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Wounded Knee War Loot Reminds Us of Systemic Racism

South Dakota state historian recognizes the 131st anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre by posting a photo of the war loot seized from the dead by one of the U.S. Army murderers on December 29, 1890:

Ben Jones, tweet of Ghost Shirt on display at South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, 2021.12.29.
Ben Jones, tweet of Ghost Shirt on display at South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, 2021.12.29.

When I ask if that Ghost Shirt is “a trophy ripped from a corpse by one of the US Army soldiers who committed the massacre,” Dr. Jones replies, “To Private Eisenberg it’s fair to assume it was a trophy. To us it’s an important artifact and a part of our history.”

Private Eisenberg is cited in the tag under the right arm of the Ghost Shirt in the display case in Pierre: “Lieutenant James Mann confiscated this ghost shirt from a Private Eisenberg, who removed it from the body of a Miniconjou man who fell at the Wounded Knee Massacre, South Dakota.” So, yes, this is an important artifact demonstrating the indecency shown by a U.S. Army soldier in looting his victims and the broader atrocity of the war our ancestors wage to steal the land we enjoy living on today.

But as friend and fellow ex-pat Ben Nesselhuf notes, pointing out such grim history could cause individuals to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress,” and Dr. Jones’s friend and patron the Governor wants to outlaw such bad historical feelings, so he and I both should maybe back off posting photos of Wild West war loot, lest anyone draw connections between the U.S. Army’s dishonorable treatment of the Lakota people, the systematic subjugation of Indigenous people by our European ancestors, and the ongoing systemic racism in the American institutions founded on stolen land.

The Ghost Shirt displayed by Dr. Jones yesterday appears to be different from the renowned Ghost Shirt that George Carlton Crager, an American linguist, interpreter, and soldier, gave to a Glasgow museum when he served as chief interpreter for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show on its 1891–1892 tour through Europe. The Kelvingrove Museum of Glasgow repatriated the shirt to South Dakota in 1999, with an agreement that the shirt would be displayed at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Museum in Pierre until the Lakota could build a museum with proper preservation capabilities to display the shirt Crager stole. Lakota activists are still negotiating with the Kelvingrove Museum to repatriate other items that Crager took from Wounded Knee.

Cody’s tour of Scotland included 21 Lakota, several of whom were present at the Wounded Knee Massacre. One contemporary report in The Scotsman referred to those Lakota participants as “Buffalo Bill’s hostages from the American Government.” According to a March 1892 article in the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, the United States government sent Lakota prisoners of war on this tour of Europe to convince their people of white supremacy:

Mr. Crager said that in his opinion the tour had been a wise move on the part of the government. The Indians had become fully impressed with the power and importance of the white race.

He had taken particular pains to take them to several of the most famous centers of European thought and culture. They had traveled through France, Germany, and Italy, and had visited Heidelberg University and the museums of Berlin, Munich, and London. They had also seen the great fortifications and factories, the armies and the ships and ship-yards. They displayed great interest in all these things, and asked many questions. One of the things that had most impressed them was the launching of a big Atlantic liner. In fact, they had received an education in civilization which would enable them to convince their people that the white man was too strong for them to resist” [author not cited, “Our Sioux Swells,” Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, 1892.03.21; reprinted in The William F. Cody Archive, retrieved 2021.12.30].

Remember Wounded Knee, and remember the white racism that has continued ever since.


  1. Donald Pay 2021-12-30 08:13

    That statement by Ben Jones seems particularly heartless, and white privileged. Maybe not, though. One wonders what he meant by “our history,” but if he meant that genocide or mass murder by the United States of America, yes, I can agree with that. And that does make me feel shame, as it should.

  2. John 2021-12-30 08:48

    One views history through ones filters. This 13 minute clip of Ted Koppel revisiting Mayberry is instructive. Koppel filmed in June. It was broadcast in September.
    It’s surreal how the screen writers created a Mayberry and a time that never existed. It’s surreal how many (millions?) now treat that fiction as if it was a historical reality. Similarly, the trumpsters and our part time governor treat our (the collective our) history as needing their fictional filter freeing it of genocide, murder, and wanton hate. It’s fascinating how the soft propaganda of entertainment caused millions to ignore or minimize the rapture of the 1960s. Like they whitewashed the 1960s, the MAGA cohort continue white washing our history with their assaults on CRT, social studies, and voting rights.

