demonstrates how European styles and Native American images can reinforce each other and show the tension between two worlds. His interpretation of that day, caught in the photographs, falls in syncopated rhythm, as he unfolds, chronologically, the story and tragedy:

In the shine of photographs
are the slain, frozen and black

on a simple field of snow.
They image ceremony:

The massacre and its aftermath are described in a sequence, as if these couplets were displaying a series of still photographs. The actual photographs to which Momaday refers in line one, were taken after the massacre. The bodies of slain Indian men, women and children, presumably had become frozen and black due to the winter and exposure. The first line of the second couplet, "on a simple field of snow," continues the sequence, providing the reader with a satiric image of what Momaday sees in the photograph. He finishes the second couplet with an explicit statement, "They image ceremony:." This line has two significant purposes in the poem: first, to communicate the dream of the ancient ones to those who are listening, and second, to show how that dream was killed brutally and senselessly.

The sequence becomes seasonal in the next lines mixing images of life and death:

women and children dancing,
old men prancing, making fun.

In autumn there were songs, long
since muted in the blizzard.

In summer the wild buckwheat
shone like fox fur and quillwork,

and dusk guttered on the creek.
Now in serene attitudes

Interestingly, the sequence follows the seasonal cycle backwards. Possibly Momaday is suggesting the unnaturalness of the situation. Also visible is the subject of life contrasted with death. In the third couplet, we see a native people alive and engaged in the tradition of dance as part of their ceremonies. In the fourth couplet, the people, along with their tradition is all but gone, muted, dead. The subject of nature, landscapes and their importance in relation to Native American tradition, culture and literature is also visible. In the sixth couplet, the poet remembers the ancient significance of dusk and other times sacred and/or important to continuity of tradition. Of course, the images of former seasonal vitality by contrast, heighten the tragedy of the frozen death which is stressed in the harsh sounding words of the final couplet.

The famous image of Big Foot’s corpse was obviously a major impetus behind Momaday’s poetic response. The Indian warrior Big Foot was instrumental in helping the band of Minneconjou Sioux fight for their traditional way of life, for their dream. In death, still and glossy like the famed photograph of him, he is ancient now and has been "drawn in ancient light." The songs and sacred ceremonies, like the Ghost Dance, he and other ancients fought for are now passed on through oral tradition and writing, of Momaday and other American Indian authors committed to keeping the stories and dream alive beyond the times of tragic death reflected in Big Foot’s frozen image.

Works Cited

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1970.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Sing with the Heart of a Bear "Indian Poetry of Our Time." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Roemer, Kenneth. Bear and Elk: The Nature(s) of Contemporary American Indian Poetry. Journal of Ethnic Studies, 5, (1977): 69-79.

Schubnall, Matthias. "N. Scott Momaday." Native American Writers of the United States. Ed. Kenneth Roemer. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997: 174-186.

Prepared for Kenneth Roemer's English 5324, University of Texas at Arlington (Spring 2000)

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