Lost Bird of Wounded Knee

You are having a terrible dream that soldiers have killed people for going to church.  You and your family leave your home in hopes of getting to safety in another location.  However, you come upon a military encampment.   You are ordered to turn over guns.    You trust them when they tell you that no harm will come to you and your family…unless you don’t comply.

So…you and your relatives have marched miles in the cold — feet numb and bleeding because your shoes have worn holes in them;  you’re hungry…

And then…you and your family are fired upon by drunken soldiers who shoot unarmed men, women, and children.  You and the others are stunned as they fire.  You run for three miles, but in the end, you’re shot dead.

This scene wasn’t a bad dream, however, it’s a true experience of the massacre at Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890.

In the book, Lost Bird of Wounded Knee, Renee Sansom Flood tells the tale of a Minneconju baby girl found underneath her dead mother four days after the massacre.  Her name was Zintkala Nuni, or Lost Bird as described by her people.

I’ll have to go back a bit before the massacre to put it in context…and to dispel some common notions we have been taught in a biased Native American history.  (“They bad, we good” — short version).

At the time prior to the massacre, the soldiers and Christian missionaries were frightened by a religious ceremony they had named “Ghost Dance”.  Alice Ghost Horse had related to her son, John War Bonnet, what the dance meant.

“She told him about a religious ceremony called Wanagi Wacipi, the ‘Spirit or Medicine Dance’, referred to by reporters as the ‘Ghost Dance’, a term sensationalized and distorted to sell newspapers.  She did not call it a ‘religion.’  It was, and remains today, a ceremony as sacred as a Sun Dance or a Holy Communion.  The purpose of the Ghost Dance was to communicate with dead relatives.” (p. 29)


Flood goes on to say that the Lakota hoped that they could bring back the buffalo, antelope and black-tailed deer…and save the Earth with this dance.

“Instead of accepting the Ghost Dance as a religious ceremony, Christian missionaries harassed Ghost Dancers unmercifully. […] Non-Indians would enter the Ghost Dance camps unmolested, and sometimes stole artifacts from sacred trees.  They interrupted sweatlodge ceremonies with loud laughter and they mocked people who had reached an altered state of grace.  Even Father John J. Jutz, much loved by the Lakota, went uninvited to a Ghost Dance:

During the dance I took up my position in the middle of the circle, dressed in my religious habit, and from my place of observation I could see everything that went on.  I went over to those who were ‘resurrected from the dead’ and asked them if they had spoken with their deceased friends.  I offered them a dollar if they would tell me their experiences, but they would not answer me.  I offered them two, three, four, five dollars, but they only looked at me and said not a word.

“The Lakota did not step forward to the altar in the middle of Communion services at Holy Rosary Mission and offer to pay Father Jutz one, two, three, four, five dollars if he would tell them how it was possible to eat the body of Jesus Christ and drink his Holy blood.

Throughout time, Lakota religious belief involved the search for God and self through visions, dreams, trance, and intensely profound sacrifice and prayer. Before white contact, holy men were attuned to the rhythms, the harmonious patterns of all life forms, including earth’s creatures and plant organisms and their respective magnetic fields.  They understood and used inherited senses that even today scientists employing techniques of neuroscience, microbiology, and biotechnology cannot duplicate or explain.” (p. 30)

As I type this, the visions of Mother Mary seen around the world come to mind.  No one in the Catholic faith would call this experience of seeing a dead person as a “threat”…so why was the Native ceremony seen as a threat?

And Christians who speak in tongues after achieving an altered state are not seen as a threat…so why were the Lakota seen as such?

Back to the days before the massacre:  Chief Sitting Bull was murdered by Indian police on December 14, 1890.  Their goal was to stop the Ghost Dancers.

A Standing Rock policeman, John Loneman, recalled how he felt after the murder:

‘Taking a last look on my dead friends and relatives, I, in company with Charles Afraid of Hawk, started for home.  On the way, we past [sic] several deserted homes of the ghost dancers and felt sorry that such a big mistake was made by listening to outsiders who generally cause us nothing but trouble.

