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  • James Houser

December 29, 1890 - The "Battle" of Wounded Knee

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

December 29, 1890. The frontier is closed. The days of the Old West, of pioneer trains and wild boom towns, are at an end. One last remnant of the Old West is about to die today. The 7th Cavalry has surrounded the last resisting Indian tribe, the Lakota Sioux, at a place called Wounded Knee. The “Battle,” as it is portrayed at the time, is more of a massacre – a final tragedy in a long line of tragedies that have followed the destruction of the American Indian.

For three centuries, the frontier was one of the defining features of American culture and life. Ever since the Virginia colonists landed at Jamestown in 1607, they were confronted with vast, wild lands to the west, unsettled and nearly unclaimed but for the people who had lived there for thousands of years. These people, who are referred to variously as First Nations, Native Americans or American Indians, were already in the process of being devastated by plague and economic dislocation well before the first settlers showed up. From the outset, this was a defining encounter that would shape both peoples – and not usually for the better. As white settlement barreled west for the next three centuries, the Indians quickly found themselves displaced off of land that had been theirs for all of living memory.

Many observers, especially after the 19th Century, saw the American frontier as an essential aspect of the national character. The West, with its romantic outlaws, appealing anarchy, and chaotic violence were and are an important staple of American imagery, popular culture, and mass media. Even though the Western no longer dominates the silver screen and songs about outlaws no longer permeate “country-western” music, it is not hard to trace the threads of much American culture, fashion and ideology to the roots of the West. The self-made man braving the elements to create something from the earth is an alluring image, as is the soft-spoken gunfighter and the clever, compassionate criminal. The West has made America…America in so many ways that it’s hard to fathom.

Of course, the West also came at a cost. The frontier rolled over hundreds of nations and people like a vast threshing mill, leaving none unaltered and nearly wiping out many. Though they resisted, even small victories like the Wabash or the Little Bighorn could not stem this tide for long. The American Indians were never strong or organized enough to put up sustained resistance to the white flood from the east.

The truly transformative period, the decades that finally ended the independence of the Indians and forced them onto the reservations, came during the Civil War. The new ideology of union and assimilation, of finally binding the vast lands of the American continent together into an unbreakable bond, started with the defeat of the South and the freeing of the slaves. During Reconstruction, the Federal Government assumed the mission of integrating the freedmen into the body politic, of making them farming, civilized, God-fearing Americans. With few exceptions, the freedmen eagerly accepted this deal; they had never wanted anything more than to be part and parcel of the nation. That is all their descendants want to this day. With such a “success” story under their belt, the Government turned its eyes west. The South had been integrated. It was time to integrate the West.

As iron bands and copper wires began to straddle the vast landmass of the American West, bringing railroads and communication to the isolated points on the map, settlers poured in from across not just the United States but the world. The Indian tribes, who had made multiple treaties preserving their lands from white settlement, found themselves more and more fenced in, the treaties often being broken in the process. They lashed out against the white intruders, and in some cases even came out on top.

The Lakota Sioux, a Plains people in South Dakota and Montana, launched one great war, Red Cloud’s War, in 1868 that resulted in the Federal Government pulling back and honoring a previous treaty. This did not hold, and in 1876 a second Sioux war saw the defeat of Custer’s troops at Little Bighorn – but the war did not end there, despite its fame and its place in popular memory. More American troops arrived, and finally defeated the forces of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The Sioux were forced onto a series of reservations throughout western South Dakota – some of the largest reservations in the United States.

But the reservations were not designed for the Indians to preserve their way of life. The United States was determined to integrate the Lakota Sioux into “decent” patterns of life like any other American. They were denied the open practice of their old religions, or their traditional nomadic travels, or even the rearing of their children. The Sioux were forced to tend fields in strict lines of settlement under the close watch of Federal Indian agents, and give up their children to settlement schools and missions that would raise them the “correct” way.

