- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The warning cries go up before the sun even peers above the Plains.

The warriors, up to 1,500 of them, are overrunning the deep ditch and fortifications intended to protect the village.

Despite hard times the community has grown, and the attackers are taking advantage of a break that had been made in the palisade wall recently in order to move the wall outward.

The invaders have come to kill. They shoot stone-tipped arrows at the few villagers who meet them. They use stone axes and wooden clubs when they close ranks with the defenders. They use stone knives to scalp the dead.

Women and children try to flee. Some make it, others are captured or killed. The victors have an easy time afterward collecting any goods they want, retrieving arrows and carrying off their own dead and wounded - if indeed, there are any.

For weeks after the attack, the bodies of the villagers lie on the open ground while wolves and coyotes, crows and vultures pick at their bones.

The attack was brutal, thorough and devastating. No one would live on the site again.

The place is Crow Creek, along the Missouri River. The year is circa A.D. 1325.

Eventually some of the villagers return to bury the nearly 500 victims in a mass grave - the worst atrocity in the history of what will one day be the state of South Dakota. In comparison, an estimated 150 to 300 Native Americans were killed by the U.S. Army in the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in December 1890.

The village known today as Crow Creek lies along the Missouri River between Chamberlain and Fort Thompson, the Capital Journal reports (https://bit.ly/1yMRljs ). Before the Missouri River dams were built, it sat on a bluff bordered by Crow Creek and Wolf Creek to the north, but is now abutted by the Big Muddy itself. Today the 10-acre area is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is surrounded by the Crow Creek Reservation.

An excavation of part of the site by the Nebraska State Historical Society done in the 1950s found there had been at least 55 lodges inside the village. Further work shows the settlement was surrounded by a wooden palisade. That wall would have been lined with saplings, brush and even buffalo hide to provide more protection.

A fortification ditch, 1,250 feet long and once seven to eight feet deep, lies outside that wall on the side not guarded by cliff faces. Today, even after nearly 700 years, the ditch is still deep enough to get a pickup truck stuck in.

Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or IUPUI, who worked at the site, said the village was one of the largest in the area. Based on the number of known lodges, it may have supported a population of between 500 and 700, but even a population of more than 1,000 people is not unrealistic.

These people, known to archaeologists as the Initial Coalescent complex, are identified as being ancestors of the Arikara. They spoke a Caddoan language, one related to that of the Arikara, Pawnee and Wichita. As a people they had been moving northward from the Arkansas River in Kansas since the ninth century A.D., or the 800s. They moved into central South Dakota during the mid-twelfth century.

In 1978 the South Dakota Archaeological Society held its annual conference in Chamberlain. As part of the meetings the group visited a number of sites, including Crow Creek. While looking down into where the fortification ditch was being eroded by Lake Francis Case, one member spied what appeared to be a human bone exposed in the soil or an eroding bank.

Once the presence of human remains was verified, the University of South Dakota Archaeology Lab, which had a contract with the Corps to do archaeological evaluations, immediately began negotiations with the Corps and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe for permission to excavate.

However, by the time permission was secured, they found that a looter had gotten there first. They had drilled into the bank, disturbing and breaking the bones of nearly 50 different individuals in the process.

The team quickly moved to stabilize the bank, but also to investigate where so many bones had come from. They found much more than they expected.

“And when we excavated down on that we found this pile of bones.”

It was a pile of bones about three feet thick in an area of about 20 feet by 20 feet.

P. Willey, a physical anthropologist who specializes in osteology, or the study of bones, who was then at the University of Tennessee, was one of several experts who studied the remains.

The bones were taken to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion to be cleaned and analyzed. It didn’t take long to debunk the initial theory that this was a group of suicidal braves that had attacked a well-fortified village.

By counting a specific piece of bone from near the ear, researchers were able to identify 486 individuals - men, women and children - buried in the mass grave. Willey said the pile was notable for the high number of young men who were probably killed defending the village.

“Instead of few adolescents, that very healthy time in the typical demographic profile, we see high numbers of adolescents - you know, people who should be in their prime,” he said.

And while the ratio of men to women was roughly even, the males tend to skew younger while the women tended to be older. There is a distinct lack of young adult, or childbearing, women.