I reached home and before our reunion, I asked my wife, brothers, sisters, and mother to prepare a sweat bath for me, that I may cleanse myself for participating in a bloody fight with my fellow men.  After doing this, new or clean clothes were brought to me and the clothes I wore at the fight were burned up.’ (p.35)

Accompanying this was an ambush of Natives on December 16, 1890:

‘There was a bunch of men there.  We went over [Cheyenne River] and stirred them [Lakota] up and a lot of our fellows laid in at the head of the gulch.  We went over to the Stronghold and got’em after us and they chased us down Corral Draw.  Riley Miller was at the head of it and layin’ up there behind the trees and rocks.  This Riley Miller was a dead shot, and he just killed them Indians as fast as he could shoot.  […]  Riley Miller and Frank Lockhart went back there and got some pack horses and brought out seven loads of guns, shirts, war bonnets, ghost shirts, and things.  Riley took’em to Chicago and started a museum.’ (p. 52)


Flood goes on:

“They [Riley Miller and D. Charles Bristol] opened a 500-piece Indian relic sideshow on the midway.  The principal attraction in their exhibition:  a dried Indian baby.  The grisly relic attracted hordes of people, who filed past the unfortunate child, nestled in a glass box.  Thousands of curious people pressed their hands and noses on the scratched glass, and parents lifted their children to catch a glimpse…[…]” (p.53-54)

And we called them “savages”… Pfft.

These events coupled with the media whipping the citizens into hysterics (Gah, why does that sound so familiar…?) created a tense atmosphere.

And those that feed the Dark side were relishing the thought of war:

“Delighted Nebraska border merchants, on the verge of ruin for months, now capitalized on rumors of Ghost Dance uprisings.  Nothing bolstered business like the threat of an Indian war.  One Rushville miller bragged that he had ‘contracted 68,000 pounds of flour for the troops.’  The ‘Ghost Dance Craze’ pulled Nebraska out from under one of the leanest economic decades of the nineteenth century.” (p.64)

A side note~  So…if one needs war to make an economy work…because otherwise, it would collapse, doesn’t that mean it is a false economic model?  Doesn’t that mean that Chicago school of Economics is full of ca-ca?  That all economists are full of ca-ca?  How is it that the Native tribes were able to survive and thrive for over 10,000 years without an economic model and without polluting the environment?

Back to the infant found alive four days after Wounded Knee — she was taken to a trading post  and bar owned by Jim and May Asay.  General Leonard Colby, wanting a keepsake from the massacre, bargained with others who also wanted her.  He made the winning bid.  However, Annie Yellow Bird, who was caring for the little one, tried to get her back to her people.  Colby  went to the Native camp, dressed in make-up to appear Native, lied about it and found the little girl and took her from her people.

He wanted to be thought of a hero for “saving” this little girl from a life of what they thought was one of want and poverty…just as Andrew Jackson (who hated the Indians) had done.  Colby saw her as a prize trophy and displayed her as such to the public. Her so-called rescue  made for a great story…but the tale of Lost Bird, as she was called by her people, was one of rejection for who she was.  She had material wealth, but spiritual and cultural emptiness.

Colby never spoke with his wife, Clara, before taking the child, Zintkala Nuni, to their home in Beatrice, Nebraska.  She was busy with her own work as a suffragist, traveling all over the country to speak for women’s right to vote.

Flood gives the reader a glimpse towards Colby’s true character with these two stories of his morality:

“As a struggling young lawyer in Beatrice, he had been asked to defend a widow accused of killing her rich husband by poisoning him with arsenic.  There was a public trial:

‘The evidence was practically conclusive and there was hardly a flaw in the case presented by the prosecution.  The husband’s body had been exhumed, the poison found and placed in a bottle.  There was indubitable proof that the woman had administered the poison and Colby did not contest this point.  He merely laid stress on the contention that the man had died from natural causes…’ (p. 73)

Colby went on to make a dramatic summation.

‘If this poison would have killed him, it would kill me.’ 

“Before anyone could stop him, Colby pulled out the cork, threw back his head dramatically, and drank the contents of the bottle.”