The United States government, despite the exhortations of many newspaper columnists, had never wanted to destroy the Indians physically. When the Army went out against an Indian people, they were never directed to kill or destroy the members of the tribe, but instead to force them onto the reservation. But to many American Indians, the reservation would kill them as surely as a Gatling gun. The reservation system killed Indian culture, identity, and their way of life. It was no surprise that alcohol, gambling, and acts of domestic violence began to increase among the reservation Indians. They had been shorn from ancestral and cultural meaning, ripped away from everything that had made their lives important and worth living, often forced onto lands they had no connection to. Even their very children were being converted into soulless Americanized farmers, ending the ancestral line of centuries.

For an analogy, imagine that aliens arrived tomorrow and claimed much of the Earth. But they are kind, kinder than you savages have any right to. Your ways of living are wrong, your beliefs are silly. We’re just going to take the whole human race and put you on a reservation. Siberia’s unoccupied, looks great. Your cities, your religious sites, your ancestral homes and the graves of your parents and your national monuments? What petty superstition is this? We know the RIGHT way for you to live, and all this nonsense just needs to end.

Throughout the 1880s there had been growing unrest on the Lakota lands, as the large bison herds of the Plains were purposely killed to force Indians onto their reservations. Worse, even the reservations themselves were now being continually violated by settlers and prospectors. The Sioux, having given up their way of life for a secure, safe place to live, saw even that now being violated. The semi-arid land of South Dakota was hard to farm, even as it was, leaving the Lakota dependent on U.S. government rations – but the Federal Government eventually grew tired of this “laziness” and began to cut the rations back. With the buffalo gone, their crops failing, and the government failing to provide, the Lakota were at the brink of starvation.

As the American Indians looked down the well of cultural genocide and the extermination of their identity as a people, it is not surprising that there was a backlash. What followed was a form of resistance that became surprisingly common throughout the world in the late 19th-Century period of imperialism and colonialism: a radical religious movement. When faced with cultural humiliation and loss of identity by the onset of the white man’s conquest, peoples from Africa to China to America found solace in blends of religious rival and cultural defiance. They were often mixed with borrowings from Protestant Christianity. In China in the 1850s, Hong Xiuquan began the great Taiping Rebellion based on his millenarian dreams of a revived China and a distorted understanding of Christianity. In Africa, the Mahdist uprisings in the Sudan posed an Islamist challenge to British conquest and dominance of Egypt. Similar religious movements occurred in India, the Philippines, and West Africa in the face of white conquest.

In the American Indian reservations, this trend came in the form of the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was the creation of a prophet named Wovoka, of the Nevada-based Paiute Indians. In 1889, Wovoka claimed to have a prophetic vision during a solar eclipse that Jesus Christ was coming back to earth in the form of a Native American in three years. He claimed to have seen God in heaven and witnessed his ancestors living in the lands as they had been before the whites came. If the peoples of the West practiced good morals, refrained from war, and performed the five-day Ghost Dance, sickness and old age would vanish from the Earth and the ancestral lands would be returned to all the American Indians. The Ghost Dance was the most critical part of this belief, since it would unify the living and the dead to once again reclaim the ways of the ancestors. A slow shuffle set to a solemn drumbeat, it often came accompanied by “Ghost Dance shirts,” which were said to have the power to repel bullets.

It is not hard to empathize with what Wovoka was trying to accomplish. The Indians were trying to cope with a hopeless situation of oppression by clinging onto some hope that what they had lost could be regained through spirit and faith.

In February 1890, just as the Ghost Dance was spreading like wildfire across reservations from New Mexico to Montana, the United States broke yet another Lakota treaty. They forcibly dissolved the Great Sioux Reservation, which had previously taken up almost the whole western half of South Dakota, into five smaller ones. The white population was pressing into Sioux territory, and rather than side with the Sioux the government was growing impatient with their refusal to commit to white ways. This only made the food problems worse, and broke up multiple tribal and family relationships across the lines of the separated reservations.

The desperate Sioux turned to the Ghost Dance ritual. Led by a Standing Rock Reservation chief named Kicking Bear, a veteran of the Little Bighorn, the Ghost Dances unnerved the Indian Agents and local whites. Many Federal authorities believed that it was some sort of signal for an armed uprising, and the fact that it was spreading so fast across all the Indian reservations seemed to indicate a widespread conspiracy. While the Agent forced Kicking Bear to leave the Standing Rock Reservation, the Ghost Dances continued apace as winter came and the food supply dwindled. Seeing the crowd of spirit-filled, groaning Indians shuffling to the beat of the slow drum, the reservation authorities grew paranoid.

