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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wounded Knee -- A Wisconsin Connection

This week HBO premiered "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," a film version of Dee Brown's well-known 1970 book about the massacre of the Lakota Sioux in western So. Dakota in 1890. The movie, which stars Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, Anna Paquin, and August Schellenberg and will air almost daily over the next month, should help educate a new generation of Americans about one of our nation's most compelling tragedies.

A little-known fact about the massacre involves one of Wisconsin's best-known reformers. Clara Bewick Colby (1846-1916) was a feminist and founding editor of the Woman's Tribune; her friends included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Olympia Brown. While a student in the first class of University of Wisconsin women (1865-1869), Clara met Leonard Colby (1848-1924), a boarder in her grandparents' Madison home. He had enlisted in the Civil War at 15 and fought heroically. In 1871 they married and went west, Leonard setting up a law practice in Beatrice, Neb.

They became active in local affairs and by 1890 Leonard was a brigadier general in the Nebraska National Guard. He did not take part in the Wounded Knee massacre, but after hearing about it he quickly summoned his troops and visited the scene. There, without consulting Clara, Leonard carried away an infant who had survived for four days in a creekbed, huddling beneath the frozen body of its murdered mother.

The baby was named Zintkala Nuni, from the English "Lost Bird." Clara and Leonard legally adopted her and hired a nanny named Maud Miller. Here are three pictures of Lost Bird as a child, from the papers of Clara Bewick Colby in the Society's Archives.

Leonard Colby soon rose to the position of assistant U.S. attorney general and moved the family to Washington, D.C. Clara Colby continued to advocate for women's rights and publish one of the suffrage movement's leading newspapers. Their two careers left little time either for parenting or family life. Leonard began an affair with Zintkala's nursemaid, Maud Miller, which went on for years, until Clara divorced him in 1906. He promptly married Miller and turned his back on Clara and their daughter.

Young Lost Bird suffered through a childhood of emotional neglect and regimented boarding schools. When she became pregnant as a teenager, her father sent her to a repressive reformatory for unwed mothers. Although Leonard occasionally paid her medical or travel bills, Clara provided most of the support for the troubled girl. After her schooling, she was never able to settle into a stable lifestyle, working at times in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, transient acting jobs, and vaudeville, which she pursued with a hapless husband in a troubled marriage.

Lost Bird's short and unfortunate life was brought to an end on Valentine's Day, 1920, when she died at her in-laws' California home during the Spanish flu epidemic then sweeping the nation. Her story was told in a 1995 book by Renee Sansom Flood, reviewed here in our Wisconsin Magazine of History. Flood also located Lost Bird's grave in California and arranged for her remains to be returned to South Dakota and interred at Wounded Knee in 1991 (it should be noted, however, that our reviewer concluded that Flood's book asserts "many allegations need more convincing documentation," and in the years since it was published other reservations about its findings have been challenged).

Lost Bird's mother, meanwhile, had died before her. Following the divorce, Clara left Washington for the far west where she continued to be devoted to the cause of woman's suffrage and the promotion of world peace. In 1913 the governor of Oregon appointed her a delegate to the International Woman's Suffrage Alliance at Budapest and to the international peace congress at The Hague. She succumbed to pneumonia in Sept. 1916 in Eugene, Oregon.

[In addition to the sources linked in the text, this Odd Wisconsin entry relies on the fine pages created by So. Dakota Public Broadcasting about Lost Bird.]
:: Posted in Odd Lives on May 31, 2007

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