RAPID CITY, S.D. — A descendant of the commander of the Wounded Knee massacre apologized and participated in a healing ceremony recently on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Brad Upton, 66, a professional musician and music educator from Longmont, Colorado, is a great-great-grandson of the late James Forsyth. On Dec. 29, 1890, Forsyth commanded the U.S. Army troops that killed approximately 200 Lakota Sioux, including men, women and children, near Wounded Knee Creek.
Upton said he has been aware of his family’s connection to the event since his teenage years, when a relative shared images of Native American corpses that were photographed soon after the massacre.
The connection has been a source of personal shame and sadness, Upton said, and he wonders if some of the sorrows and tragedies that afflicted succeeding generations of Forsyth's descendants were somehow a result of the massacre.
“The older one gets, one looks back through history in one’s family tree,” Upton said. “And there’s been a cloud over it.”
Through a neighbor in Colorado, Upton recently heard about a healing ceremony that Basil Brave Heart, of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, had conducted for descendants of people who were involved in the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow, also known as the Battle of Blue Water Creek or Harney Massacre. During that event in present-day Nebraska, Gen. William Harney led troops that killed 86 Sioux people, including women and children.
Because of Harney’s role in that event, Brave Heart instigated an effort in 2014 to change the name of South Dakota’s tallest mountain, Harney Peak. The effort culminated in the 2016 renaming of the mountain to Black Elk Peak, in honor of the late Lakota Sioux holy man Nicholas Black Elk.
The neighbor who told Upton about Brave Heart also gave Upton a phone number for Paul Stover Soderman, also of Colorado and a Harney relative who joined Brave Heart in the effort to rename Harney Peak.
Through that connection, Upton was put in touch with Brave Heart. On Nov. 23, Upton went to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and participated in a healing ceremony with Brave Heart and others.
Upton described the experience as deeply affecting.
“I experienced the healing power of the ceremony,” he said. “It felt completely transformative.”
The 85-year-old Brave Heart said his own willingness to participate in healing ceremonies was instilled long ago by a grandmother, who warned him against resentment toward the descendants of massacre perpetrators.
“She said, ‘Don’t hold it against these people. Pray for them,’” Brave Heart said.
He and Upton hope to collaborate on further efforts to promote healing between their respective races. They are not certain what shape those efforts will take, but Brave Heart said he is considering a campaign to seek the rescinding of the 20 Medals of Honor that were awarded to soldiers that participated in the Wounded Knee massacre.
Brave Heart said he has spoken to Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People's Law Project, about potentially working to get the medals rescinded. Iron Eyes said he hopes to help in any way he can, and he also pledged support from incoming Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner, for whom Iron Eyes is serving as interim press secretary.
Iron Eyes said a formal rescinding of the medals by the U.S. government would acknowledge the Wounded Knee event as a massacre rather than a battle and would be a helpful step toward reconciliation.
"Truth-telling about Wounded Knee could open up so many hearts and minds on both sides and begin a process of internal inquisition and cause people to investigate their own biases and complexes," Iron Eyes said.
Forsyth did not receive a medal for the massacre. He was temporarily relieved of his command and subjected to an Army court of inquiry, but he was ultimately reinstated. He was a colonel at the time of the massacre and later rose to the rank of major general.
Brave Heart said he considers his relationship with Forsyth’s descendant, Upton, to be “something in sacred motion.”
“We realize this is a journey we are taking together, and this is not healed by me visiting once and having one ceremony,” Upton said. “Part of my prayer is to return again and again and be accountable to the Lakota Nation and heal with them.”