WOUNDED KNEE

On Decembre 29, 1890

 

Indian Camp " Pine Ridge "

 

The situation on Lakota Sioux reservations in 1890 was desperate.

Promises to increase rations, made by U.S. officials in 1889 in order to secure signatures to reduce Sioux treaty lands by half, and to create six separate reservations, had proved false.

Instead, rations had been cut precipitously, and the people were nearly starving.

Against that backdrop of despair, the millenarian vision of the Paiute prophet Wovoka presented a beautiful alternative.

Many Lakotas left their homes in search of a better future through the Ghost Dance.

In the badlands of the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, three thousand Lakotas, Oglalas from Pine Ridge, and Sicangus from neighboring Rosebud camped together in a remote and rugged natural fortress called the Stronghold.

They danced and experienced visions of dead ancestors and loved ones returning, of the buffalo that once sustained them coming back to the plains, and of the disappearance of whites, whose actions had destroyed their way of life.

Some believed the Ghost Shirts they wore would deflect the bullets of the whites, but most danced because they harbored dreams of renewal and an end to the oppression of the reservation system.

The Ghost Dance frightened many whites in the region, and rumors were rampant.

Although there were no incidents of raiding outside the newly established reservation boundaries, many whites left their isolated homesteads and took up temporary residence in towns.

The U.S. government's response to the Ghost Dance was to send over half the entire U.S. Army to the reservations.

The troop buildup was a serious worry for Lakota leaders, who wanted to insure peace.

In December 1890, Oglala leaders on the Pine Ridge Reservation, including Young Man Afraid of His Horses, Little Wound, and Turning Hawk, made numerous efforts to bring the Ghost Dancers out of their camp.

By month's end, most did come in, making camp near the Pine Ridge Agency.

To the north, on the Cheyenne River Reservation, Chief Big Foot's band, traveling to the agency head-quarters to pick up supplies, was alarmed by an approaching contingent of U.S. Army troops.

After they stopped to consider whether the troops posed a threat, they learned that the respected Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull had been killed the previous day (December 15, 1890) by Indian police at his home.

A group of Hunkpapa Lakota men, women, and children, in terrible condition, starving and suffering from frostbite, joined them and told the story of Sitting Bull's murder.

Fearing for their safety, Big Foot and his people fled southward toward the Pine Ridge Agency, traveling some two hundred miles over frigid, wind-swept prairie.

The military did not find them until December 28, when they surrendered to the Seventh Cavalry under Major Samuel Whitside.

As they camped along Wounded Knee Creek, Whitside's detachment was reinforced by troops led by the Seventh Cavalry commander, Colonel James Forsyth.

In the camp, the 106 warriors were separated from the approximately 250 women and children.

Their separate camps were surrounded by 470 soldiers and 30 Indian scouts.

On a hill overlooking the camp, four rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons, capable of firing fifty two-pound explosive shells per minute, were trained on Big Foot's band.

That night there was elation in the soldiers' camp over the capture of Big Foot.

James Asay, a local trader, procured a barrel of whiskey for the troops, and their late-night celebrations kept many of the Lakotas awake.

On the morning of December 29, Forsyth ordered the disarmament of Big Foot's band.

The search for weapons added to the tension.

Soldiers treated the women roughly and disrespectfully.

Captain Charles Varnum reported that one "squaw" was thrown on her back to make accessible the rifle she had under her dress.

Joe Horn Cloud recounted how soldiers took off the blankets the women had around them against the chill, raised their dresses, and laughed.

The alcohol the soldiers had consumed the previous night probably contributed to the situation.

Horn Cloud testified that Captain George Wallace warned him that Colonel Forsyth was drunk and that anything could happen.

Searchers collected rifles, bows and arrows, hatchets, axes, and knives. Anything that could conceivably be used as a weapon was confiscated. Even sewing awls were taken.

After the women were searched, and the tipis ransacked for guns, the men were subjected to a body search. About forty rifles were seized in all.

What happened next is not certain, but one man apparently refused to relinquish his weapon.

Soldiers grabbed for it, and in the struggle a shot went off.

Shooting immediately began on both sides.

Half of the warriors were killed on the spot. Others ran to rescue their families, and a few broke through the line of troops.

