On this date, nearly 300 men, women, and children of Big Foot’s Minneconjou band of Sioux (Lakota) were murdered by the U.S. Army with four Hotchkiss guns near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. This massacre is now recognized as one of the most significant and tragic episodes in the history of white and Native American relations. As the band fell dead that winter morning, so too would a people’s dream.
Indian agents in 1890 were not too concerned about the Ghost Dance until Charles L. Hyde, a citizen of Pierre, South Dakota, wrote a letter on May 29 to the Secretary of the Interior stating that he had reliable information from a Pine Ridge Lakota at the Pierre Indian School that the Lakota were planning an outbreak.
Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) was the Paiute mystic whose religious pronouncements spread the Ghost Dance among many tribes across the American West. In the late 1880’s, Wovoka began to predict the dawning of a new age in which whites would vanish, leaving Indians to live in a land of material abundance, spiritual renewal, and immortal life. Like many millenarian visions, Wovoka’s prophecies stressed the link between righteous behavior and imminent salvation. Salvation was not to be passively awaited but welcomed by a regime of ritual dancing and upright moral conduct. Despite the later association of the Ghost Dance with the Wounded Knee Massacre and unrest on the Lakota reservations, Wovoka charged his followers to “not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always… Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them.”
While the Ghost Dance is sometimes seen today as an expression of Indian militancy and the desire to preserve traditional ways, Wovoka’s pronouncements ironically bore the heavy mark of popular Christianity. His invocation of a “Supreme Being,” immortality, pacifism, and explicit mentions of Jesus (often referred to with such phrases as “the messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man but was killed by them”) all speak of an infusion of Christian beliefs into Paiute mysticism.
The Ghost Dance spread especially among the more recently defeated Indians of the Great Plains. Local bands would adopt the core of the message to their own circumstances, writing their their own songs and dancing their own dances. In 1889 the Lakota sent a delegation to visit Wovoka. This group brought the Ghost Dance back to their reservations, where believers made sacred shirts – said to be bullet-proof – especially for the Dance. In the summer of 1890, white people living south and west of the Lakota reservations became alarmed and believed an Indian uprising would occur.
In October 1890, Daniel F. Royer was appointed Indian Agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was a victim of a political plum system that handed incapable people precarious jobs after they had failed at everything else. He had no business meddling in Indian Affairs. On November 18, Royer dispatched a panicky telegram to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, demanding military intervention and the arrest of the Lakota leaders to prevent an outbreak:
Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. I have fully informed you that employees and government property at this agency have no protection and are at the mercy of these dancers. Why delay by further investigation? We need protection, and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined in some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.
Sensationalistic accounts of purported Indian plots clotted the air and darkened the pages of newspapers across the country. For example, on November 22, 1890, the Buffalo Echo in Buffalo, Wyoming, put out a extra edition reporting under the headline, “THE MASSACRE BEGUN”, that “religion crazed Redskins” had broken out of the Pine Ridge Agency. The paper reported that 20,000 troops were being called up and that Fort Robinson had been left unprotected. It further reported that ranchmen and their families were “fleeing in terror”. The entire issue was based on conversations with a lady who was passing through by stage and who had no first hand knowledge, but was merely repeating what she had heard.
In December 1890, white officials banned the Ghost Dance on Lakota reservations. When the rites continued, officials called in troops to Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. The military, led by veteran General Nelson Miles, geared itself for another campaign.
The presence of the troops exacerbated the situation. Short Bull and Kicking Bear led their followers to the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge reservation, to a sheltered escarpment the Lakota called “Oonakizin,” or the Stronghold. The dancers sent word to Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas to join them. However, on 15 December, before he could set out from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, Sitting Bull was arrested by federal Indian police, who mistakenly believed he was a Ghost Dancer. A scuffle ensued in which Sitting Bull and seven of his warriors were slain, as well as six of the Indian policemen; tensions increased at Pine Ridge.
On December 16, the South Dakota Home Guard, a militia which had been created by Governor Arthur C. Mellete less than a month earlier, ambushed and massacred and scalped about 75 Lakota Ghost Dancers on the Pine Ridge reservation. Pete Lemley, later known as “the Badlands Fox”, was a twenty-year old daredevil, a renowned horseman who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, so naturally he was just the kind of fearless rider needed to lead the Home Guard Ambush. Pete became a millionaire rancher and lived to be ninety-one years old. In 1959, at the request of his son (Dr. Ray Lemley), Pete tape recorded details of his participation in the attacks against Ghost Dancers during the month of December 1890. His account of the Home Guard Ambush on December 16, 1890, is a cowboy’s unashamed narrative of the day he considered one of the most exciting in his life:
There was a bunch of men there. We went over [Cheyenne River] and stirred them [Lakota] up and a lot of our fellows laid in at the head of a gulch. We went over to the Stronghold and got ‘em after us and they chased us down Corral Draw. Riley Miller was at the head of it and layin’ up there behind the trees and rocks. This Riley Miller was a dead shot, and he just killed them Indians as fast as he could shoot. Francis Roush, Roy Coates, George Cosgrove, Paul McClellan was up with us. We killed about seventy-five of them. Riley Miller and Frank Lockhart went back there and got some pack horses and brought out seven loads of guns, shirts, war bonnets, ghost shirts, and things. Riley took ‘em to Chicago and started a museum. He made a barrel of money out of it.