Willey said there are two explanations for this. Either the young women were captured during the massacre and carried off, which is not uncommon during raids, or they were able to flee while the young men were being slaughtered.

The skeletons found in the pit showed signs of terrible injuries. Of all the skulls found, 90 percent had cuts on the forehead, the telltale sign of scalping. A quarter of the skeletons showed knife wounds on the first vertebrae of the neck, which is consistent with a slit throat or decapitation. Of the complete skulls, 40 percent showed depression fractures left from blunt force trauma. Horrible head injuries could also be the reason why there aren’t more complete skulls, Willey said.

As a final indignity, the bodies were obviously left to lie out in the open. And not for hours or days, but at least weeks. The smaller bones, like those in the hands and feet, went missing as the bodies decomposed. The remains also show the teeth marks from scavengers as they picked at the carcasses and chewed on the ends of long bones.

Zimmerman said eventually someone returned to bury the remains and lit a fire on top of the pit. By radiocarbon dating the remains of that fire, archaeologists come up with the date of 1325, plus or minus 55 years. However, it’s impossible to tell how soon after the actual massacre the fire was lit, he said.

Aside from the remains, archaeologists have been able to piece together considerable clues about how the attack itself happened.

Zimmerman said there is evidence that Crow Creek was in the process of expanding, and the fortifications hadn’t caught up yet.

The ditch seen today is actually the second of two such fortifications at the site. It does not have much village debris or artifacts in it, meaning it must have been newer. The Nebraska Historical Society found post holes along it, but not the brown stains decaying wooden beams would have left.

That means the population had outgrown the old fortifications and were in the process of building new ones, so when the attack came, part of the village was exposed, he said.

Andrew Clark, a senior archaeologist with the South Dakota State Historical Society, said, judging by raiding behavior of similar tribal groups around the world, the attack probably came during the night or early morning to maximize the surprise.

Extrapolating from the example of modern warfare, specialists estimate the size of the attacking force would have to have been at least the same as the village population if not up to three times greater, he said.

The attackers would have used the expected bows and arrows and knives, but also probably staffs and spears. From the trauma it’s possible they were employing war clubs as well. Though not as prevalent or specialized on the Plains compared to the southeast, it’s not unheard of.

“Whether it was a club used specifically for war or if it was a hammer someone picked up we don’t really know, but it’s something along those lines,” he said.

The evidence also might point to the motivation behind the violence, and it’s one of the most basic: survival.

Clark said evidence from that time points to a harsh environment, with extended droughts and poor crop yields, meaning people were on edge and possibly desperate.

“And that was the undertone for, not the cause of, the war, but may have led to it,” he said.

Even the skeletons of the victims show signs of tough living. The skulls have cribra orbitalia, a pitting in the bone that appears around the eye socket and is associated with iron deficiency anemia. Either the people there were not getting enough iron, maybe from a lack of meat, or eating high amounts of foods that bind up iron, such as corn.

Willey said that is not a common condition. The University of Tennessee has a collection of more than 1,500 Arikara skeletons, and cases of cribra orbitalia are rare among them, he said.

Furthermore, the length of the villagers’ long bones - those in the legs and arms - are shorter than found in other sites, indicating either lack of nutrition or disease, Willey said.

The archaeological record can tell many things about what might have led up to the massacre, but has left very little evidence about who may have actually carried it out. Aside from a few arrowheads, there is practically nothing to identify the attackers.

Zimmerman said there are generally three theories about who they might have been. The first is that an outside group, unrelated to the culture, swept through and attacked the village on a raid.

Clark said if this theory is correct the attackers probably came from present-day Iowa and returned home shortly thereafter. These people did not stay around after the massacre, but took their booty back with them. If that is the case, the lack of evidence might be evidence itself, he said.

The second theory is that the Initial Coalescent culture, of which Crow Creek was a part, had displaced the Middle Missourian tradition, a Siouan-speaking people often identified as ancestors of the Mandan. In this telling the Middle Missourians returned from their lands near the North Dakota and South Dakota border to strike back at the newcomers moving into their old homeland.

Willey points out that a flaw in this theory is the Middle Missourians by this time had access to the Knife River flint, a durable, widely used and easily identifiable material for making tools and weapons. However, none of the arrowheads found at Crow Creek were made of this flint.