Many women and children standing by their tipis under a white flag of truce were cut down by deadly shrapnel from the Hotchkiss guns.

The rest fled under withering fire from all sides.

Pursuing soldiers shot most of them down in flight, some with babes on their backs.

One survivor recalled that she was wounded but was so scared she did not feel it. She lost her husband, her little girl, and a baby boy. One shot passed through the baby's body before it broke her elbow, causing her to drop his body. Two more shots ripped through the muscles of her back before she fell.

The warrior Iron Hail, shot four times himself but still able to move, saw the soldiers shooting women and children.

One young woman, crying out for her mother, had been wounded close to her throat, and the bullet had taken some of her braid into the wound.

A gaping hole six inches across opened the belly of a man near him, shot through by an unexploded shell from the guns.

Others told of women, heavy with child, shot down by the soldiers.

Bodies of women and children were found scattered for three miles from the camp.

On New Year's Day, a pit was dug on the hill that the Hotchkiss guns had been on, and the frozen bodies of 146 men, women, and children were thrown into the pit like cordwood until it was full.

The whites stripped many of the bodies, keeping as souvenirs the Ghost Shirts and other clothing and equipment the people had owned in life, or selling them later in the thriving trade over Ghost Dance relics that ensued.

One member of the burial party remarked that it was "a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone, to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit."

Besides the 146 buried that day, others who had been wounded died soon afterward, and relatives removed many of the bodies before the government burial party arrived.

Estimates of the number of Lakotas slain vary, but many authorities believe that the figure is around three hundred men, women, and children. Not many escaped.

General Nelson Miles was outraged by the deaths of women and children, and he removed Colonel Forsyth from command.

Besides the women and children, a large number of the warriors had no firearms.

In addition, contended Miles, it would be difficult to conceive of a worse disposition of troops than Forsyth had made.

Because of his blunder, some of the thirty-one soldiers lost at Wounded Knee died from friendly fire.

Colonel Forsyth was oblivious to any problem. His report, written on New Year's Eve, expressed his admiration for "the gallant conduct of my command in an engagement with a band of Indians in desperate condition, and crazed by religious fanaticism."

The secretary of war evidently agreed with Forsyth, and Forsyth was reinstated, later rising to the rank of major general. U.S. approval of the action was further emphasized by awards of the Medal of Honor to three officers and fifteen enlisted men for their heroism at the "Battle of Wounded Knee Creek."

Today, Tilly Black Bear, a Sicangu from the Rosebud reservation, continues to advocate for the rescission of those medals, the most ever awarded for a single engagement in the history of the U.S. Army.

Some historians say Wounded Knee 1890 heralded the end of the Indian Wars.

It could perhaps better be seen as the last well-known large-scale massacre in the long history of massacres of Indian people in North America.

One of the first was documented by Bartolomé de Las Casas in 1502 on the island of Hispaniola, where the Spanish variously dismembered, beheaded, and raped three thousand Indians in one day.

One feature Wounded Knee shared with Hispaniola was racism.

What else but race-driven hatred could explain the fact that women and children were slaughtered so far from the camp? Another factor may have been a thirst for vengeance on the part of the Seventh Cavalry.

A report published in the Nebraska State Journal on December 10, 1890, under the headline "The Redskins Retreat—War Cloud Grows Darker," claimed that the Seventh Cavalry was fairly itching for a fight. "These are the same Indians who mercilessly shot down the gallant Custer and 300 of the Seventh Cavalry on that memorable day of June 25, 1876 ... and it is safe to say the Sioux will receive no quarter from this famous regiment should an opportunity occur to wreak out vengeance for the blood taken at the battle of the Little Big Horn."

That prophetic piece reflected the vengeful mood, and the racism, of much of the country.

Not all the soldiers were bent on the annihilation of Big Foot's band.

One Lakota survivor reported that after one soldier, shouting "Remember Custer," shot an elderly woman and followed his action up by shooting a child, one of his fellow troops shot him.

Similarly, not all of Lieutenant William Calley's men participated in murdering the 347 Vietnamese, mostly women and children, who were killed in the My Lai massacre in 1968. Some people retain their humanity. Nations need to retain theirs too.

