At this time of the year, we have all the joys of Christmas (or Channukah) and the excitement of New Year’s Eve, and then the start of a whole new year. But a much darker anniversary falls about this time of the year, too.
The famous Wounded Knee Massacre occurred on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek (Lakota: Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota.
On the 28th, a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou Lakota and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them five miles westward (8 km) to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp. The remainder of the 7th Cavalry Regiment arrived, led by Colonel James W. Forsyth and surrounded the encampment supported by four Hotchkiss guns.
On the morning of December 29, the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. In summary, one version of events claims that during the process of disarming the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, claiming he had paid a lot for it.
A scuffle over Black Coyote’s rifle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the 7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, indiscriminately killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow soldiers. The Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking soldiers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed. By the time it was over, more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota had been killed and 51 were wounded (4 men, 47 women and children, some of whom died later) and some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. Twenty-five soldiers also died, and 39 were wounded (6 of the wounded would later die).
This was the prelude to the massacre.
In the years prior to the conflict, the U.S. government had progressively seized the Lakota’s lands. The once large bison herds (a staple food for the Great Plains peoples) had been hunted to near-extinction by European settlers The native peoples now relied nearly entirely on what they could scavenge near their enforced settlements, or whatever meagre rations allowed to them from the nearby white settlers.
Promises to protect reservation lands from encroachment by settlers and gold miners were not implemented as dictated by treaty. As a result, there was unrest on the reservations.
During this time news spread among the reservations of a highly religious shaman and prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance religion. He had a vision that the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to earth in the form of a Native American. During a solar eclipse, Wovoka said the Messiah would raise all the Native American believers above the earth and the white man would disappear from Native lands, the ancestors would lead them to good hunting grounds, the buffalo herds and all the other animals would return in abundance, and the ghosts of their ancestors would return to earth — hence the word “Ghost” in “Ghost Dance.” They would then return to earth to live in peace.
All this would be brought about by performance of the “Ghost Dance.”
Lakota holy men taught that while performing the Ghost Dance, they would wear special Ghost Dance shirts as seen by another shaman Black Elk in a vision and it was propounded that the shirts had the power to repel bullets. Settler Americans were alarmed by the sight of the many Great Basin and Plains tribes performing the Ghost Dance, worried that it might be a prelude to armed attack. Among them was the US Indian Agent at the Standing Rock Agency where Lakota Chief Sitting Bull lived. US officials decided to take some of the chiefs into custody in order to quell what they called the “Messiah Craze.” The military first hoped to have showman Buffalo Bill — a friend of Sitting Bull — aid in the plan to reduce the chance of violence. But Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin overrode the military and sent the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull. On December 15, 1890, 40 Indian policemen arrived at Sitting Bull’s house to arrest him. Crowds gathered in protest, and a shot was fired when Sitting Bull tried to pull away from his captors, killing the officer who had been holding him. Additional shots were fired, resulting in the death of Sitting Bull, eight of his supporters, and six policemen. After Sitting Bull’s death, 200 members of his Hunkpapa band, fearful of reprisals, fled Standing Rock to join Chief Spotted Elk (later to be known as “Big Foot”) and his Miniconjou band at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
Spotted Elk and his band, along with 38 Hunkpapa, left the Cheyenne River Reservation on December 23 to journey to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to seek shelter with Red Cloud. Former Pine Ridge Indian agent Valentine T. McGillycuddy was asked his opinion of the ‘hostilities’ surrounding the Ghost Dance movement by General Leonard Wright Colby commander of the Nebraska National Guard. In a letter to Colby he said:
“As for the “Ghost Dance” too much attention has been paid to it. It was only the symptom or surface indication of a deep rooted, long-existing difficulty; as well treat the eruption of small pox as the disease and ignore the constitutional disease. As regards disarming the Sioux, however desirable it may appear, I consider it neither advisable, nor practicable. I fear it will result as the theoretical enforcement of prohibition in Kansas, Iowa and Dakota; you will succeed in disarming and keeping disarmed the friendly Indians because you can, and you will not succeed with the mob element because you cannot. If I were again to be an Indian Agent, and had my choice, I would take charge of 10,000 armed Sioux in preference to a like number of disarmed ones; and furthermore agree to handle that number, or the whole Sioux nation, without a white soldier. Respectfully, etc., V.T. McGillycuddy. P.S. I neglected to state that up to date there has been neither a Sioux outbreak or war. No citizen in Nebraska or Dakota has been killed, molested or can show the scratch of a pin, and no property has been destroyed off the reservation.”
McGillycuddy was by no means the only white American alarmed at the bellicose nature of Washington’s intentions, and the likelihood of conflict with a people who had been hard done by.
“The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.” “They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures.” “The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.”
After being called to the Pine Ridge Agency, Chief Spotted Elk of the Miniconjou Lakota nation and 350 of his followers were making the slow trip to the Agency on December 28, 1890, when they were met by a 7th Cavalry detachment under Major Samuel M. Whitside southwest of Porcupine Butte. John Shangreau, a scout and interpreter who was half Sioux, advised the troopers not to disarm the Indians immediately, as it would lead to violence. So the troopers escorted the Indians about five miles westward (8 km) to Wounded Knee Creek where they told them to make camp.
