The journey to Wounded Knee first occurred in the middle of winter 121 years ago. Melanie Kuntz first made the journey eight years ago.
Kuntz was 14 at the time and she really didn’t want to participate in a two-week horseback ride through the badlands during the coldest time of the year. She valued her Lakota heritage, but like most teenagers she was busy with school, sports and friends back home in Bismarck.
“It was my dad’s idea, and I didn’t really want to go at first,” said Kuntz, who is 22 years old. “But it was really interesting to be a part of it, to talk to the older people who know the history of this place. They told me that all our ancestors were watching as we rode through the hills – and, you know, I truly felt it.
The 191-mile horseback ride from Standing Rock to Wounded Knee was a memorable experience for Kuntz and the other young people who participated in what has become an annual ride for many Lakota, some of whom descended from the original band of people who fled from the U.S. Army during the dead of winter in 1890.
They ride in harsh winter conditions because that’s what their ancestors did. They camp at night and listen to their elders tell stories of what happened along the original journey. And there are times when they choose not to eat because they want the experience to be as authentic as possible.
“It’s a long, cold ride. And it’s rough,” Kuntz said. “Most of the time while you are riding, nobody is talking. They are just thinking and trying to get in touch with what happened.”
Each year, the ride begins on Dec. 15, near the Grand River just south of Bullhead on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where Chief Sitting Bull was born and assassinated. It ends on the morning of Dec. 29 near the Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where hundreds of Lakota were massacred by the 7th Cavalry.
The schedule of the annual journey was no accident. It was timed to coincide with the tragedy that occurred a long time ago.
The Original Journey To Wounded Knee
On Dec. 15, 1890, Sitting Bull and eight of his supporters were assassinated during an attempt to arrest them on the Standing Rock Reservation. White settlers had grown concerned about an uprising and had demanded that military action be taken to quell the unrest.
Fearful of further killings, a group of about 200 Lakota fled southward to seek shelter at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Spotted Elk’s band
joined them along the treacherous journey, bringing with them many women and children.
Nearly two weeks into the journey, the Lakota were intercepted by a detachment of the 7th Cavalry led by Major Samuel Whiteside. Fearing that any attempt to disarm the Lakota would lead to battle, Whiteside decided to march them five miles west to the Wounded Knee Creek where they made camp.
According to historical records, Col. James Forsyth and the rest of the 7th Cavalry arrived at the camp on Dec. 28, bringing the number of troopers at Wounded Knee to 500. In contrast, there were about 120 Lakota men and 230 women and children at the campsite.
At daybreak on December 29, Forsyth ordered the Lakota to surrender their weapons. A scuffle began and the 7th Cavalry opened fire with four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns that surrounded the camp.
Within an hour, more than 150 Lakota were killed and another 50 wounded. Many fled the camp, but were killed during pursuit. The bodies of women and children were later found as far as two miles from the campsite. Those who survived were left without parents, children, siblings, wives and husbands.
Hugh McGinnis, the last survivor of the 7th Cavalry who had fought at Wounded Knee, wrote an extensive account of his experiences before his death in 1965.
McGinnis noted in a story published by Real West Magazine that he still had nightmares in which he could hear “the screams of mothers as machine gun bullets tore their bodies apart. The curses of the Indian warriors, fighting machine guns and cannons with old muskets, knives and tomahawks, being cut down in rows by demon-crazed white soldiers.”
‘Never Forget What Happened’
The journey to Wounded Knee was retraced for the first time by the Big Foot Memorial Riders in 1986. Four years later, a ceremony was performed at the site of the massacre and the group was renamed Future Generations Riders.
This year’s journey, beginning once again on Dec. 15, will mark the 25th consecutive return to Wounded Knee.
Melanie Kuntz, and her sister Jamie, 20, have participated in the journey multiple times.
For Jamie, it was a rite of passage and something to look forward to.
“Although I was going to be away from my dad, sister, grandma and close friend, I was feeling more excitement than I had felt in a long while,” Jamie wrote in a journal that she kept during her first journey to Wounded Knee. “I had been looking forward to this ride since summer had ended. And now the time had come, time to leave home and travel to where my ancestors had lived, died, and history was written.”
Melanie, who admits she was more interested in soccer and Christmas shopping than horseback riding in the cold, said it was an experience that changed her perspective on life.
“I just remember being so upset that we were going,” she said. “But after getting down there and riding, it was like a complete 180. When I was done, I was so glad I did it. I learned so much and had an appreciation for what they had gone through.”
Duane Kuntz, Melanie and Jamie’s father, said it was important for his daughters to join the riders and learn about the history of the Lakota.
“It’s about never forgetting what happened, and it’s also about healing,” he said. “It was a terrible thing and they were hunted down, but the Lakota are still here.”
Duane has made the journey by truck, though he has never completed it on horseback. Even so, he said it’s a powerful ritual that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly or for the wrong reasons.
“It’s a heavy thing. It’s a spiritual journey,” he said. “Driving beside the riders going into Wounded Knee with the sun going down and the snow swirling around the riders, I remember laughing and crying at the same time. It’s such a powerful thing.”
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.