Tag Archives: Wounded Knee Massacre

Remembering the Wounded Knee Massacre – Dec 29, 1890

The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee illustration

The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee illustration

On December 29, 1890, the massacre of Sioux warriors, women and children along Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota marked the final chapter in the long war between the United States and the Native American tribes indigenous to the Great Plains.

For the entirety of his 27 years, Black Elk’s somber eyes had watched as the way of life for his fellow Lakota Sioux withered on the Great Plains. The medicine man had witnessed a generation of broken treaties and shattered dreams. He had watched as the white men “came in like a river” after gold was discovered in the Dakota Territory’s Black Hills in 1874, and he had been there two years later when Custer and his men were annihilated at Little Big Horn.

He had seen the Lakota’s traditional hunting grounds evaporate as white men decimated the native buffalo population. The Lakota, who once roamed as free as the bison on the Great Plains, were now mostly confined to government reservations.

Life for the Sioux had become as bleak as the weather that gripped the snow-dusted prairies of South Dakota in the winter of 1890. A glimmer of hope, however, had begun to arise with the new Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which preached that Native Americans had been confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs. Leaders promised that the buffalo would return, relatives would be resurrected and the white man would be cast away if the Native Americans performed a ritual “ghost dance.”

As the movement began to spread, white settlers grew increasingly alarmed and feared it as a prelude to an armed uprising. “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” telegrammed a frightened government agent stationed on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to the commissioner of Indian affairs on November 15, 1890.

General Nelson Miles

General Nelson Miles

“We need protection and we need it now.” General Nelson Miles arrived on the prairie with 5,000 troops as part of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old command, and ordered the arrest of several Sioux leaders.

When on December 15, 1890, Indian police tried to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was mistakenly believed to have been joining the Ghost Dancers, the noted Sioux leader was killed in the melee. On December 28, the cavalry caught up with Chief Big Foot, who was leading a band of upwards of 350 people to join Chief Red Cloud, near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, which winds through the prairies and badlands of southwest South Dakota. The American forces arrested Big Foot—too ill with pneumonia to sit up, let alone walk—and positioned their Hotchkiss guns on a rise overlooking the Lakota camp.

As a bugle blared the following morning — December 29 — American soldiers mounted their horses and surrounded the Native American camp. A medicine man who started to perform the ghost dance cried out, “Do not fear but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us.” He implored the heavens to scatter the soldiers like the dust he threw into the air.

The cavalry, however, went teepee to teepee seizing axes, rifles and other weapons. As the soldiers attempted to confiscate a weapon they spotted under the blanket of a deaf man who could not hear their orders, a gunshot suddenly rang out. It was not clear which side shot first, but within seconds the American soldiers launched a hail of bullets from rifles, revolvers and rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns into the teepees. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Lakota offered meek resistance.

Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, lying in the snow where he was killed during the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Big Foot was shot where he lay on the ground. Boys who only moments before were playing leapfrog were mowed down. In just a matter of minutes, at least 150 Sioux (some historians put the number at twice as high) were killed along with 25 American soldiers. Nearly half the victims were women and children.

The dead were carried to the nearby Episcopal church and laid in two rows underneath festive wreaths and other Christmas decorations. Days later a burial party arrived, dug a pit and dumped in the frozen bodies. For decades, survivors of the massacre lobbied in vain for compensation, while the U.S. Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to members of the Seventh Cavalry for their roles in the bloodbath.

When Black Elk closed his wizened eyes in 1931, he could still envision the horror. “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age,” he told writer John G. Neihardt for his 1932 book “Black Elk Speaks,” “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 still 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.”

Bodies of Lakota Sioux at Big Foot’s camp following the Wounded Knee Massacre.

It was not the last time blood flowed next to Wounded Knee Creek. In February 1973 activists with the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the site for 71 days to protest the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. The standoff resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans.

By Christopher Klein


America’s bloodiest day (since the Civil War) that no one talks about

Survivors of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee visit Washington in 1938 to testify.(AP Photo)

Survivors of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee visit Washington in 1938 to testify.(AP Photo)

By Sonali Kohli | Quartz

Last week, the New York Times published an in-depth piece (paywall) on the excessive use of force at New York’s Attica prison, stemming in large part from a history of violence and a prison riot that left 43 people dead in 1971. Tucked away in the story was this sentence, highlighting a telling American attitude toward a huge part of our history:

“The state commission that investigated the September 1971 uprising memorably described it as the bloodiest single encounter, Indian massacres aside, between Americans since the Civil War.”

The state report (pdf, pg. 6) originally phrased it this way:

“With the exception of the Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

The wording there, the relegation of Native Americans to a footnote in US history and secondary to the Civil War, reflects the attitudes of Americans toward Native Americans. Missing from the advanced US history curricula are the full stories of Native American oppression in the US. Those attitudes of apathy persist today, from a football team’s refusal to change its name to the police shootings of Native Americans that gain barely any media attention, compared to the shootings of black men in the last year.

The pattern of American oppression of Native Americans began with the millions killed when Europeans colonized the Americas, continued with state-sanctioned displacement, and stretched into the wars against American Indians throughout the 1800s. Before, during, and after the Civil War—Americans were still oppressing, marginalizing, stealing land from, and killing Native Americans. The last of those massacres was in 1890, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, when at least 200 Lakota people were killed.