Later that evening, Col. James W. Forsyth and the rest of the 7th Cavalry arrived, bringing the number of troopers at Wounded Knee to 500. By contrast, there were about 350 Indians: 230 men and 120 women and children.
The troopers surrounded Spotted Elk’s encampment and ominously set up four rapid-fire Hotchkiss-designed M1875 Mountain Guns.
At daybreak on December 29, 1890, Col. Forsyth ordered the surrender of weapons and the immediate removal of the Indians from the “zone of military operations” to awaiting trains. A search of the camp confiscated 38 rifles and more rifles were taken as the soldiers searched the Indians. None of the old men were found to be armed. But a medicine man named Yellow Bird allegedly harangued the young Lakota men who were becoming agitated by the search and this tension spread to the soldiers.
Specific details of what triggered the massacre are debated. According to some accounts, Yellow Bird began to perform the “Ghost Dance”, telling the Lakota that their “ghost shirts” were bulletproof. As tension mounted, a Lakota called Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle; he was deaf and had not understood the order. Another Indian said: “Black Coyote is deaf.” (And Black Coyote did not speak English, either.) When the soldier persisted, he said, “Stop! He cannot hear your orders!” At that moment, two soldiers seized Black Coyote from behind, and (allegedly) in the struggle, his rifle discharged. At the same moment Yellow Bird threw some dust into the air, and approximately five young Lakota men with concealed weapons threw aside their blankets and fired their rifles at Troop K of the 7th. After this initial exchange, the firing became indiscriminate.
According to commanding Gen. Nelson A. Miles, a “scuffle occurred between one warrior who had [a] rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a battle occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Spotted Elk, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed.”That the battle may have started like this is credible. But the behaviour of the Cavalry thereafter was astonishingly cruel and unnecessarily violent.
At first all firing was at close range; fully half the Indian men were killed or wounded before they had a chance to get off any shots.
Some of the Indians grabbed rifles from the piles of confiscated weapons and opened fire on the soldiers. With no cover, and with many of the Indians unarmed, this lasted a few minutes at most.
While the Indian warriors and soldiers were shooting at close range, other soldiers used the Hotchkiss guns against the “tipi” camp full of women and children. It is believed that many of the soldiers killed were victims of friendly fire from their own Hotchkiss guns. The Indian women and children fled the camp, seeking shelter in a nearby ravine from the crossfire. But the officers had lost all control of their men. Some of the soldiers fanned out and finished off the wounded. Others leaped onto their horses and pursued the Indians (men, women and children), in some cases for miles across the prairies.
In less than an hour, at least 150 Lakota had been killed and 50 wounded. Historian Dee Brown, in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, mentions an estimate of 300 of the original 350 having been killed or wounded and that the soldiers loaded 51 survivors (4 men and 47 women and children) onto wagons and took them to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Army casualties numbered 25 dead and 39 wounded.
Eyewitness accounts of the unbridled savagery of the incident are unequivocable. One survivor, Dewey Beard (Iron Hail, 1862–1955), Minneconjou Lakota survivor said:
“Then many Indians broke into the ravine; some ran up the ravine and to favorable positions for defense.”
Black Elk (1863–1950) a medicine man of Oglala Lakota said:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
American Horse (1840–1908) a Chief of the Oglala Lakota, said:
“There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce. A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing. The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through … and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys … came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”
Captain Edward S. Godfrey who commanded Company D of the Seventh Cavalry said:
“I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don’t believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs … went down before that un-aimed fire.”
Hugh McGinnis of the First Battalion, Company K of the Seventh Cavalry reported:
“General Nelson A. Miles who visited the scene of carnage, following a three day blizzard, estimated that around 300 snow-shrouded forms were strewn over the countryside. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babies in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the original scene of encounter and cut down without mercy by the troopers. Judging by the slaughter on the battlefield it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life? As I see it the battle was more or less a matter of spontaneous combustion, sparked by mutual distrust …”
When a three-day blizzard ended, the military hired civilians to bury the dead Lakota.
The burial party found the deceased frozen; they were gathered up and placed in a mass grave on a hill overlooking the encampment from which some of the fire from the Hotchkiss guns originated.
It was reported that four infants were found alive, wrapped in their deceased mothers’ shawls.
In all, 84 men, 44 women, and 18 children reportedly died on the field itself, while at least seven Lakota were mortally wounded.
General Nelson Miles subsequently denounced Colonel Forsyth and relieved him of command. But a supposedly exhaustive Army Court of Inquiry convened by Miles criticised Forsyth for his tactical dispositions, but otherwise exonerated him of responsibility. The Court of Inquiry, however, was not conducted as a formal court-martial.