“Stirred them up” means Lemley and others galloped in upon a band of Ghost Dancers and fired directly into them. The Lakota ran to their tents for weapons. They mounted and chased the cowboys, falling directly into a well-planned ambush at the head of the Corral Draw, three miles south of Heutmacher Table. It is possible that some of the cowboys believed they were helping to protect white “settlers”, but most members of the Home Guard were out for the sport of killing Indians and nothing more.
The Home Guard also killed a small band of Lakota in early December near French Creek. The band had gone to Buffalo Gap to hunt at the ranch of a friendly whiteman they knew. They were greeted with a gun. They were unaware of the events that were transpiring around them. They sensed something wrong and attempted to leave. Because their horses were tired, they had to make camp between French Creek and Battle Creek. They were massacred in a surprise attack the next morning, December 10. The Lakota refer to the ambush as Buffalo Gap, which points to the origin of the hostility, not the location of the ambush. One young woman managed to escape to tell the story.
In early December 1890, Troops A & B of the 8th Cavalry under Capt. Almond B. Wells was stationed at Olrichs, South Dakota. Wells allowed Lt. Joseph C. Byron to enter the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and massacre a small band of Indians under Chief Two Strike on Cuny Table with cannon fire. All the Indians were killed. This incident appears to have been covered up by the United States Army for about 100 years. The property of the Indians was buried and the soldiers of the 8th Cavalry were sworn to secrecy, so that even General Miles, the overall commander at Wounded Knee in 1890, may not have been aware of it. This and the Home Guard massacres are documented in the Renee Sansom Flood Collection at Vermillion, South Dakota.
While serving as the editor and publisher of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper published in Aberdeen, South Dakota, L. Frank Baum, the future author of The Wizard of Oz, wrote an editorial that was published on December 20:
Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead. He was not a Chief, but without Kingly lineage he arose from a lowly position to the greatest Medicine Man of his time, by virtue of his shrewdness and daring. He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his [tribe].
With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are…
Today, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry — the reconstructed regiment lost by George Armstrong Custer in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (“Custer’s last stand”) — surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Chief Spotted Elk (“Big Foot” was the name soldiers gave him) near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, an altercation occurred between a Lakota man and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. The massacre and precipitating events were described by the Commanding General, Nelson A. Miles, in his letter dated 13 March 1917 to the federal Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
I was in command of that Department in 1889, 1890 and 1891, when what is known as the Messiah Craze and threatened uprising of the Indians occurred. It was created by misrepresentations of white men then living in Nevada who sent secret messages to the different tribes in the great Northwest calling upon them to send representatives to meet Him near Walker Lake, Nevada.
This was done, and returning to their different tribes in the Northwest and West, and even in the Southwest, they repeated the false statement to the different tribes that the Messiah had returned to earth and would the next year move East, driving large herds of wild horses, buffalo, elk, deer and antelope, and was going to convert this into an Indian heaven – in other words, the Happy Hunting Grounds.
This, together with the fact that the Indians had been in almost a starving condition in South Dakota, owing to the scarcity of rations and the nonfulfillment of treaties and sacred obligations under which the Government had been placed to the Indians, caused great dissatisfaction, dissension and almost hostility. Believing this superstition, they resolved to gather and go West to meet the Messiah, as they believed it was the fulfillment of their dreams and prayer and the prophecies as had been taught them by the missionaries.
Several thousand warriors assembled in the Bad Lands of South Dakota. During this time the tribe, under Big Foot, moved from their reservation to near the Red Cloud Agency in South Dakota under a flag of truce. They numbered over four hundred souls. They were intercepted by a command under Lt. Col. Whitside, who demanded their surrender, which they complied with, and moved that afternoon some two or three miles and camped where they were directed to do, near the camp of the troops.
While this was being done a detachment of soldiers was sent into the camp to search for any arms remaining there, and it was reported that their rudeness frightened the women and children. It is also reported that a remark was made by some one of the soldiers that “when we get the arms away from them we can do as we please with them,” indicating that they were to be destroyed. Some of the Indians could understand English. This and other things alarmed the Indians and a scuffle occurred between one warrior who had a rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the parry were hunted down and killed. The official reports make the number killed 90 warriors and approximately 200 women and children.
The action of the Commanding Officer, in my judgment at the time, and I so reported, was most reprehensible. The disposition of his troops was such that in firing upon the warriors they fired directly towards their own lines and also into the camp of the women and children. and I have regarded the whole affair as most unjustifiable and worthy of the severest condemnation.
