The Wounded Knee Massacre
December 29, 1890
An Account of The Massacre
By August of 1890, the U.S. government was fearful that the Ghost Dance was actually a war dance and, in time, the dancers would turn to rioting. By November, the War Department sent troops to occupy the Lakota camps at Pine Ridge and Rosebud, convinced that the dancers were preparing to do battle against the government. In reality, the Indians were bracing themselves to defend their rights to continue performing the sacred ceremonies. In reaction to the military encampment, the Lakotas planned various strategies to avoid confrontation with the soldiers, but the military was under orders to isolate Ghost Dance leaders from their devotees.
The Hunkpapa Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull, had returned from Canada with a promise of a pardon following the Battle at Little Bighorn and was an advocate of the Ghost Dance. At his request, Kicking Bear traveled to the Standing Rock reservation to preach and made numerous Hunkpapa Sioux converts to the new religion.
"My brothers, I bring to you the promise of a day in which there will be no white man to lay his hand on the bridle of the Indian horse; when the red men of the prairie will rule the world... I bring you word from your fathers the ghosts, that they are now marching to join you, led by the Messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man, but was cast out and killed by them."
Kicking Bear (quoting Wovoka):
"The earth is getting old, and I will make it new for my chosen people, the Indians, who are to inhabit it, and among them will be all those of their ancestors who have died... I will cover the earth with new soil to a depth of five times the height of a man, and under this new soil will be buried the whites... The new lands will be covered with sweet-grass and running water and trees, and herds of buffalo and ponies will stray over it, that my red children may eat and drink, hunt and rejoice."
(Source: Eyewitness at Wounded Knee, 1991)
Reservation agents began to fear that Sitting Bull’s influence over other tribes would lead to violence. By December reservation official grew increasingly alarmed by the Ghost Dance outbreak, and the military was called upon to locate and arrest those who were considered agitators, such as the Sioux Chiefs, Sitting Bull and Big Foot.
On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull and eight of his warriors were murdered by agency police sent to arrest him at the Standing Rock reservation. The official reason given for the shooting claimed that he had resisted arrest. Fearing further reprisal, some of his followers fled in terror to Big Foot’s camp of Miniconjou Sioux. While many of Big Foot’s group were devout Ghost Dancers, others had already begun to leave the religion. Old Big Foot was a peaceful leader and was not attempting to cause further agitation of the situation. But after the slaying of Sitting Bull, Big Foot was placed on the list of "fomenters of disturbances," and his arrest had been ordered. Upon arrest, his group was to be transferred to Fort Bennett.
Under cover of the night on December 23, a band of 350 people left the Miniconjou village on the Cheyenne River to begin a treacherous 150-mile, week-long trek through the Badlands to reach the Pine Ridge Agency.
Although Chief Big Foot was aged and seriously ill with pneumonia, his group traversed the rugged, frozen terrain of the Badlands in order to reach the protection of Chief Red Cloud who had promised them food, shelter, and horses. It is reported that both Big Foot and Red Cloud wanted peace. On December 28, the group was surrounded by Major Samuel M. Whitside and the Seventh Calvary (the old regiment of General George Custer). Big Foots band hoisted a white flag, but the army apprehended the Indians, forcing them to the bank of Wounded Knee Creek. There, four large Hotchkiss cannons had been menacingly situated atop both sides of the valley overlooking the encampment, ready to fire upon the Indians.
A rumor ran through the camp that the Indians were to be deported to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) which had the reputation for its living conditions being far worse than any prison. The Lakotas became panicky, and historians have surmised that if the misunderstanding had been clarified that they were to be taken to a different camp, the entire horrific incident might have been averted.
That evening, Colonel James Forsyth arrived with reinforcements and took over as commander of the operation. The Indians were not allowed to sleep as the soldiers interrogated them through the night. (It has been reported that many of the questions were to determine who among the group had been at Little Bighorn fourteen years earlier. In addition, eyewitnesses claimed that the soldiers had been drinking to celebrate the capture of the ailing Big Foot.)
The soldiers ordered that the Indians be stripped of their weapons, and this further agitated an increasingly tense and serious situation. While the soldiers searched for weapons, a few of the Indians began singing Ghost Dance songs, and one of them (thought to be the medicine man, Yellow Bird, although this is still disputed by historians) threw dirt in a ceremonial act. This action was misunderstood by the soldiers as a sign of imminent hostile aggression, and within moments, a gun discharged. It is believed that the gun of a deaf man, Black Coyote, accidentally fired as soldiers tried to take it from him. Although the inadvertent single shot did not injure anyone, instantaneously the soldiers retaliated by spraying the unarmed Indians with bullets from small arms, as well as the Hotchkiss canons which overlooked the scene.
(Hotchkiss canons are capable of firing two pound explosive shells at a rate of fifty per minute.)
With only their bare hands to fight back, the Indians tried to defend themselves, but the incident deteriorated further into bloody chaos, and the 350 unarmed Indians were outmatched and outnumbered by the nearly 500 U.S. soldiers.
The majority of the massacre fatalities occurred during the initial ten to twenty minutes of the incident, but the firing lasted for several hours as the army chased after those who tried to escape into the nearby ravine. According to recollections by some of the Indian survivors, the soldiers cried out "Remember the Little Bighorn" as they sportingly hunted down those who fled -- evidence to them that the massacre was in revenge of Custers demise at Little Bighorn in 1876.
(Recorded by Santee Sioux, Sid Byrd, from oral histories of several survivors.)
Many of the injured died of exposure in the freezing weather, and several days after the incident the dead were strewn as far as approximately two to five miles away from the original site. By mid-afternoon on December 29, 1890 the indiscriminate slaughter ceased. Nearly three-hundred men (including Chief Big Foot), women, and children -- old and young -- were dead on the frosty banks of Wounded Knee Creek. Twenty-nine soldiers also died in the melee, but it is believed that most of the military causalities were a result of "friendly" crossfire that occurred during the fighting frenzy. Twenty-three soldiers from the Seventh Calvary were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the slaughter of defenseless Indians at Wounded Knee.
The wounded and dying were taken to a makeshift hospital in the Pine Ridge Episcopal Church. Ironically, above the pulpit hung a Christmas banner which read:
Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.
A blizzard swept over the countryside the night of December 29, and when it cleared days later, the valley was strewn with frozen, contorted dead bodies. A burial party returned to the site on New Years Day, 1891. The bodies of the slain were pulled from beneath the heavy snow and thrown into a single burial pit. It was reported that four infants were found still alive, wrapped in their deceased mothers shawls.
American Horse, Oglala Sioux, and others described the carnage:
"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."
(Source: 500 Nations, 1994)
While only 150 bodies were interred in the mass grave, Lakotas estimate that twice as many Indians perished that brutal morning in 1890 -- on a reservation supposedly protected by two treaties.
"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 hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.