The Secretary of War concurred with the decision and reinstated Forsyth to command of the 7th Cavalry. Incredibly, given the bloody toll, testimony had indicated that for the most part, troops attempted to avoid non-combatant casualties. Miles continued to criticize Forsyth, whom he believed had deliberately disobeyed his commands in order to destroy the Indians. Miles promoted the conclusion that Wounded Knee was a deliberate massacre rather than a tragedy caused by poor decisions, in an effort to destroy the career of Forsyth. But these criticisms were later whitewashed and Forsyth was promoted to Major General.
The American public’s reaction to the battle at the time was generally favorable. Many non-Lakota living near the reservations interpreted the battle as the defeat of a murderous cult; others confused Ghost Dancers with Native Americans in general. That the basic white position was brutal and racist in nature is encapsulated by an editorial response to the event, in which the young newspaper editor L. Frank Baum, later the author of the much loved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891:
“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”
There can be little doubt that Wounded Knee was part of a deliberate policy of what we would call today “ethnic cleansing”, that enjoyed widespread support.
Soon after the event, Dewey Beard, his brother Joseph Horn Cloud and others formed the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, which came to include descendants. They sought compensation from the U.S. government for the many fatalities and injured. Today the association is independent and works to preserve and protect the historic site from exploitation, and to administer any memorial erected there. As if to add insult to injury, it was not until the 1990s that a memorial to the Lakota dead was included in the National Historic Landmark.
Historically, Wounded Knee is generally considered to be the end of the collective series of conflicts between colonial and U.S. forces and American Indians, known collectively as the Indian Wars. But it was actually not the last armed conflict between Native Americans and the United States. The “Drexel Mission Fight” was an armed confrontation between Lakota warriors and the United States Army that took place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on December 30, 1890, on the very next day following Wounded Knee. The fight occurred on White Clay Creek approximately 15 miles north of Pine Ridge where Lakota fleeing from the continued hostile situation surrounding the massacre at Wounded Knee had set up camp. Company K of the Seventh Cavalry — the unit involved at Wounded Knee — was sent to force the Lakotas’ return to the areas they were assigned on their respective reservations. The Seventh Cavalry was pinned down in a valley by the combined Lakota forces and had to be rescued by the Ninth Cavalry, and an African American regiment nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers.
Among the Lakota warriors was a young Brulé man from Rosebud named Plenty Horses who had recently returned from five years at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
A week after this fight, Plenty Horses would shoot and kill Army Lieutenant Edward W. Casey, commandant of the Cheyenne Scouts (Troop L, Eighth Cavalry). The testimony introduced at the trial of Plenty Horses helped to abrogate the legal culpability of the U.S. Army for the deaths at Wounded Knee.
For the 1890 offensive that included the Wounded Knee destruction, the United States Army awarded twenty Medals of Honor, its highest commendation. It seems the Government were keen to bolster the moral support for the Army’s actions: recently, in the governmental Nebraska State Historical Society’s Summer 1994 quarterly journal, Jerry Green construes that pre-1916 Medals of Honor were awarded more liberally than today, but also that “the number of medals does seem disproportionate when compared to those awarded for other battles.” Quantifying, he compares the three awarded for the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain’s five-day siege, to the twenty awarded for this short and one-sided action. Historian Will G. Robinson also noted that, in contrast, only three Medals of Honor were awarded among the 64,000 South Dakotans who fought for four years of World War II. In short, the medals were clearly part of the “big lie” that Wounded Knee was in any way justifiable. Native American activists have urged the medals be withdrawn, as they say they were “Medals of Dishonor”. According to Lakota tribesman William Thunder Hawk:
“The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn’t show heroism; they showed cruelty.”
In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the Medals of Honor awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them. Some of the citations on the medals awarded to the troopers, at Wounded Knee, state that they went in pursuit of Lakota who were trying to escape or hide. Another citation was for “conspicuous bravery in rounding up and bringing to the skirmish line a stampeded pack mule.”
St. John’s Episcopal Mission Church was built on Wounded Knee Hill, location of Hotchkiss guns during battle and the subsequent mass grave of Native American Dead, some survivors having been nursed in the then-new Holy Cross Mission Church. In 1903, descendants of those who died in the battle erected a monument at the gravesite. The memorial lists many of those who died at Wounded Knee along with an inscription that reads: “This monument is erected by surviving relatives and other Ogalala and Cheyenne River Sioux Indians in memory of the Chief Big Foot massacre December 29, 1890. Col. Forsyth in command of US troops. Big Foot was a great chief of the Sioux Indians. He often said, ‘I will stand in peace till my last day comes.’ He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.”
Beginning in 1986, the group named “Big Foot Memorial Riders” was formed to continue to honour the dead. The ceremony has attracted more participants each year and riders and their horses live with the cold weather, as well as the lack of food and water, as they retrace the path that their family members took to Wounded Knee. They carry with them a white flag to symbolize their hope for world peace, and to honour and remember the victims so that they will not be forgotten.
And it is for that reason that we reproduce the Lakota’s story today.
(Wikipedia and other sources)