Then he stood before the jury, his black eyes flashing and thundered out:  ‘Gentleman of the jury, if this poison kills me you can convict my client, but if I live –as I shall — you will have to bring in a verdict in her favor.’ (p.74)

He then went to his office next to the courthouse, had a doctor pump his stomach’s contents, which of course, contained enough arsenic to kill him.  (Why does the O.J. Simpson trial “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” pop into my head?)

Another example of his character was when he first arrived in Beatrice in 1872, he thought the townsfolk as uneducated hicks and he went about town getting merchants to sign quit claim deeds.  They soon learned of his shady dealings and were going to hang him when he said his heirs would inherit everything if they hanged him.  He then signed the deeds back to the rightful owners.

This is just the tip of the iceberg that is Leonard Colby’s character.  Much worse was to come later…

Colby’s wife, Clara, made her feelings known towards Zintkala Nuni’s heritage in a speech to suffragists in February, 1991:

‘The little dusky maid, although a full-blood Indian of the most warlike and uncivilized race, seems to take kindly to all the favors of civilization…’ (p. 119)

When Clara made this speech, she had never laid eyes on Zintkala.  She was being taken care of by Clara’s sister while she was in Washington trying to get the right for women to vote.  It was also more wishful thinking on Clara’s part of a baby who was not old enough to assert herself.

This becomes woefully apparent as Zintkala grows into womanhood and searches for her people, which Clara repeatedly tries to interfere with.  It boggles the mind that while Clara recognized women as separate beings entitled to vote…she denies the same personhood to her daughter.  And while she calls the Lakota an uncivilized race, she does not see parallels of their struggles to be recognized as sovereign–and their defense of that sovereignty which sometimes meant violence in self-defense –and how the suffragists were throwing bricks through windows and other acts of civil disobedience to be considered as equals to men.

“Clara Colby ‘participated in the dangerous suffrage demonstrations on June 13 and 21 (1908) when 10,000 people filled Parliament Square (England).  While waiting to speak, Clara was surrounded by an angry mob of ”’hundreds of boys and young men…determined not to let the speaking proceed.  They surged forward as if to push [her] wagon over, which seemed many times in imminent danger…”’

Beating back the men with umbrellas and yelling “votes for women”, twenty-seven suffragists were arrested and spent three months in Holliway Prison.

After their release, they held an ex-prisoners breakfast for the suffragists.

It is surprising that Mrs. Colby could not see the parallels of what the whites did to the Indians, and the violence directed at the suffragists for wanting their rights:

“…the indomitable Mrs. Emmeline G. Pankhurst, and others –had been arrested and taken to Holliway Prison in February and March (1913).  There they went on a hunger and thirst strike.   Fearing that the women might die in prison, authorities inhumanely tied them down and force-fed them, thrusting tubes down their throats.” (p. 277)

“…one ninety-five-year-old woman, four feet, six inches tall, was tackled by three men.” (p. 278)

Clara spent a large amount of time working for the cause, and left Zintkala Nuni, or Zintka as she called her, with other relatives, or worse, in boarding schools that would “civilize” her.

In 1902, Clara had corresponded with Captain Richard Pratt of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.  He had once said:  ‘In Indian affairs I am a Baptist…because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.’ (p.217)

Unconscionable.  Totally immoral.

Clara had written back to Pratt that she had given her *everything* but…”she is of the redoubtable and indomitable Sioux.” (p.219)

It didn’t seem to occur to Clara that the life she valued was not the life that Zintkala Nuni, had she been given a choice, would have chosen.  It is clear reading about Lost Bird’s life that she longed to be brought up in the rich culture of her people.  Even today, the Lakota living on the reservation are rich in spirit, although poor in material things.

It is worthy to note that Leonard Colby’s family was proud of a rather violent and barbaric ancestor who fought as a Crusader. **

More on the prejudice of Clara (and Leonard Colby):

“Since Zintka could not avoid public transportation, she became the target of humiliating racial slurs.  She was called “chinee”, “tar baby”, “squaw” (which is the French term for vagina), or “nigger” so often that by the age of seven, the child had become uncomfortable and guarded around white people.

