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Lost Bird

June 2024
5min read

The infant survivor of Wounded Knee spent her life in desperate pursuit of a heritage that always eluded her

lost bird
Zintkála Nuni was four months old when she was found alive among the victims at the Wounded Knee.

They had been driven back and hemmed in by gun and telegraph and railroad and barbed wire, and in the end it was upon dreams, trances, and visions that they were forced to rely. So by the hour and the day they danced the Ghost Dance, which they wanted to believe would give life to their dead, send whites away, bring back the lost buffalo herds.

It was quite terrifying to the whites: thousands of Indians across vast spaces chanting, singing, dancing. When Big Foot’s band was pushed into South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, at Wounded Knee Creek, the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, Custer’s old outfit, kept their fingers on their triggers. A fracas broke out. It was December 29, 1890. Someone fired a shot. At once the troops opened up, Hotchkiss guns throwing shrapnel. The Indians ran. The soldiers followed. By a little hollow of rolling hill in prairie grasslands a trooper put two rounds into the breast of an Indian mother. She burrowed into the hollow. Snow came. At times the temperature dropped to forty below. Four days and three nights later a burial party heard an infant’s cries. The mother whose body had sheltered and shielded her daughter was dropped into a mass grave along with others similarly frozen solid, some 150 of them.

The mother whose body had sheltered and shielded her daughter was dropped into a mass grave along with others similarly frozen solid, some 150 of them.

The baby lived. She had on her little wrist a bracelet, and she wore moccasins. On her head was a hide cap decorated in beads with the American flag. An old woman of the Lakotas named her Zintkala Nuni, “Lost Bird.” To the newspapers, swiftly doubtful about the righteousness of this last act of the long fight between the red and white races—for there would never be another, this was the end—she was the “little heroine,” the “little dusky maid” who was an “Indian princess.” Her situation came to the attention of Leonard Wright Colby, a brigadier general of the Nebraska National Guard, which had been hurried to what was originally termed the Battle of —but soon came to be known as the Massacre of —Wounded Knee. This infant could be, he said, “a most interesting Indian relic.” Colby decided he wanted this “curio.” He would adopt her; she would become his “protégé,” this “Ghost Dance baby.” He appropriated the girl, took her home, made out adoption papers. Then he informed his wife.

Clara Bewick Colby was in Washington, D.C., where she spent half of each year. An eminence in the women’s suffrage movement, the close associate of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was the editor and proprietor of The Woman’s Tribune , a bimonthly many considered the best newspaper the suffragists ever had. She went to the family home in Beatrice, Nebraska, and took charge of their new daughter, Zintka. (“Zintkala Nuni” proved too difficult to spell and pronounce.) Her husband, handsome, flashy, and reckless, a Civil War hero who had served with Maximilian’s forces in Mexico before going to practice law in Beatrice, quickly lost interest in the child.

Mrs. Colby dressed the baby in white, the color of the suffrage movement. She told of her new situation in her paper and, in response to readers’ displays of interest, created a new feature, “Zintka’s Corner,” in which she discussed the girl’s doings. A photograph of Zintka was offered to new subscribers to The Tribune . “All mothers,” said the magazine Trained Motherhood , “will watch with interest the mothering and education of this…child of the prairie. It is one of the most interesting cases of child study to be found in America.”

Everything was done in accordance with the standards of middle-class Victorian life. Lost Bird was given every advantage. But her adopted mother could not close out the world. When she was taken to visit Mrs. Colby’s family, in Freeport, Illinois, the local paper reported “a dark little stranger” had come to town, her hair and features showing the “unmistakable traces of her race.” When children of the family jeered that her real mother was a “dirty squaw,” she attacked them with such ferocity that her elders said she had reverted to a savage.

She knew no Indians, was never closer to one than the wooden statues commonly found in front of cigar stores, and preferred to play with black children. “Zintka’s Corner” offered cheeriness, but the girl suffered from an all-embracing sadness that made her difficult to manage. She liked to ride the circling painted carousel horses in the park for hours and had to be removed from them at the end of the day by force.

She had always loved to look at and handle her bracelet, cap, and moccasins, the only remnants of the life she might have led had things been different, and at ten, in 1900, she began asking about Indians. At the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo she sought out Lakota members of what was called the Indian Congress, brought to give exhibitions and display dances. Mrs. Colby did not approve of her daughter’s fellow Indians, writing that it would be better that they “exhibit their development and education and not parade their savagery as a show.”

Lost Bird did not do well in school. She was expelled from several. Ar sixteen she ran away and got work in a Wild West show. She made her way to reservations, but knowing nothing of the food, the manners, the music, the language, knowing nothing of the culture, she was unintentionally offensive. She looked men in the eye, spoke frankly, talked at mealtimes, laughed too loudly, seemed assertive, pushy, forward, too forceful—like a white, the people thought. Once, at a reservation, she stood in rain and mud screaming, “It’s me, Lost Bird! Zintka Lanuni! Please help me!” She mispronounced her own name, the Indian listeners noted.

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.

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