Here is one account from a survivor of the Wounded Knee massacre, as told to the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs the year after the massacre (via PBS). Someone named American Horse told the commissioner, according to PBS:

“There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded 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.”

In 1973, Native American activists occupied Wounded Knee, leading to a71-day standoff with the US military that resulted in two deaths. That year was probably the last time Native American grievances received widespread national attention. At the 1973 Oscars, Marlon Brando sent a Native American actress to decline his Academy Award out of protest against treatment of Native Americans both onscreen and by the government:

They were still protesting (paywall) mistreatment and broken treaties, 83 years later.

The Ghost Dance and 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre

Sitting Bull 1884. Sitting Bull was shot and killed when police tried to arrest him outside his house on the Standing Rock reservation on December 15, 1890. Palmquist & Jurgens, photographer. (Denver Public Library; Western History Collection)

Sitting Bull 1884. Sitting Bull was shot and killed when police tried to arrest him outside his house on the Standing Rock reservation on December 15, 1890.

By Black Powder | Red Power Media

On Dec 15, 1890, After many years of successfully resisting white efforts to destroy him and the Lakota people, the great Lakota chief and holy man Sitting Bull is killed by Indian police at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota.

One of the most famous Native Americans of the 19th century, Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) was a fierce enemy of Anglo-Americans from a young age. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull and his followers fled to Canada for four years.

Faced with mass starvation among his people, Sitting Bull finally returned to the United States and surrendered in 1883. Sitting Bull was assigned to the Standing Rock reservation in present-day South Dakota, where he maintained considerable power despite the best efforts of the Indian bureau agents to undermine his influence.

When a spiritual movement known as the Ghost Dance began to grow in popularity among the Lakota in 1890, Indian agents feared it might lead to an Native American uprising.

Wrongly believing that Sitting Bull was the driving force behind the Ghost Dance, agent James McLaughlin sent Indian police to arrest the chief at his small cabin on the Grand River.

The Indian police rousted the naked chief from his bed at 6:00 in the morning, hoping to spirit him away before his warriors and neighbors knew what had happened.

When the fifty-nine-year-old chief refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered and a few of the young men threatened the Indian police. Someone fired a shot that hit one of the Indian police; they retaliated by shooting Sitting Bull in the chest and head. The great chief was killed instantly.

Before the ensuing gunfight ended, twelve other Native Americans were dead and three were wounded.

The man who had nobly resisted the encroachment of whites and their culture for nearly three decades was buried in a far corner of the post cemetery at Fort Yates. In 1953, Sitting Bull’s Lakota family exhumed what were believed to be his remains, reburying them near Mobridge, South Dakota near his birthplace.

The Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance had been brought to the Lakota through the teachings of a Paiute medicine man known as Wovoka. It taught that the buffalo herds would soon return and the Lakota would return to their days of power. The Lakota had seen much death among their people and one of the most intriguing aspects of the Ghost Dance was that the participants would see their departed loved ones once more.

The Ghost Dance belief was not one of violence, but of pacifism. And yet, the newspapers of the day quickly took it upon themselves to condemn this spiritual practice labeling it as that of zealot’s intent upon killing all of the white people.

It was said that the Lakota would wear special Ghost Dance shirts as seen by Black Elk in a vision and the shirts had the power to repel bullets.

Chief Big Foot, who succeeded Sitting Bull, and some 350 of his followers would next became the victims of the white man’s fear of this new “religion.”

In late December 1890, Big Foot, advised his people to flee the reservation, for the south, in the Badland’s region of South Dakota.

Discussions among tribal leaders, including a Ghost Dance Ceremony, ensued, after which they made their escape from the reservation.

They successfully eluded capture for five days, but were slowed by a number of their tribe who had contracted pneumonia. They were soon apprehended by U.S. troops of the 7th Cavalry, under Col. James W. Forsythe.

On the morning of December 29th, along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, the U.S. troops went to disarm the Lakota. After a council with the fleeing Native Americans, Forsythe demanded they go to the village and bring their guns. They stated they had no guns.

They soon returned with two old pieces, long used, no doubt, as toys by the children, but forming no part of the splendid Winchesters owned by the warriors.

All the Lakota were then assembled, and told their guns must be surrendered. Their expressions were sullen and some attitudes were defiant. It was clear not all would not give up the guns.

One warrior, Black Coyote, refused to surrender his rifle, and in attempting to disarm him a scuffle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the 7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, not just with rifles, but with canon as well.

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.

The 7th Cavalry killed mostly women, children and elders, some were part of a peaceful group heading toward Pine Ridge village to help allay fears over the Ghost Dance movement.

They also killed some of their own fellow soldiers.

When the carnage was finally over, the Lakota had suffered 250 dead. 146 of these dead were buried in one mass grave.

The soldiers had lost 25 men.

The U.S. troops had brutally put an end to the Ghost Dance movement.

The “battle” was well covered by the host of reporters and the story was circulated world-wide, complete with gory pictures.

The Massacre at Wounded Knee, as the battle is known, became, and remains, the symbol of the inhumanity of the U.S. government’s policy toward Native Americans.

View of the slain body of Chief Big Foot, Native American, Miniconjou Lakota Sioux, propped up in the snow on the Wounded Knee battleground, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. U. S. soldiers, civilian burial party members, and a stovepipe from an army tent show in background.

View of the slain body of Chief Big Foot, propped up in the snow on the Wounded Knee battleground, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.