Lost Bird

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At seventeen she became pregnant. She was sent to a Nebraska reformatory. The baby was stillborn. At the Wounded Knee mass grave in which, somewhere, her mother lay, she flung herself down with arms outstretched, weeping. She married, shortly to discover that her husband had infected her with venereal disease.

Once, at a reservation, she screamed, “It’s me, Lost Bird! Zintka Lanuni! Please help me!” She mispronounced her own name.

She went to California to play bit parts and be an extra in silent Westerns— The Round-Up, Battle of the Red Men, War on the Plains . She married again, a cowboy turned actor who beat her when he drank. She quit films and joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for the 1914–15 season, traveling all over the Midwest and Canada, visiting reservations when she could. The visits never worked out.

She married again, a fellow performer in the show, and had a baby boy. The couple left Buffalo Bill and went to work in the saloons and dance halls of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, he twirling a lariat and she in Indian or cowgirl attire. His health was not good, and her disease was cruelly affecting her eyes. She pawned whatever she had. There was no money for the baby, so she gave him away, to an Indian woman. She and her husband lived in cheap places among the cribs of the red-light district. She did what she could to make money.

Face blotched, eyesight going, she died on Valentine’s Day of 1920, age twenty-nine, and was buried in Hanford, California. Heart problems complicated by venereal disease, the doctor said.

Seventy-one years later, in 1991, her decayed redwood coffin was lifted from the earth, and what remained inside was taken away. The historian Renée Sansom Flood, author of Lost Bird of Wounded Knee , had brought to Indians at Pine Ridge, at Wounded Knee, word of where she lay. They decided to bring her home and raised the money. At the funeral there were great masses of Indians on foot, in cars, in pickups, on horses. White civilization almost from the first contact with Indians had ruled it was best that Indian children be weaned away from their tribes and traditions, but in the end Clara Colby decided that was wrong. “She has been sinned against in being taken from her proper surroundings,” she said of her adopted daughter.

The Indians burying that daughter by the massacre’s mass grave agreed. She would be at rest here, near her mother, relatives, the friends she would have had if all had been different. “Lost Bird has returned today to the same place she was taken from,” said Marie Not Help Him, great-granddaughter of Iron Hail, the last survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Custer died, and of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Lost Bird was put into the ground with an eagle plume attached to a cherry tree by her head. The trill for bravery rose in the air: Li-li-li-li-li! Then the Indians performed the ceremony of the Releasing of the Spirit for one who had a foot in two camps but never a place to stand.