A South Dakota Story: Andrew Jackson, Indian Killer - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A South Dakota Story: Andrew Jackson, Indian Killer

A South Dakota Story: Andrew Jackson, Indian Killer

By Andrew K. Lau

Peace offerings of tobacco ties line the fence at the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
SourceNikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty


Death doesn’t guarantee that the dead stay dead.

By Andrew K. Lau

While certainly not the first white man to support the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples, Andrew Jackson, the seventh American president, signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830, legalizing a genocide that began in the South, spread westward and continues to this day.

The finest example of the act’s ramifications can be found on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, part of Oglala Lakota County, the poorest in the nation. With just over 13,000 residents, the unemployment, suicide, alcoholism, life expectancy and violence percentages are horrific. Past the broken cars and boarded mobile homes, however, the land has an invincible beauty.

In the southern part of the reservation, Bureau of Indian Affairs highways 27 and 28 and Big Foot Trail converge at the location of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The large red wooden signs will tell you the massacre was the result of the Lakota defying a government clampdown on their religious practices, as well as the degenerate 7th Cavalry looking to avenge its embarrassing defeat at Little Bighorn 14 years earlier.

Scrawled across Andrew Jackson’s forehead in black-felt tip pen were the words “INDIAN KILLER” in my handwriting.

With Gatling guns on a nearby hill, the cavalry killed 300 Lakota, mostly women and children; the bodies were dumped into a mass grave by drunken soldiers. Today, a granite tombstone inscribed with names of the dead sits atop the site, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Locals have decorated it with feathers and pieces of cloth, faded by the sun and wind. Down the hill is the plot of land where many of the victims fell.

This is where I was one summer afternoon a few years ago while passing through on an unrelated, self-financed research trip for a still-unsold book. My budget was limited, but Pine Ridge was in my path; I’ve done my reading, but it’s never enough. One can look at a photo of a Van Gogh painting and get an idea, but to see the thick oil on canvas in person is quite different.

Similarly, to see a 130-year-old mass grave surrounded by acres of poverty provides a new level of understanding. Despite my near-constant financial struggles, I’m still in a better place than the people of Pine Ridge, able to move around the country, crossing imaginary walls to visit the land in which they’re entrenched.

Cold Grave

The corpses of Lakota massacred at Wounded Knee were thrown into a mass grave by their killers, members of the 7th Cavalry.

Source Getty

As I was about to step out of my car, a young man rode up on his bike and offered to sell me one of several dream catchers he was holding. The small wooden circles with a web of string in the middle and feathers dangling off it are often seen hanging from the rearview mirrors of cars, most of them driven by white people.

I didn’t want a dream catcher, though. Realizing I wasn’t there for trinkets, the man effortlessly switched into historian mode. His voice was low and filtered through a combination of Upper Midwest and American Indian accents. More importantly, there was determination in his clipped sentences; as he talked, the degradation surrounding us vanished. Those red wooden signs are governmental ones, he said, and don’t tell the whole story. They also don’t hint at the present-day infighting and battles over land rights.

The field in front of us where the massacre occurred is owned by a white man who wants to sell for it millions of dollars, the young man said. The community, obviously, wants to own it but can’t afford his ridiculous asking price.

They had also recently run off the National Park Service, which wanted to build a wall around the site and remove all surrounding houses. New battles, same foes.

“We’ve always been independent out here,” he said, looking around. Then he noted how his people were getting stronger “since they’ve stopped killing us off. Now we’re slowly getting everything back, our language, everything that was taken from us.”

After an hour, I’d gained a perspective those government signs and well-intentioned books couldn’t deliver. But I still didn’t want a dream catcher. Instead, I reached for my wallet and took out one of the two $20s in it.

Scrawled across Andrew Jackson’s forehead in black-felt tip pen were the words “INDIAN KILLER” in my handwriting.

This inscription has been my compulsive form of protest since the mid-’90s. Every president from the first to our current has been a craftsman in the slow art of Indian Removal, but one must get up close for that level of understanding. Even everyone’s favorite, Abraham Lincoln, was an artist. He signed off on what is still the largest mass execution in American history: 38 Lakotas, guilty of an “uprising,” hanged in Mankato, Minnesota.

I’m of Irish and German descent and live in a predominately Caucasian, liberal city, so passing these marked bills amounts to only a small risk; the message often goes unnoticed. Out of the hand, into the till. At best it’ll get a raised eyebrow or a smirk. In “flyover country,” however, the bills could be more incendiary; someone might interpret the two words as an endorsement instead of an indictment. I was about to hand the $20 over to a full-blooded Oglala Sioux holding an armload of dream catchers. This could backfire.

The man read the words and gave a short laugh.

“That is cool. I never thought — ” He stopped, thought for a moment and continued: “Philamayaye. That’s ‘thank you’ in our language.” For all I know, he could’ve been humoring me, but he seemed sincere. As he gave me a quick rundown of how Europeans had cut the continent into pieces from the Bahamas northward, another car pulled into the area as if on cue. Two more white people.

He eyed them over my shoulder, then bent over to pick up his bike, which had been resting on the ground. I thanked him again as he went back to work.

That’s the story. A simple transaction of words. He let me know his people hadn’t forgotten, and I let him know his people hadn’t been forgotten.

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