The tale of Zintkala Nuni is one of the saddest ones in American history. A victim to the tragic Wounded Knee massacre of 29th December 1890, “Lost Bird” never found her true family members and lived an unfulfilling and miserable life.
In the late 19th century, the Ghost Dance spiritual movement was concerning US government authorities. There was a belief among the Sioux tribe that if the Native Indians closely followed the ways of the gods, then they would expel white men from the world in an act of forgiveness. In addition to the dance being potentially violent and disrupting, tribal members conducted several successful resistances against their white American oppressors.
On the 29th of December 1890, however, the tables were to be dramatically and atrociously turned. A US 7th Cavalry unit encircled a band of Ghost Dancers that were practising their worship under the leadership of a Sioux chief, “Big Foot”, at the Wounded Knee creek of South Dakota. With the command to disarm themselves, an elderly Indian man’s failure to comply with the orders caused the last major confrontation in the war against the Plains Indians. Between 150 and 300 Native Americans were slaughtered in the ensuing battle, where they were blown to pieces as the soldiers unleashed their guns on them. In contrast, the cavalry division only lost twenty-five men.
As the battle unfolded, a mother, who was slowly dying, hurried to take her infant child to a resting place on one of the creek banks. Eventually, the woman died while cradling her daughter.
After four days, army parties returned to the spot to recover and bury the dead bodies. “Lost Bird” was fist spotted by Charles Eastman, a doctor from Lakota who was accompanying the 7th cavalry regiment on their corpse search. The baby, six months old, was extremely cold and undernourished, and it was a miracle she had even survived in the harsh conditions of Wounded Knee. Charles immediately called for help.
“Someone is alive, a baby, a baby is alive!”
The child was found wrapped in a buffalo blanket, wearing an elaborately decorated cap adorned with colourful beads. She was dehydrated and undernourished, and the Lakota doctor had already rescued ten survivors before approaching the woman’s body, aroused by a quite and desperate call from the infant.
“Lost Bird” was passed from hand to hand, traveling between tribal members and white Americans. She was renamed four times before she was finally found by a National Guard, Gen. Leonard Colby. He agreed to bring food to the tribe members in order to keep the baby. He didn’t discuss it with his wife or even inform her, as she was in Washington DC at the time. When the wife returned, however, the pair didn’t know what to call the baby, since her name had been lost on the battlefield.
“…baby girl found on the field of Wounded Knee … mother’s back on the fourth day after the battle, was found by me. She was about 4 or 5 months old and was frozen on her head and feet, but entirely recovered. The battle occurred Dec 29, 1890, about fifteen miles walking from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.”
Ultimately, they named the infant Zintkala Nuni, which literally means “Lost Bird”. Often treated by badly by racist relatives, Zintka’s early childhood was not easy and she was always desperate to find out where she had come from. In early 1906, Zintka ran away from her boarding school, joined a Wild West show, and tried to find her family roots in South Dakota.
Her parents were in constant rivalry and their marriage wasn’t a great one, while Lost Bird had many difficulties adapting to the unknown diseases of the white American world. Thus, she was relentlessly ill or tired.
Clara and Leonard Colby divorced on the 3rd of April 1906 and Leonard abandoned his wife in favor of the child’s nanny. Clara was left to look after Zintka on her own, and she struggled with this considerably as Lost Bird grew up and moved between numerous relatives and boarding schools.
In 1912, Zintka worked as an extra in Hollywood movies and two years later she joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. In her acting job, the directors made fun of her native background and portrayed it badly in their movies. Zintka was extremely poor; she had two children, one of which died. She gave the other to an Indian woman who she believed was more capable of looking after her.
A popular newspaper story allowed Lost bird to raise the funds for a final visit to South Dakota – her homeland – for the last time in 1917, before she was given syphilis from her husband. She died in Hanford, Calf, during an influenza epidemic on Valentines Day, 1920. Meanwhile, Leonard Colby, the father who abandoned her, became a judge and died soon after, on the 15th of November 1924.
Eventually, her remains were found, exhumed and buried at Wounded Knee, her homeland, in 1999. This was the final resting place of Zintkala Nuni, “Lost Bird”, who had been tragically separated from her family. Lost Bird was never truly reunited with her people and her life was particularly complicated and difficult. Her story is one of the most poignant and heart-breaking of American history and presents the evil and horror in mass-killing.
“Lost Bird has returned today to the same place she was taken from. This means a new beginning; a process of healing is completed. We can proud to be a Lakota. To our sacred children, this means a beginning.”
Said by “Marie Not Help Him”, great-granddaughter of “Iron Hail”, the last survivor of Wounded Knee.
The Glasgow Ghost Shirt Story
The ghost shirt was discovered by a Cherokee Indian named John Earl during a visit to a museum in Glasgow, Scotland in 1995. The shirt had been in the Kelvingrove Museum since 1892 when George C. Crager, a member of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, sold it and several other items to the curator. This shirt is believed to have been taken from one of the 146 victims of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. It is pierced in several places with bullet holes, and slight brown stains still mar the torn cloth. This shirt was returned to the Lakota people in 1999, and replaced with a new Ghost Shirt crafted by Marcella Le Beau, great-granddaughter of one of the survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee.