Looking Back: The Battle of Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

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The slaughter of American Indians at Wounded Knee left such a cultural wound, that it is often used to describe any wrongs done to the natives by the white men. American Indians dispute the title of “battle” for the incident, and many prefer that it be called the Massacre at Wounded Knee. The U.S. government simply refers to it as Wounded Knee now, but when it occurred, it was viewed by many white people as a just outcome for tribal warfare.

The Ghost Dance

Following centuries of mistreatment by the white men, numerous native American people were looking for a solution to the encroachment of settlers upon their lands. In 1888, Wavaka, a Paiute holy man from Nevada traveled across the West teaching and preaching about an end to the white man problem. He talked of a Ghost Dance that, once complete, would sweep away the current world and replace it with one ruled by the American Indians.

Depiction of the Ghost Dance Movement

Depiction of the Ghost Dance Movement

He promoted praying and dancing and a forsaking of the white men’s ways, particularly drinking alcohol. He said that through this new lifestyle, the Ghost Dance religion would be fulfilled. Chiefs Short Bull and Kicking Bear came to hear about this new religion. While they started to practice some of its tenants, they did not believe that its approach of non-violence was a real solution for them. They believed that by practicing this religion on their own and wearing special Ghost Dance shirts, they would be protected from the white man’s bullets.

U.S. officials started to become worried that the Ghost Dance would lead to attacks on settlers, as they banned it on Lakota reservations. When their attempts to stop the growth of this religion proved unsuccessful, they called in the military to take over.

The Last Massacre of a Long War

Roadsign points to the Wounded Knee Massacre Site

Roadsign points to the Wounded Knee Massacre Site

When the U.S. 7th Cavalry showed up to force the natives onto reservations and stop them from practicing the Ghost Dance, Short Bull and Kicking Bear took their followers (men, women and children) to the edge of the Pine Ridge reservation. They sent word to Sitting Bull to join them, but he and his small party were intercepted by U.S. soldiers and gunned down.

The Cavalry then met up with the followers of Short Bull and Kicking Bear. They started to disarm them, but met with resistance. Before they had completely disarmed all of them, shots were fired. It is unclear whether the natives or the soldiers began firing, but the natives were outnumbered and outgunned.

The 7th Cavalry under Colonel James Forsyth slaughtered over 150 that day, including women and children. Another 50 were wounded, while the solders only suffered only 25 losses. In the chaos, each side ended up killing some of their own, and many were gunned down as they ran to escape the fighting.

This was the last decisive battle or massacre of the war between American Indians and the white men. Other skirmishes would follow, but nothing approaching this scale.

The Massacre’s Effect on History

7th Cavalry leader James Forsyth was exonerated of his guilt in the Wounded Knee aftermath

7th Cavalry leader James Forsyth was exonerated of his guilt in the Wounded Knee aftermath

Following Wounded Knee, Colonel Forsyth was charged with the slaughter of innocents, but was soon exonerated. Twenty of the U.S. soldiers in the battle were awarded the Medal of Honor, which the descendants of Wounded Knee are still trying to nullify to this day.

For many American whites, Wounded Knee was seen as an unprovoked attack on U.S. soldiers. The survivors were condemned for trying to incite violence and pushed further from their original lands. Some, like noted Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, called for the eradication of the American Indians, seeing this massacre as one of the final steps toward getting rid of the native problem.

The massacre at Wounded Knee was the last place of stanch resistance from the American Indians against the white man. For the next few decades, they suffered mostly in silence as they were all pushed onto reservations and forced to accept government assistance to survive.

Since 1986, the Big Foot Memorial Riders have commemorated those who died at Wounded Knee. The battlefield has also become a National Historic Landmark. While overlooked and swept under the carpet at the time, the tragedy is now commemorated for all time, and those who died there will not be forgotten.


The Wounded Knee FAQ

When and Where Did the Wounded Knee Massacre Take Place?

The horror unfolded on December 29, 1890 on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Pine Ridge is located in South Dakota.

How Many Lakota Indians Died at Wounded Knee?

A firm count is unavailable, and some historical accounts believe that the death toll may have been around 300. More official accounts, which might be tainted by revisionist historians, explain that 150 or so died, while another 50 or more were wounded. Among the dead and wounded were a substantial number of women and children.

What Caused the Wounded Knee Massacre to Occur?

The situation on many indian reservations was always tense, and a number of factors boiled over that day. The U.S. 7th Cavalry clearly showed up in an aggressive posture, and were met by a band of Lakota who were fed up with the tribe's mistreatment. Many promises were made to convince indian tribes to relocate to reservations peaceably, and those included dignity and reasonable ongoing support as compensaton for the displacement. By and large, the U.S. violated all those pledges, allowing poachers and gold speculators to co-opt land from what was granted to the tribes, take valuable resources etc. Support was often delayed, as well. Excuses for that were endless, but it left the tribal citizens dirt poor and generally near starvation to boot. The Lakota were adamant about having these violations heard by those responsible for honoring the treaties. The government, on the other hand, wanted the warriors disarmed as quickly as possible, and Indian refusal to hand over their weapons was the government's impetus to open fire on the Lakota camp with four powerful Hotchkiss machine guns.

What Happened in the Aftermath?

Three days after the massacre, the site was visited by General Nelson A. Miles, who recorded the horror of the scene. He noted roughly 300 bodies strewn about the scene and was further sickened to note the mothers carrying children appeared to have been chased nearly 2 miles only to be shot down by the cavalry. He immediately relieved commanding officer Forsyth and brought him up on charges before a military court of inquiry. Sadly, the court reinstated Forsyth, even while noting his many transgressions. Their decision was supported by the Secretary of War and served as a lasting sign that the government was not sincere in its treaty commitments.

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