Clara was interviewed by a Washington reporter:

‘…her restless Indian spirit has not yet entirely settled down to eastern methods and eastern manners.  She plays with the children of the neighborhood…but despite the warnings and admonitions of Mrs. Colby, is not always choice in the selection of her companions — Zintka being of a dark complexion naturally, perhaps, sees no crime in the dusky skins of the darkey children…It is Mrs. Colby’s constant care to guard her from association with children with whom she should not associate and to aid her and instruct her in the rules of propriety.’ (p. 180)


Lost Bird must have felt the contempt Clara had for her people…and in essence, for her.  This probably hurt Lost Bird more than any outsider could have done.

…but that was not the worst of it.

Clara sent Zintka to Leonard Colby and his new wife, Maude, a former maid that he had an affair with, after they had married and set up a household.

“Maud was mortified.  With her new wealth and her dream of respectability and social position, she now had to mother an Indian.  The situation got worse when Maud discovered that Leonard was paying quite a bit of attention to Zintka, giving her money and expensive jewelry.”


Tom Damrow, a fellow student (in public school) sat directly across from Zintka, and “one day, he happened to glance over at her and nearly fell off his chair.  She had cut her arm with a hat pin so deeply that it drew blood.  He watched her expressionless face as the blood trickled down her arm.” (p.252)

Girls who burn or cut themselves are usually victims of molestation.  This is true of any race and culture.

Other clues as to what happened to Zintka:

“At night, Zintka often slept in a park or on the front porch swing of a house belonging to a family down the street. […] The mother had said that Zintka ‘was afraid to be at home at night.’  (p.252)

Which means, to me, that Colby was allegedly molesting her at night.

“Another Beatrice woman remembered that her mother told her never to speak to Leonard Colby on the street, even in passing.  She was to cross over to the other side because ‘he could not be trusted with young girls.'” (p.252)

Clara wrote a long letter to Zintka, wishing her a Happy New Year, believing she was on a positive note in a new school, Haskell.  However, she was pregnant.  And the school officials sent her home when it became obvious (March 1908).  By the next month, Colby had sent her to a horrible place called Milford Industrial Home.

“Inmates at Milford were sentenced by court order to one year in the institution, regardless of when their babies were born.  If a young girl had no money to care for her child during that year, the infant was taken by the state and placed in an orphanage to await adoption.”


“If the girl came to the home in need of ‘discipline’, her arms were forced into a ‘reddish brown leather straitjacket that buckled tightly across the back.’  A dark attic room in one of the dormitories — not big enough for a bed — was used for solitary confinement.  […] Milford residents remember that some women were tied for hours with their hands up, sometimes scratching the ceiling plaster with their fingernails.  […]  The room was intolerably hot in summer and freezing in winter. […]

…the dark hellhole on the fifth floor could have reached 100 degrees.  It could have been a death trap for a pregnant, claustrophobic, dehydrated Indian woman in a straitjacket.  The next day, April 22, 1908, Zintka lost her child, a stillborn baby boy.

For evident reasons, Colby did not inform Clara of Zintka’s pregnancy and kept her forced confinement at Milford a secret for as long as possible.”  (p.256)

Colby refused to feel any obligation towards Zintka. He and his new wife would live the high life while he refused to send even a pittance to Clara and Zintka while she grew up.  Clara was always moving from place to place for failure to pay rent or find any work to support her and Zintka, all the while trying to continue to fight for women’s right to vote.

There is much more to this sad story of Lost Bird.  She constantly struggled as an adult, lost two children, supported her sick husband.  She died on February 14, 1920, at the age of 30.


**The Pope had said that the Catholic Church must dominate those that were not Christians.  This is a good report of the history.  However, it was just within recent years that a Lakota went to the Pope, asking him to revoke this edict.  He refused.





















3 thoughts on “Lost Bird of Wounded Knee

  1. Pingback: How Dare the Media Reframe History? | Dolphin

  2. Pingback: Standing Rock Wounded Knee in video | Dolphin

  3. Pingback: If you give up your guns… | Dolphin

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