CROFTON — Finding triumph in what is one of the most tragic events in American history was difficult.
Which is why Elizabeth Wortmann of Crofton had to view the event from the perspective of the soldiers who, following orders from their superiors, took up arms against Native Americans they thought were planning an uprising.
In the end, hundreds of men, women and children were killed on Dec. 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee, S.D., in what is known as the Wounded Knee massacre.
So finding the tragedy wasn’t hard for Elizabeth, who used the event as a topic for a program that won her the Native American History Award at the National History Day Contest in College Park, Maryland, last month.
Elizabeth, the daughter of Chris and Holly Wortmann of Crofton, is the first student from St. Rose of Lima School in Crofton to win an award at the national level. She will enter the eighth grade in the fall.
The competition is for students in grade six through 12 who can participate individually or in groups in five categories: historical paper, exhibit, performance, documentary or website.
More than 3,000 students from schools across the country presented projects at the regional level in junior and senior divisions.
To get to the national round, Elizabeth had to win at the regional competition in Norfolk and then at state competition in Lincoln. Thirty-six entries from Nebraska advanced to the national competition.
Motivation for becoming involved was provided by Elizabeth’s history teacher, Ginger Schieffer, who makes preparing for History Day competition part of the curriculum.
“All seventh- and eighth-graders do a project,” Schieffer said. “They have to pick something they enjoy.”
While doing well in competition is nice, Schieffer said there are many benefits derived from preparing the projects, including reading, doing research and learning how to write papers using the Modern Language Association (MLA) style.
When searching for a topic for her project, which had to fit the theme of “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” Elizabeth said she knew she wanted to focus on Native American issues.
She learned about Wounded Knee and came across information about Alice Ghost Horse, a 13-year-old girl who got caught up in the massacre. “I knew I could portray her,” Elizabeth said.
When a friend who used to live near the massacre site offered more details about the event, Elizabeth was sure she had found her topic,
“That was the ah-ha moment,” said her mother, Holly.
For her program titled “Mistrust and Misunderstanding: A Deadly Clash at Wounded Knee,” Elizabeth chose to portray three characters who were involved in the incident — Alice Ghost Horse; Samuel Whitside, the Army general who led his troops at the massacre; and Whitside’s daughter, Madeline Whitside. She also served as the narrator.
While preparing for the 10-minute performance, Elizabeth read numerous books and articles about the topic and also listened to or read interviews of witnesses that are available at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
One of the interviews was with Charles Little Dog, who was only 6 years old at the time but remembered seeing frozen bodies left in the snow.
She also read a book that tells the story of Alice Ghost Horse.
“She describes the horrific event from her 13-year-old point of view,” Elizabeth said.
During her presentation, Elizabeth switched from one character to another by changing part of her costume, which included a Native American breastplate, an apron a young pioneer girl would have worn, and a 7th Cavalry cap the general would have worn.
“The costumes were simple and effective,” Elizabeth said.
After spending months studying the massacre, Elizabeth said she has come to understand how the parties involved “misunderstood and mistrusted each other.”
Still, she bristles at the notion that for 100 years the event was called a battle, when it was clearly a massacre. She’s also dismayed at the notion that the massacre resulted in the awarding of 20 Medals of Honor to soldiers who participated.
“The Sioux Native Americans lost their loved ones as well as any hope they may have had left about getting their old lives back from the settlers. It may be difficult to find triumph in all this tragedy, but the settlers and the United States government had proved more powerful. My characters, Madeline Whitside and Samuel Whitside, represent the triumph. Native American resistance was nearly extinct, and there were no more wars with the Indians,” she said.