As a matter of fact, soldiers chased and killed Lakota women and children as far as two miles from the camp site. One of the survivors, a Lakota woman, was treated by the Indian physician Dr. Charles Eastman at a make-shift hospital set up in a church in the village of Pine Ridge. Before she died of her wounds she told about how she had concealed herself in a clump of bushes. As she hid there she saw two terrified little girls running past. She grabbed them and pulled them into the bushes. She put her hands over their mouths to keep them quiet but a mounted soldier spotted them. He fired a bullet into the head of one girl and then calmly reloaded his rifle and fired into the head of the other girl. He then fired into the body of the Lakota woman. She feigned death and although badly wounded, lived long enough to relate her terrible ordeal to Dr. Eastman.
It does not take a genius to conclude from the above facts that the incident at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890 was nothing less than a massacre. The fact that 23 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who carried out the mass murders there still boggles the mind. Despite the current view that the battle was a massacre of innocents, the Medals still stand. Some Native American and other groups and individuals continue to lobby Congress to rescind these “Medals of dis-Honor“. ___________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________
Conflict came to Wounded Knee again in February 1973 when it was the site of a 71-day occupation by the activist group AIM (American Indian Movement) and its supporters, who were protesting the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. During the standoff, two Indians were killed, one federal marshal was seriously wounded, and numerous people were arrested.
Finally, every year on December 15th people gather at Sitting Bull Camp, near Bullhead, South Dakota, to ride horseback nearly three hundred miles to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The ride is called the Omaka Tokatakiya (Future Generations) Ride and the majority of the riders come from three Lakota reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Pine Ridge. Others come from as far as Germany and the Czech Republic. In two weeks they travel across rivers and farms, cross a major interstate, and arrive at Wounded Knee on the anniversary of the massacre. While the ride is in many ways in homage to Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and those who lost their lives at Wounded Knee, this ride is also meant to foster leadership qualities in the youth. Along the way, the riders experience some of what their ancestors endured by embodying an intellectual, spiritual, and physical remembrance. Braving the cold — down to −20°F — these kids, some of them barely into puberty, ride as many as 35 miles in a day.
I have heard some conservative extremists recently use the Wounded Knee Massacre in an argument against any restriction on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, such as a prohibition on the sale of modern assault weapons. An example is an article entitled “A Little Bit Of History To Think About” that may have first appeared on the “Common Sense Junction Political Blog” on 14 January 2013 and has been re-blogged several times on right-wing extremist websites. It reads in part:
… Wounded Knee was among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history. It ended in the senseless murder of 297 people… The Second Amendment was written by people who fled oppressive and tyrannical regimes in Europe, and it refers to the right of American citizens to be armed for defensive purposes, should such tyranny arise in the United States… Ask any Native American, and they will tell you it was inferior technology and lack of arms that contributed to their demise… Wounded Knee is the prime example of why the Second Amendment exists, and why we should vehemently resist any attempts to infringe on our Rights to Bear Arms. Without the Second Amendment we will be totally stripped of any ability to defend ourselves and our families. [emphasis in original]
Interestingly, the owner of the above website commented following the article: “This was posted as received in its entirety even though I don’t know who wrote it. If its yours and you want credit and a link let me know.” So, no one knows who originally wrote it — Native American or immigrant, first generation or tenth generation.
To begin with, the Lakota were not citizens of the United States at the time — they were members of their own nation, by treaty and therefore according to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the Second Amendment did not apply to them. The Lakota were entitled to arm themselves because they were in their own country.
There can be no doubt that Big Foot had surrendered himself and his people. On the morning of 29 December 1890, they were prisoners of war. General Miles recognized this. But the author of the above article neglects to point out that they were prisoners of war. As POWs, the army was prohibited from summarily executing them, even in those days. This is why killing the Lakota at Wounded Knee was murder and the incident was a massacre. The disarmed prisoners of war at Wounded Knee were killed in cold blood.
Wounded Knee was not “among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history”, because the Lakota were not U.S. citizens. I don’t think even conservatives would blame the U.S. military for disarming foreign nationals that are perceived to be enemies — the army has been doing this since 1776. Nor were the Lakota being “totally stripped of any ability to defend [them]selves and [their] families” by their own leaders.
The sophomoric author of the above article has taken the Wounded Knee Massacre, which was a horrible tragedy, out of its historical context to use it to justify the sale of assault weapons today. This is unjustified and reprehensible.
- Aaron Huey: America’s native prisoners of war. Video.
- Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Owl Books, 1970).
- “Massacre At Wounded Knee, 1890,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1998).
- Flood, Reneé S. Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota. (New York: Scribner, 1995), pp. 52-53.
- Thomasson, William B. “Images of Wounded Knee (they speak for themselves).” Retrieved 31 December 2012 (http://hoist.hrtc.net/~arabento/woundedknee.htm).
- Wounded Knee Museum – 217 10th Avenue – P.O. Box 348 – Wall, South Dakota 57790.