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Wednesday, December 29, 2021


by Bill Sullivan

on the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre,
December 29, 1880

From the Collection of Colby College Museum of Art: Albert Bierstadt, "View of Chimney Rock, Ohalilah Sioux Village in the Foreground" (1860).

Eighteen sixty—in his Manhattan studio
Albert Bierstadt studies his year-old photographs
and oil sketches of the Great Plains and foothills
of the Rockies. He then turns to his images of 
the Lakota, the Oglala Sioux and his collection
of their artifacts. He pauses, fills his brush with
oil paint, approaches the board sitting on the easel,
saying silently, "Everything must glow, must shine
like the soft rays of the sun." He adds more dove gray
to the last of the low clouds; steps back, saying, “Yes,
it's all there and more, the luminous amber sky,
the aquamarine river, the lush green bushes
on the bank, the soft shadows, the warmest of suns."
And there are the two horsemen in the shallow water,
one with child mounted in front, the other to his right
relaxed, but with a rifle at his side. Far right a woman,
water to her waist, ready to do the morning wash
and on the bank three tepees, shelter for this band
and just beyond another man riding off for the day's
hunt. And all the carefree children and unleashed dogs
scattered about. It is family, clan and tranquility,
life beyond what is and will be and he knows that.
Knows that when he includes Chimney Rock—
a storm shaped relic of a violent volcanic past,
a weathered cone that rose some three hundred feet
above the prairie grasses and became a marker for  
the fur traders, Mormons and pioneers tramping a trail
west—to Oregon and California. Knew it when he
and the government surveying team followed the North
Platte River reached the structure, examined the gifts,
messages and drawings left by previous travelers—
determined dreamers who heeded the prophets' call:
"Go west! Our destiny!  God's will! This land, ours from
the Atlantic to the Pacific." Now the creaking oxcart
and wagon, soon the hiss and steam of the locomotive.
He places the prominent rocky tower in the distant
background, makes it appear insignificant,
but knows his idyllic world would soon bleed.
He did not conjure up the brutal chapters then—
the butchery, expulsion, internment, deprivation
and suffering. But his life spanned the tale. Yes, he
lived long enough to read the reports of the massacre
at Wounded Knee. Lived long enough to examine
the photos of the corpses—men, women and children—
being tossed into a mass grave—lived long enough
to ponder the photo of Chief Big Foot's frozen body
lying in the blood-soaked snow—his cupped hands
outstretched as if reaching out for his slain followers.
And what did Albert say that late December day?
Did he think of that halcyon scene he had painted
thirty years earlier? Did he shrug his shoulders,
conclude that it had to be, or did he weep?       
Before retiring to Westerly, Rhode Island, Bill Sullivan taught English and American studies at Keene State College, the University System of NH. He has co-authored two studies of twentieth century poetry and co-produced two documentary films. Here Am I, Send Me, The Journey of Jonathan Daniels, aired by numerous PBS stations, streams at His poems have appeared in numerous print and on-line publications. Loon Lore: In Poetry and Prose was published in 2015 by Grove Street Press.