This article is also available in audiobook form over at Sufficiently Human!
Spotted Elk, a man known later in life as Chief Big Foot, lived in a place we now call South Dakota from ~1825 until December 1890. Though he was a notable figure in life, today the United States remembers him mostly for his death. He remains famous there, by sight if not by name, because a Chicago newspaper published a photograph of his corpse lying bent up in the snows of Wounded Knee Creek following the massacre that bears its name. Archivists preserved this photograph through the intervening century so that it now adorns many a textbook and webpage. When I look at it I’m tempted to see a sensational primary document depicting the death throes of the Lakota people, the Great Sioux Nation to which they belonged and, in a larger sense, the final defeat of First Nations civilization at the hands of European expansionism.
But then I consider the ways in which this image is deceptive. As I understand it the photographers posed Spotted Elk’s body posthumously, propping him up for the camera before they took the shot. I wonder whether they shovelled that snow onto his thigh to connote the passing of the Sioux into the land, never to be seen again. I wonder if they wretched at the sight of the bullet wound in his neck while working to hide it from view; or perhaps they did not flinch, having already grown accustomed to articulating dead bodies. The most famous version of the photograph, the one you see above, crops out the United States soldiers mulling about in the aftermath of the massacre; it excludes the hundreds of dead Sioux surrounding Spotted Elk in the snow, and the mass grave into which the soldiers shovelled their bodies. It frames the victim rather than his attackers, suggesting he was taken by some disembodied force instead of a soldier’s Winchester rifle. The serene expression on his face makes him seem like some spirit vanishing quietly from the world rather than a sixty-five year old man who was just shredded to pieces in a hail of gunfire. The photograph does not reveal the fact that Spotted Elk died right in front of his twelve year old grandson; it can only hint at the fact that the child miraculously escaped.
What we see in this photograph is not the Sioux as they truly were in 1890. It is the Sioux as Chicago wanted them to be: Tragically and conveniently eradicated. Wounded Knee was to become the curtain call for what whites dubbed “the Indian Wars”; the mighty engine of Manifest Destiny was to be at last decommissioned, victorious in its quest to colonize the continent, and the times of trouble were supposed to be over. In the 1870s, when white settlers still surged into Sioux territory, newspapers might have painted Sioux as wanton rapists and pillagers. Yet as their capacity for resistance gradually waned and they ceased to pose a threat, a gentler image came into fashion: That of the noble savage, a piteous being driven to extinction not by human beings but by the spirit of ‘historical progress’. In truth, of course, the Sioux were never wanton rapists and pillagers nor did they ever go extinct. They are still here, no matter how hard the US government tries to ignore them, and Wounded Knee Creek has remained a battleground (both literally and figuratively) for over a century. Spotted Elk’s family survives to this very day; you can find some of them on Twitter.
I came to study the Wounded Knee Massacre via the unlikeliest of tangents: I heard about it in Bioshock Infinite, a big-budget videogame in which the racist inhabitants of a floating city named Columbia present an astonishingly ‘1870s’ view of the event:
Here we see Wounded Knee as a Disneyland exhibit, were the theme park run (as Columbia is) by the unrepentant perpetrators of the massacre. Inside we find more photographs; more painstakingly articulated corpses, their photographers hoping to sell us a story about the people who killed Spotted Elk that day at the creek. The photographs are nested within one another, each showing conflicting perspectives. On one level we see the perpetrators hoping to erase their guilt from history; on another we see the creators of Infinite seeking to highlight this attempt at historical revisionism. It speaks once again to how images mutate over time. In Chicago 1890 they mourned the noble savage; in Boston 2013 we reconsider who is most guilty of savagery.
The Bioshock franchise purports to tell us ghost stories in a multiverse with three constants: There’s always “a Man, a Lighthouse and a City”. These, however, are not the constants that interest me. When I look at Infinite I see hundreds upon hundreds of photographs, along with the corpses those photos depict. Among these number cardboard Sioux warriors, as we’ve discussed; beside them are cardboard rebels from the Boxers of North China; lastly there are American frontier people, personified by residents of Columbia and the various incarnations of ‘1870s Doomguy’ Booker DeWitt. Recently we’ve all gotten the chance to photograph the corpse of Irrational Games itself, which closed its doors in the aftermath of Infinite’s perilous production and complicated reception. (This article constitutes another such photograph.) I’ve come to believe that in the histories we write about our world there are only two salient constants: There’s always a corpse, and there’s always a camera.
What follows, then, is a ghost story from me. It’s about what happened to the Boxers and the Sioux, whose stories bear an uncanny resemblance to one another despite their separation by an ocean. It’s about what happened to the spirit of Columbia, who was a real world national myth before she became a fictional sky city. Lastly it’s about what always happens to men like Booker DeWitt: The stories they steal from their victims, the messianic cults they fashion for themselves and their ultimate fate lying dead in the very same grave they dug for their enemies. This story begins, once again, in the Dakotas.