Looking for a would-be troublemaker, their eyes fell to Sitting Bull, once the spiritual leader of the Sioux during their 1876-77 war. Sitting Bull had escaped to Canada after the war, but in 1881 returned to the United States in peace. He became something of a public figure by performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, displayed openly for eager whites to get a good look at the great “savage chief” whose men had killed Custer. After his time with Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull returned to quiet retirement on the Standing Rock reservation.

The Indian agents decided that Sitting Bull was the source of the trouble, and decided that taking him in would help quell the “Messiah craze” of the Ghost Dance. The U.S. Army tried to find and get the cooperation of Buffalo Bill himself as a way of bringing in Sitting Bull without violence, but the Indian agent jumped the gun and sent 40 policemen to arrest the old chief. On December 15, 1890, the policemen arrived at Sitting Bull’s home. When he refused to go, they used force on him, enraging the other Sioux of Sitting Bull’s band. When one of these raised his rifle and shot one of the policemen, they responded by peppering Sitting Bull himself with bullets. When Sitting Bull keeled over, another policeman walked up and shot him in the head at point-blank range. The old chief, who had probably presented no threat at all, died around 1pm the same day.

This was the inciting incident for the road to Wounded Knee. His small band of Sioux, terrified of further reprisals and grieving at the death of their leader, fled Standing Rock Reservation to join up with a chief named Spotted Elk on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Spotted Elk had always encouraged the adaptation to reservation life and peace with the white settlers. Now, with Sitting Bull killed and his fellow Sioux in flight, Spotted Elk believed that he and his kinsmen needed to seek refuge. They decided to travel south, between reservations, and seek the protection and advice of Chief Red Cloud – the Sioux leader who had won the war with the Americans so long ago in 1868.

The small band of Lakota – only about 350 people in total – left the Cheyenne River Reservation on December 23, setting out south for the Pine Ridge Reservation. They flew a white flag as they marched, with no obvious intention of fighting, and Spotted Elk prevented any followers from raiding white settlements. There were only 120 men of fighting age among the group, and 230 women and children. They trudged south through the deep snow of the Great Plains in coldest winter, and many grew sick on their march. Spotted Elk himself contracted pneumonia. The last great Indian migration showed the sad state of their once-proud peoples: a pitiful band struggling through the winter. Only a few of the men had any sort of weapons.

The United States cavalry was already out hunting them. Indians leaving the reservation was an immediate emergency in the eyes of the locals and the nation, who assumed that they were out for blood after the death of Sitting Bull. On December 28, 1890, a detachment of the 7th Cavalry caught the Sioux along their route of march. Although their mission was to disarm the Indians and force them back onto the reservation, the cavalry decided to escort the Lakota a bit further on and wait for the rest of the 7th Cavalry to arrive. They took them five miles to the west and ordered them to camp on the banks of Wounded Knee creek. The Sioux, in no condition to fight even had they wanted to, had no choice but to comply.

The remainder of the 7th Cavalry under Colonel James W. Forsyth arrived the next day. It cannot have escaped anyone that the 7th Cavalry had been Custer’s regiment which had suffered so badly at Little Bighorn at the hands of this same people. But the Lakota Sioux were not Crazy Horse’s powerful tribe anymore, and this was only a small, exhausted column of mostly women and children. Spotted Elk had not even been at Little Bighorn. The 7th Cavalry numbered 500 men, all with repeating rifles and equipped with four rapid-fire cannons. The troopers surrounded the camp and laid their guns on the Indian teepees.

On December 29, 1890, Forsyth gave orders to his troopers. They were to disarm the rogue Sioux, and then march them to a nearby wagon train that would bring them back to their reservations. The dismounted troopers began to march into the compliant camp and remove any rifles they found, coming up with around 38 weapons altogether on the first sweep. As the troopers moved through the camp, the younger Sioux were obviously agitated and coldly hostile.