    Testament from Captain Silas Soule reminds one of the savageness of the19th century Army. Soule witnessed but did not participate and refused to allow men under his command to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre, about 35 years before Wounded Knee.

  3. RST Tribal Member 2021-12-30 09:43

    Dang white guys even looting the ones they murdered! Now, that is America at its finest in 1890 up to now. Then to hold the lifted from dead body stolen items hostage from the family and tribe is the American way many Natives in South Dakota and beyond experience and know.

    Forever into the future there should be suspicions when unknown or known whites (like the ass wipes from Winner) come to wakes on the reservation. Who knows what they will steal while leaning over the casket.

    For example in 1862 William Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, stole the remains of Cut Nose, a Dakota prisoner of war, from the grave after celebrating his hanging on December 26. The skull of Cut Nose remained on display until it was returned in 1998.

    Gee stolen from a grave in 1862. Stolen! Returned in 1998. Stolen from a frozen dead body in 1890, still held hostage in 2021. How low will a white guy go? Oh yea, always another low like the Brandon bull crap in the Winner racist rag with a smiling Christian wishing another white Christian guy, who happened to his President, a f’ed up Christmas. That’s Winner and their inbreds showing intelligence and ignorance. What isn’t printed is that smiling Christian’s family’s racists enterprising towards Tribal members within the 1889 boundaries of the Rosebud Reservation.

  4. Mark Anderson 2021-12-30 10:27

    You know, back in the 70s I took a museum course at USD to learn something about museums. Unfortunately It was a work force class, not a learning class, they needed free labor. They were also worried about AIM coming to the museum, this was before it became a music museum. So this other kid and I had to pack up all the Native American skulls in the basement. Which we did, all the while drinking cans of beer while we did it, it was an easy smuggle in. I don’t know where they shipped them, but somewhere. I Felt totally bad about it, wished AIM had come. It was about Wounded Knee time. I still wonder if they have been returned to the reservations?

  5. leslie 2021-12-30 10:30

    Duhamel’s Trading Post downtown on 7th Street gifted its Indian Artifact Collection to the City of RC. Mayor Art LaCriox spearheaded non-profit corp MARC, a collaboration of the city’s collection, SDSMT, SD Archeological Research Ctr, the Minnelusihan Pioneer Museum in Halley Park, and the US Indian Art’s and Crafts commission. The Museum Alliance coined the name “The Journey” and the city constructed the museum as a part of the overall campus of Rapid City’s Civic Center along the greenway of Rapid Creek, a traditional Indian gathering place. Joan Kroc donated a million dollars of original Western Art. Tribal representatives were a component of the overall plan.

    Then SDSMT faltered realizing it’s dinosaur museum would be a competitor, and Stan Adelstein got on the board and got greedy. The state decided to compete with its own museum in Pierre (Mission: “begin your *journey* of discovery at the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society.”) The city failed to meet Kroc’s requirements and the historic art was withdrawn. The Journey has become buried and largely forgotten in a failure of vision and management. Anyone who has been to Cody WY can testify to the appropriateness of Rapid City as the place to bear witness to “our” western history. And the great loss to the city.

    Instead we have a sculpture on a mountain in a drying forest of Indian land, fat white people on loud motorcycles swarming the area, loud and low after-burner flights of bombers from EAFB, gun parks from a flame throwing Governor, and police/sheriffs woefully under trained to serve and protect from trauma of living in western South Dakota.

    Not much culture, however. That is on the reservations, still. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ

    After all, Will Rogers said, you deserve who you elect.

  6. Jake 2021-12-30 10:36

    My God, John, that seems worse than Wounded Knee and I am certainly not surprised at our governess in South Dakota wanting to sweep this kind of history into the dust-bin. Oh, for leadership that is not ashamed of themselves so badly that they try their damnedest to keep everyone in the ‘Dark Ages’ instead of enlightened! The very fact that she wants to hide it from youth attests to the fact that most of the people who voted FOR her to be governor are afraid to face the truth of history themselves; cconsequently continuing the institutional racism and racist attitudes while mealy-mouthing platitudes of “sunshine in government” and “open-ness”!
    Her Republican Party circles closer and closer to the bottom of character and almost into the quick-sand of ignorance; to win elections by hook or by crook.

