Shattered Glass

by Tom Swift

They killed pregnant women at Wounded Knee.

Four of the women — four of the 150 to three hundred (estimated) people slaughtered by the United States on December 29, 1890 in southwestern South Dakota — were women with child.

Driving to the All My Relations Gallery yesterday afternoon, with the Minneapolis skyline on the horizon, I thought about how narrow can be one’s view of things. How days can go by, weeks, months, years, even, I suppose, while stuck entirely within one’s own sphere of concern. This is not to trivialize the day-to-day care-taking and self-sustaining endeavors that consume our days. Those are necessary. Those acts give meaning and purpose to our lives. Yet it is not either/or. We sometimes are able or are forced to see a layer beyond our own, and usually one of the first things we realize is how rare it is to do so.

In “Kiksuyapi 1890 (Remember, Don’t Forget)” Angela Babby depicts four women who died that December day, thirteen decades ago. Wounded Knee remains the largest massacre in United States history.

Babby said she was inspired while studying old black-and-white photographs of the scene. She had looked long at one of the photos before realizing what she was seeing: what at first appeared as a pile of blankets were, in fact, these women.

The colors Babby’ uses to convey the women are bold and beautiful — greens and oranges — and ornate in detail, such as of the moccasins Babby finds on the women’s feet. Babby’s colors are also haunting: the purple dark skin of death.

Babby used color in “Kiksuyapi” to “show the culture laying in a heap on the ground and to give the sense of being there.” I love old black-and-white photographs for how they allow us to focus on what is important. They convey sincerity and importance. Yet, in this current, image-frenzied world, in which we Instagram our dinners and our kids’ second-grade graduations and nearly every other happy occasion, black-and-white photographs from another century sometimes obscure reality. They can make it too easy to think we are far removed from what we are seeing.

The scene in “Kiksuyapi,” the aftermath of the slaughter, captured by Babby in iridized glass, shows the face of a mustached white man looking back toward the women from some distance. He looks Stalinesque. At once I also read into his face new awareness; it’s as if he’s now realizing what has been done. What he has done. What we all did. It’s a moment after the heat has been lowered when he must face what is beyond him. He no longer sees only what is before him.

Near the man lies a dead horse. I look long at that horse. What we put the animals through. What we do not often see about them. (Minutes before I walked into the gallery, while looking for a parking spot, I saw a dog, a pit-bull, perhaps, chained to the front of a house. He was alone. He looked at me. A sign on the front of the house said “beware of the dog.” We should also have warning signs for people who put their dogs in positions where their fear overcomes them. But I digress.)

Scattered about the prairie are other men. They linger. Some carry on conversations but most seem, to my eyes, to be standing in attention. They are products of the world we had created to that point. Those of us who are white, who have benefited from the raised consciousness that has followed Wounded Knee (it is clearly there even if unevenly exhibited), might assume that had we been there we would have acted differently. About this almost certainly we are wrong.

The view of personal responsibility, of pure autonomy, goes only so far. We are responsible not just for ourselves but for the world we shape. We are, in turn, shaped by that world. We don’t make it all up. We are shown what is right and what is wrong. Inside is both love and hate. We know what prevailed that December day. Which will we encourage more of at this moment?

Usually when we are in our own spheres others are impediments to us, not opportunities. Art reminds us there is more. Art shows us new possibilities. I spent nearly all my time at the All My Relations Gallery standing before Babby’s portrait.

The massacre, which some historians have said began over a misunderstanding between an American soldier and an American Indian who may have been deaf, took less than an hour. Of the dozens killed in that sixty-odd minutes, some sixty women and children were gunned down. Their lives abruptly ended. Their pain unleashed into the world in which we all live.

Blankets were placed over their bodies.