One older spiritual leader named Yellow Bird made things worse, in American eyes, by beginning to perform the Ghost Dance. Soon more and more of the Lakota were joining in the slow, chanting shuffle, as the cavalrymen grew more and more alarmed. Once again misunderstanding the situation, they believed it to be a sign of hostility. Given what we know today, however, it sounds more like a reaction to the humiliation and decline of the Lakota people. With no violent option or means of resistance available, standing in the deep snow around Wounded Knee Creek, the Ghost Dance was a cry for help to supernatural forces to fix this broken future.

It was at this tense moment that a cavalryman tried to confiscate a rifle from a Lakota named Black Coyote. What happened next is disputed. Black Coyote was apparently deaf and spoke no English, and did not understand the order that the Sioux were supposed to be disarmed. As other Lakota tried to make this clear to the soldiers, and Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle since he had paid so much for it, two soldiers seized Black Coyote from behind. While it is more likely that his rifle accidentally went off in the confusion, American reports claimed that this was actually part of an ambush. When Black Coyote’s rifle went off, though, firing began. Whether it was the few Indians who had concealed their rifles, or the jumpy cavalryman, no one will ever know for sure.

The “Battle” of Wounded Knee lasted a few minutes at most. The Indians were almost all disarmed, and many were in the process of performing the Ghost Dance. Almost half the Indian men were killed in the initial volley of fire before they even had the opportunity to touch a weapon. Some tried to sprint over to the pile of confiscated firearms and return fire, but most never made it. This close-range gun battle, so unexpected and so sudden, accelerated quickly. The artillerymen manning the cannons began to fire blindly into the camp, mostly filled with women and children. As most of the Indian men were massacred without a chance to respond, several whites were killed and wounded – a large number from the friendly fire of the blindly-firing Hotchkiss guns.

The women and children fled in panic into a ravine, where soldiers followed. As some cavalrymen executed the wounded Indians, others pursued the fleeing Lakota, sometimes for miles, and shot them down. Women were killed with infants in arms, and bullets passed through both mother and child. Little boys emerged from hiding only to be knifed by groups of soldiers on the spot. The “Battle” of Wounded Knee was over almost as soon as it had begun. On the banks of the snowbound creek in South Dakota, blood ran into the frigid water. Of something like 350 Sioux who had set out from the reservation, around 300 were dead – including 90 of the men and 200 women and children. Among the fallen were Black Coyote and chief Spotted Elk. Only 4 men and 47 women and children survived to be put onto the wagon train for Pine Ridge Reservation.

The reaction of the American public was generally indifferent. Many viewed the Lakota outbreak as a dangerous rebellion and saw the Ghost Dancers as a radical cult that had to be exterminated. Even “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum penned an editorial several days later that “we had better, in order to protect our civilization…wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Army commander General Nelson Miles was furious at Forsyth, and tried to have him relieved for what can only be described as an unprovoked massacre, but he was rebuked. Forsyth was promoted to Brigadier General four years later, and would serve as a general throughout the 1890s.

The Army officially tried to portray the “Battle of Wounded Knee” as a glorious victory, at the cost of 31 dead and 33 wounded cavalrymen – most of whom were shot by their own guns or rifles and not be the disarmed, shivering, starving Indians. The Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to the “heroes” of Wounded Knee, disproportionate even for that time. Many of the citations went to troopers who ran down escaping Lakota, including one Private Thomas Sullivan awarded for “conspicuous bravery in action against Indians concealed in a ravine at Wounded Knee.” This can only be a reference to the terrified women and children who had fled the initial camp to hide in the nearby ravine.

One Indian medicine man recalled, many years later: “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 still 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. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

The Massacre at Wounded Knee, for it deserves no other name, was only the last in a long line of great atrocities committed by the United States in its conquest of the West. Despite much wrangling over the meanings of words, the American treatment of the Indians is one of the truly great crimes that stain our nation’s history to this day. Wounded Knee stands as a testament not to any great act of the Army, but to the violence perpetrated on the original occupants of the land we live on today.

The lack of justice for Wounded Knee, and for all the other Indian Wars that turned the Lakota and many others into a remnant of a remnant, is just one more part of the legacy of the American West. Book Recommendation: There is always Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970), which was one of the first major works to depict the Indian side of the American Western experience. While it's outdated in some respects, it's nevertheless an excellent work of literature and represents a watershed.

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