The massacre of some 300 Lakota men, women and children by US Army troops during the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 marked a tragic coda to decades of violent clashes between the United States and the Plains Indians.
In the years leading up to the massacre, the indigenous Lakota Sioux had endured a generation of broken treaties and shattered dreams. After white settlers poured into Dakota Territory following the 1874 discovery of gold in the Black Hills, they seized millions of acres of land and nearly wiped out the native bison population. As their traditional hunting grounds evaporated and culture eroded, the Lakota, who once lived as freely as bison on the Great Plains, found themselves mostly confined to government reservations.
Throughout 1890, the Lakota endured droughts and epidemics of measles, whooping cough, and influenza. “The Lakota were very distraught at that time,” says Lakota historian Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College and descendant of survivors and victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre. “They lost huge amounts of land under the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, and many of them were faced with the recent surrender to the reservation system, which banned the Sun Dance, their most important religious ceremony, and demanded permission to leave.”
A silver lining, however, appeared with a religious movement that swept across the Great Plains. The Ghost Dance movement, which first emerged in Nevada around 1870, gained popularity among the Lakota after it was revived in 1889 by Prophet Paiute Wovoka. Its adherents believed that participants in a ritual circular dance would usher in a utopian future in which a cataclysm would destroy the United States, eradicate white settlers from the continent, and bring about the resurrection of all they had lost – their land, their herds of bison and even their deceased ancestors.
Wearing white muslin shirts which they believed would protect against danger and even repel bullets, nearly a third of the Lakota had joined the Messianic movement by the winter of 1890. “They saw the Ghost Dance as a panacea”, said Sprague. “All these big transitions were happening in their lives, and they thought this new religion was offering them something.”
US troops mobilized against ghost dancers
As the Ghost Dance movement spread, frightened white settlers believed it to be a prelude to an armed uprising. “The Indians are dancing in the snow and wild and mad,” Federal Agent Daniel F. Royer telegramed to the headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in November 1890. “We have need protection, and we need it now.”
“It’s a big problem on the reservations because federal agents thought those who danced were going on the warpath, like the stereotype,” Sprague says. “I guess the authorities thought they were crazy, but they weren’t,” a Lakota from Pine Ridge later recalled. “They were just terribly unhappy.”
The federal government banned ghost dancing ceremonies and mobilized the largest military deployment since the Civil War. General Nelson Miles arrived on the prairie with part of the 7th Cavalry, which had been wiped out in the Battle of the Little Bighorn 14 years earlier, and ordered the arrest of tribal leaders suspected of promoting the Ghost Dance movement.
When Indian police attempted to arrest Chief Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock reservation on December 15, 1890, the famous Sioux chief was killed in the ensuing melee. With a military warrant for his arrest, Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Spotted Elk (sometimes referred to as Chief Big Foot), fled Standing Rock with a band of Lakota for the Pine Ridge reservation more than 200 miles away. other side. of State.
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On December 28, the U.S. Cavalry caught up with Spotted Elk and his party of mostly elders, women, and children near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, which winds through the prairies and badlands of southwestern Dakota. South. American forces arrested Spotted Elk – who suffered too much pneumonia to sit, let alone walk – and positioned their Hotchkiss rifles on an elevation overlooking the Lakota camp.
As tensions erupted and a bugle sounded the next morning, December 29, American soldiers mounted their horses and surrounded the Lakota. A healer who started performing the Ghost Dance exclaimed, “Do not be afraid, but let your hearts be strong. Lots of soldiers are around us and have lots of bullets, but I’m sure their bullets can’t penetrate us. He begged the sky to scatter the soldiers like the dust he threw into the air.
The cavalry, however, moved from tipi to tipi, seizing axes, guns and other weapons. As a soldier tried to snatch a weapon from the hands of a Lakota, a shot suddenly rang out. It was unclear which side fired first, but within seconds American soldiers unleashed a hail of bullets from rifles, revolvers, and rapid-fire Hotchkiss rifles that tore the Lakota apart.
Spotted Elk was shot where he was lying on the ground. The boys who moments before had been playing leapfrog were mowed down. Through dust and smoke, women and children dove for shelter in a ravine. “Remember Custer!” a horseman shouted as the soldiers executed the defenseless at point-blank range.
When the shooting stopped a few hours later, bodies were strewn across the ravine. Some were breathing, most were not. Victims who had been hunted down as they tried to flee were found five kilometers away. Some had been stripped of their sacred shirts as macabre keepsakes. At least 150 Lakota (historians like Sprague put the number at twice as high) were killed along with 25 American soldiers, who were mostly shot down by friendly fire. Two-thirds of the victims were women and children.
Participants in the massacre received the highest military honor
The dead were carried to the nearby Episcopal Church and laid in two rows under festive wreaths and other Christmas decorations. A few days later, a burial team arrived, dug a grave and dumped the frozen bodies in a mass grave.
“To add insult to injury, some of the survivors were taken to Fort Sheridan in Illinois to be imprisoned for being at Wounded Knee,” Sprague says, until William “Buffalo Bill” Cody told them. support to include them in his Wild West Show. “The show wasn’t a positive portrayal of their people, but it was better than sitting in a jail cell.”
Although Miles, who was not present at Wounded Knee, called the carnage “the most abominable criminal military error and a horrible slaughter of women and children”, the U.S. Army awarded the Medal of Honor, its highest honor, to 20 members of the 7th Cavalry who took part in the bloodbath.
“When I look back now from that high hill of my old age,” the Black Elk survivor recalled in 1931, “I can still see the slain women and children lying huddled together and scattered all along the twisting ravine as clearly as when I saw them with still young eyes. And I can see something else died out there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. The dream of a people died there.
It wasn’t the last time blood flowed next to Wounded Knee Creek. In February 1973, activists from the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the site for 71 days to protest the mistreatment of Native Americans by the US government. The clash resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans.