The Wounded Knee Massacre

132 years ago one of the most horrific and shameful chapters in U.S. history took place

December 29, 1890. The massacre at Wounded Knee. The name comes from a creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. But its words have come to mean so much more—fraught with suffering, injustice, horrific violence, and shame. “Wounded” for the nearly 300 hundred unarmed Lakota who suffered unmitigated hatred, violence, and death. “Knee,” is symbolic of a proud indigenous people forced to their knees of subjugation. Even in final imprisonment and captivity on reservations in disease-ridden conditions, they would not be allowed even the smallest freedoms to follow their traditions.

By 1890, the Lakota and other Plains Indians had been relegated to reservations. South Dakota contained more Indian reservations than any other state: nine reservations that house Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Flandreau Santee Sioux, Brule Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Hunkpapa Sioux, and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Natives comprise about 12% of South Dakota’s land. (See map of South Dakota reservations.)


Chief Sitting Bull lived at Standing Rock Reservation on the border of North and South Dakota. Chief Spotted Elk (aka “Big Foot”) lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock. Red Cloud lived at the Pine Ridge Reservation on the southern border of South Dakota. Christian churches, huge ‘mission schools” teaching white ways to Native children, and “company stores” were built on all reservations to force the enculturation of Native inhabitants into white society.

In 1889, a new spiritual movement began to sweep across reservations across North America. A Wovoka-Northern Paiute man named Jack Wilson had a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. In the vision, God showed Wilson a glorious land like the one Native Americans had known before whites had arrived. The land was beautiful and untouched, teeming with game, and Indian tribes lived in freedom across the land. In his vision, Jesus Christ would come back to earth as an Indian. Whites and their tyranny would disappear.

In order to honor this vision and bring their salvation, believers danced the “Spirit Dance,” called the “Ghost Dance” by whites. Magnificent shirts were handcrafted and decorated for the Dance. The shirts were believed to hold strong spiritual power themselves and would protect wearers from death and suffering.

The Ghost Dance movement spread quickly across reservations and tribes as a last gasp of hope and insurrection against reservation captivity and loss of Natives' ways. In December 1890, the Army and government got wind that Sitting Bull had been inciting his people at Standing Rock Reservation to celebrate the Ghost Dance.

The government had officially declared the Ghost Dance as seditious and inciting violence and announced it illegal. Any dancers would be arrested and imprisoned. The Army sent government Lakota reservation police to arrest Sitting Bull. But Sitting Bull protested, gunshots were fired and Sitting Bull was killed outright by pointing black bullets at his chest and head. Violence ensued and eight Indians, including Sitting Bull and his 17-year-old son, were killed, as well as seven police.

The Lakota knew that this insurrection would bring down the wrath of the Army upon them. About 200 Standing Rock Lakota men fled their reservation and rode south to the Cheyenne River Reservation, which was headed up by Chief Spotted Elk, also known as “Big Foot” by whites. From there, Chief Spotted Elk and some of his warriors rode south to convene with the remaining chiefs at Pine Ridge Reservation, headed by Chief Red Cloud. The Pine Ridge Reservation was on the South Dakota / Nebraska border.

While en route to Pine Ridge, Spotted Elk was intercepted by the Army and he was escorted to the outskirts of Pine Ridge, where he was ordered to set up his teepees on the banks of Wounded Knee. The Army had already been amassing troops and with carbine firearms and rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns mounted on hills overlooking Spotted Elk’s village. The next day, December 29, 1890, troops were ordered to collect all the Indians’ arms. One young, deaf Lakota warrior named Black Coyote refused and struggled with a soldier. A gun discharged and an officer gave the command to open fire. The Hotchkiss guns mowed down nearly 300 Lakota, many of them women and children traveling with Spotted Elk. Spotted Elk and a leading Lakota Medicine man were also killed. In the chaos, 25 U.S. soldiers were killed, and 39 wounded, most by friendly fire.

The Army hired local civilians to gather the dead in wagons, dig and huge deep pit, and throw in the bodies. Lakota were not allowed traditional burial or mourning practices. Among the hundreds of dead, four infants were found alive in their dead mothers’ arms wrapped in shawls.

The Army’s and the public’s outrage at the massacre were immediate. General Nelson Miles relieved the commanding Colonel James Forsyth from his command. Nevertheless, the event was whitewashed and Forsyth was not only not punished, but was later promoted to Major General. And about 20 U.S. Army soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor for the massacre.

The American public’s reaction to the massacre was generally positive, in great part because the event was whitewashed by the Army and government for the press. But not all Americans were duped. A young newspaper editor, L. Frank Baum, later the author of 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.

The tyranny of Wounded Knee did not end in 1890. Look for future posts on The Modern Aftermath of Wounded Knee, The Fight Over Sitting Bull’s Final Resting Place, and Chief Red Cloud.


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