A third possibility is that Crow Creek was attacked by members of the same tribe from a neighboring village. With this theory the motivation is desperation, taking by force the resources of another village during an incredibly difficult time.

While admitting the evidence is still circumstantial, Zimmerman is a proponent of the inter-tribal warfare theory.

As he tells it, logistics discount the revenging Middle Missourian theory. Crow Creek is the most southern and the largest village of the Initial Coalescent complex, so the displaced peoples would have to have traveled down from at least above Pierre, passing numerous other villages just to attack a large, relatively well-guarded town, Zimmerman said.

He has similar objection to a raiding party from a distant location, but also explained that such bands didn’t tend to be large enough to do the damage seen at Crow Creek.

Many reject this notion of inter-tribal warfare because they disagreed that people would perpetrate such violence upon members of their own civilization. Zimmerman admits it’s a good point, but counters by saying that some of the most heinous and violent acts known today are between people who know each other extremely well.

“Finally we also have some Arikara oral traditions, deep time kind of oral tradition, tantalizing but not necessarily verifiable. The chiefs of the small villages got together and taught a lesson to the chief of the big village. Well, Crow Creek was the biggest village. So, who knows?” he said.

There is no definitive evidence either way. Willey said all the skulls seem to come from the same homogenous group. That either means the attackers were from the same tribe, or their victory was so crushing and complete that they had no dead or were able to remove them from the site without fear of reprisal.

Clark said there is simply not enough evidence either way to settle the matter definitively.

“I don’t have an opinion either way; it’s one of the questions that archaeologists need to answer. But some people believe firmly in one of those three hypotheses,” he said.

Since its discovery more than three decades ago, the site continues to add to what is known about early Plains Indian cultures.

It confirmed there was violence and conflict along the Missouri River at this time.

“Archaeologists suspected that warfare was occurring but (Crow Creek) was the key to really prove that it was happening,” Clark said.

Clark, who is doing his dissertation on landscape and warfare along the Missouri River, also said no other place shows evidence of warfare on the same scale as Crow Creek. However, the violence wasn’t always ongoing, but went in cycles. For example, following the massacre there is less evidence of warfare.

“I think that part of it is people are people and conflicts do happen,” Clark said. That’s not unlike the European past, he added.

Willey said the evidence found at Crow Creek also informs findings from other sites. In Hughes County there is the similar Arzberger site, where people were living on fortified bluffs and traversing miles to collect firewood or get to the river bottom for farming. That suggests something was going on, he said.

“People don’t go to such trouble unless there’s a reason to do it. And the reason to do it was because the Crow Creek people anticipated violence, and they were right, there’s no doubt about it,” Willey said.

There were even a few deformed skulls found in the pit, possibly an indication of survivors from previous scalping attempts. These people definitely lived with violence, he said.

But not all the lessons are academic or apply strictly to the past.

Zimmerman said Crow Creek was one of the first sites where archaeologists cooperated fully with the Native American tribes to makes sure all the remains found were returned for burials.

The Crow Creek Tribal Council set a deadline for study and the return of the remains, which the researchers agreed to. Archaeologists also invited a holy man from the Rosebud Reservation to the site to ensure that a wanagi - a malevolent spirit which may be protecting the bones - was not disturbed by the digging.

This kind of understanding and collaboration would eventually lead to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, he said.

From the study of the victims of Crow Creek, forensic anthropology began to more seriously study bone fracture mechanics and the effects of decomposition to a body. Steve Symes, from Wessington Springs, is now a leading expert in bone fractures and did his master’s thesis based on the Crow Creek x-rays, Willey said.

“I don’t think I can overplay Crow Creek. It’s so important,” he said.

Willey and others have also taken the analyzing skills learned at Crow Creek and applied them to similar - albeit much more recent - mass graves in South America, Yugoslavia, the Sudan and Iraq. His studies of mass graves in Kurdish Iraq became part of the legal case again Saddam Hussein.

That’s why for the past 35 years, a week has not gone by without his thinking of the site or the victims there, he said.

“I think Larry Zimmerman once referred to it as the site that will never die. So I think it’s extremely important that we not forget the lessons of Crow Creek,” Willey said.


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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