  7. Ryan 2021-12-30 12:11

    the death of any innocent person is a tragedy. the genocidal slaughter of native americans at the hands of european settlers was horrendous. the way some people treat native americans even to this day is terrible. those are facts.

    it is also a fact that 2 of the 4 tasks traditionally required to become a plains war chief involve stealing from the enemy: 1) touching an enemy without killing him; 2) stealing an enemy’s weapon; 3) leading a successful war party; and 4) stealing an enemy’s horse.

    war has been a persistent reality in all cultures for tens of thousands of years. people do unforgettable and unforgivable things at war. i wish it wasn’t so.

  8. larry kurtz 2021-12-30 12:22

    Dear President Biden,

    Please free Leonard Peltier and work for reconciliation through land repatriation.

    – a voter

  9. jerry 2021-12-30 12:32

    Rescind the military “awards” to the murderers at Wounded Knee. What Ms. Leslie said is all true that adds even more sadness to this whole picture. South Dakota loves its racisms all to ignore the facts that all who live in most of the state, live on land stolen with the approval of the government. Adolph Hitler got his vision of fascism from American History and events.

  10. bearcreekbat 2021-12-30 13:12

    Here is an encyclopedia Britannica description of the traditional plains Native Americans, which seems to be substantially different than the 18th and 19th century traditional European/American cultures (as well as many powerful groups in the 20th and 21st centuries):

    Traditional Plains peoples shared a cultural ethos that interwove expectations of individual competency with those of obligation to the community. For instance, the status of an individual or family was enhanced when they were generous to the poor, shared goods with relatives, engaged in lavish hospitality, and cooperated with others.

    As for how to become a “war chief,” Ryan’s 4 step description reportedly applied to the Crow tribe, according to Joseph Medicine Crow (a 20th century, 1913-2016, Native writer and Crow historian) but I didn’t find any confirmation this criteria was universal, such that it was also used by the 19th century Cheyenne slaughtered at Sand Creek or the Lakota slaughtered at Wounded Knee, nor other tribes.

    In any event, to the extent that theft was approved by the Crow or other tribes, whether in war or otherwise, theft seems significantly different than the behavior of American soldiers described by Captain Silas Soule’s letter quoted in the above link from John. For example, it seems odd to compare “counting coup,” the Native warrior tradition of showing bravery in the face of an enemy by intimidating him, and, persuading him to admit defeat, without having to kill him, with Soule’s graphic and sickening description of soldiers complying with orders to slaughter and mutilate Native mothers and their children while on their knees begging for mercy (“[seeing] little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. . . .”). Somehow the idea that “people do unforgettable and unforgivable things at war” seems a bit out of place when comparing sanctioned theft to sanctioned cold blood murder of defenseless women and children.

  11. Ryan 2021-12-30 13:50

    bcb – theft and murder certainly aren’t analogous, you’re right. similarly, two vague sentences about culture from encyclopedia britannica seem insufficient when attempting to describe the collective behavior of dozens of generations of multiple native nations or tribes. i was not merely making a qualitative or quantitative comparison between the actions of one war party and another, i was attempting to show that war is bad and war does bad things to the hearts and minds of the people involved. stealing from the enemy is common in war. returning stolen items after war is not so common. those facts don’t relieve anybody’s suffering and they don’t help us make sense now of senseless acts throughout history, but they are instructive about the behavior of human beings around the world, since the beginning of time.

  12. bearcreekbat 2021-12-30 16:54

    mfi, interesting links for sure. Thanks. Upon reflection, the taking an enemy’s weapon and horse don’t really qualify as generic theft or “stealing” at all. Rather, in a state of war disarming one’s enemy and depriving them of their means of transportation is a rational method of trying to stay alive (i.e. the enemy will have a harder time injuring and killing you or others without a weapon or horse).

    “Stealing” in the “bad” sense is taking something of monetary or other value from someone that doesn’t belong to the thief for monetary or other undeserved gain. Disarming an enemy in war is simply an act of survival aimed at winning a battle rather than achieving some undeserved gain from the property taken. Thus, rather than being a “bad” act, taking a weapon or horse would be a positive act that in Native culture is designed to end the conflict without further injury or harm to or from either side, given the corresponding requirement of touching an enemy without killing him.

  13. Jake 2021-12-30 17:20

    The “Noble Savage” as described by some early historical literature writers was actually more noble than many modern-day. It took bravery, skill and determination to disarm or de-horse an opponent than kill, maim him/her from thousands of miles away sitting in air-conditioned comfort.

  14. Mark Anderson 2021-12-31 16:12

    Come on guys, this all sounds like CANT. Critical American Native Theory and you can’t have that in schools.

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