Wounded Knee: The Museum in Wall, South Dakota, is a memorial to those who were killed at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890. Located on the edge of Badlands National Park, this small but powerful museum invites visitors to reflect on a tragic chapter in American history.
The museum’s exhibits tell the tragic story of the massacre, setting it in its historical context, detailing its villains and heroes, and exploring what happened in its aftermath.
During a bitterly cold December a group of about 400 Indians was traveling from Standing Rock Indian Reservation to Pine Ridge. Hungry and dispirited, they were intercepted by members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment. After escorting them for five miles, the cavalry kept watch as they made camp.
On the morning of December 29, the soldiers tried to disarm the men in the group and tensions quickly escalated. A firefight ensued during which at least 146 Lakota died, with many others likely dying later of their wounds. A mass grave was dug at the site with the bodies of 84 men, 44 women, and 18 children.
The museum does a skillful job of showing the interconnected stories of the massacre, how it was linked to the assassination of Sitting Bull in 1890 and the Ghost Dance movement, which was an attempt to spiritually reinvigorate Plains Indian culture but which resulted in even greater fear of Indian uprisings.
It tells of the role Wounded Knee has played in American culture since the massacre, including Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West and the occupation of the monument in 1973 by members of the American Indian Movement.
When I visited the museum, in its center was a place that felt like a holy shrine. Its focal point was a photo of a massacred Indian sprawled in the snow. Below were tokens left by visitors—flowers, tobacco bundles, money, a cross. A small sign said that the offerings would be taken to the site of the mass grave at Wounded Knee. Hanging from the ceiling was an arrangement of simulated eagle feathers, each representing the death of someone at Wounded Knee, and on either side of the shrine were the names of those buried at the mass grave.
After visiting the museum, you can travel 80 miles south to the National Historic Site of Wounded Knee. Both are powerful places to reflect, mourn, and honor those who died.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.