The Lakota people have asked the United States for an apology, but to date none has been given.

Paul M. Robertson

Oglala Lakota College

Kyle, South Dakota

7th Cav. Camp at the late Indian War of Pine Ridge Ag.

 

Looking southeast from the hill where the Indian dead were interred

 

Ration day at Pine Ridge

 

View of Wounded Knee Creek and the battlefield

 

The aftermath of Wounded Knee : What to say...'The Day After'...the massacre of Wounded Knee...only a few did escape alive... A civilian burial party stands by their wagon filled with the frozen bodies of Native American Lakota Sioux, in a ravine south of the camp at Wounded Knee Creek, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. Mounted U.S. Army officers look on from hill above.

 

The casualties of Wounded Knee : Painting by Mary Wright ...

 

The battlefield : Dead bodies, frozen bodies lying on the ground and a soldier on a horse ... what more to say to describe this photograph.

 

The battlefield : Dead bodies, frozen bodies lying on the ground and a soldier on a horse ... what more to say to describe this photograph.

 

Burial of the dead : A civilian burial party and U.S. Army officers pose over a mass grave trench with bodies of Native American Lakota Sioux killed at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

 

After the massacre View southwest from center of council circle after the fight at Wounded Knee Creek, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, shows men holding moccasins and other souvenirs among the frozen bodies of Native American Lakota Sioux on the snow covered ground.

 

Big Foot's frozen body : 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.

 

Wounded Knee store (1891) : George Bartlett, Deputy U.S. Marshall for the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, poses wearing heavy winter coats in front of the post office and store operated by Louis Mousseau, on the Native American Dakota Sioux, Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota. a buckboard is at the hitching post and snow patches show on the ground and sod roof of the log cabin.

 

The 9th cavalry camp Black and white members of the Ninth Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) pose in their wall tent camp during the Native American Sioux campaign on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. Hay has been scattered over the snow-covered ground for horses covered with blankets.

 

The Pine Ridge Agency (1890 or 1891): View over a Native American Lakota Sioux and United States Calavry camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, shows tepees, wagons, horse, walled tents, and covered wagons on plains with patches of snow.

 

Battle of Wounded Knee View of a Native American Sioux tepee camp with a corral on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, includes people wrapped in blankets, wagons, and horses.

 

The Grand Council on January 17,1891 : Chief Kicking Bear speaks from inside the council circle of Native American Lakota Sioux, as he attempts to convince the remaining Ghost Dancers to give up their weapons, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

 

Chief Young Man Afraid Of His Horses Native American Oglala Sioux, poses in his tepee camp on the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota. He wears a polka dot shirt, leggings, hat, and a blanket around his waist; possibly his wife, wrapped in a blanket shows behind him.

 

Sioux Chiefs in their "Regalia" (1891 or 1896 ?): Native American Sioux chiefs pose on horseback, possibly South Dakota. They wear cotton shirts, head feathers; one with headdress; and carry rifles and flags with stars and strips.

 

Disarming hostile warriors : View overlooking a Native American Sioux camp at the Stronghold on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, shows some packing belongings, as the U. S. Army stands watch on hill in distance.

 

Grand Council Photo 2 on January 17, 1891 : Chief Two Strikes speaks from inside the council circle of Native American Lakota Sioux, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, as he attempts to convince the remaining Ghost Dancers to give up their weapons.

 

Rosebud and Sioux Indian, War Dance at Pine Ridge 1890 : Native American Lakota Sioux men and boys perform a dance on the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota. They wear breechcloths, bustles, roaches, feathers in their hair, legbands with bells, moccasins, armbands, and hair pipe breastplates.

 

Lakota Chiefs 1891 : Native American Lakota Sioux chiefs Good Lance, Big Talk, Kicking Bear, and Two Strike pose on horses with J. A. McDonough, reporter, Frank Gerard, chief of scouts, and Major John Burke, general manager of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, at the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota.

 

Chiefs in front of tent : Chief Two Strike, Chief Crow Dog, Chief High Hawk, Native American Brulé Sioux, pose in a tepee camp, Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota. A white man and children show next to the leaders wrapped in blankets or wearing an overcoat.

 

Think this photo speaks for itself...so no comment.