This Date in Native History: On December 29, 1890, a band of Miniconjou Lakota led by Chief Spotted Elk—called Big Foot by the government—were massacred at Wounded Knee. After the death of Sitting Bull, the band decided to head towards the Pine Ridge Agency to ask Red Cloud for help.
Clementine “Debbie” Day is a descendent of the Makes It Long – High Hawk families, who were among those who survived Wounded Knee. The family’s story was recorded in a ledger book still held by the family. “When Spotted Elk came back from Washington, he and his followers packed up during that night, and they took off for the Pine Ridge Reservation,” Day said. “On the way, the snow was so deep. My other grandfather was an Army scout, John Makes It Long-High Hawk.”
Keeping a low profile, the band hid from the scouts as they made their way. “They were afraid the scouts were looking for them,” Day said. “The band followed the Cheyenne River and went to a ranch called Two Rivers, 16 miles west of my place,” which is near present day Bridger, South Dakota, on the western side of the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Leaving some of their belongings there, they crossed the Badlands. “It was hard, snowy, and cold,” Day said, noting that the story had been told by her grandfather, Alec High Hawk to her father, Isaac Makes It Long-High Hawk. “They got as far as Wounded Knee. The soldiers finally found them and wanted their weapons.”
Paperless Archives, which maintains countless documents regarding Wounded Knee, reported that on December 28, 1890 Major Samuel Whitside and the 7th Cavalry intercepted Spotted Elk and his band, who surrendered peacefully. Documents state that the soldiers searched among the brush, calling out “How Kolah” (Hello friend) and assuring the women and children they would be safe. Yet, cannons were set up and aimed at the Lakota camp. Spotted Elk, suffering from pneumonia and coughing up blood, was given a tent with heat.
The next day, December 29, 1890, the Army demanded the Lakota turn in their weapons. All did, except for a deaf man named Black Coyote, who it is assumed did not understand what was at stake. He refused to give up his weapon, insisting he had paid a lot for the gun.
“The old man couldn’t hear and he hid his rifle under a blanket,” Day recalled. “He wouldn’t give up his gun, so a soldier wrestled for it and a shot went off. They all scattered and ran.”
When the soldiers began to shoot, the Lakota grabbed whatever weapons they could. One soldier’s report reads, “Just at that moment I could indistinctly see through the brush the faint outlines of a person and raising my gun I quickly fired. We supposed we were hunting the party of Indians we had seen and were ready to fire at a flash as we did not propose to let any Indian get the first shot at us if we could help it. Immediately I fired, Kern fired a second time and I heard squealing in the brush. I then called to the captain that it was a squaw, and he replied, ‘Don’t kill the squaws.’ I said—it is too late, I am afraid they are already killed.”
Numbers vary, but some official reports numbered 90 warriors and close to 200 women and children killed. While some of the cavalry were also killed and wounded, most reports say the soldiers were killed by friendly fire.
It was late at night before wagons carrying wounded soldiers and 47 Lakota women and children arrived at the Episcopal Church in Pine Ridge. The church pews were removed and hay was spread on the floor for bedding. Reports of the survivors include seeing the Christmas decorations still hanging from the rafters of the church.
A blizzard ensued and eventually a burial party returned to Wounded Knee where they found the frozen remains of Spotted Elk and the others. All were buried in a mass grave at Wounded Knee.
After the massacre, a government investigation was initiated, but the slaughter of even the most innocent was justified. Medals of Honor were awarded to the soldiers, which activists have sought to have rescinded ever since.
For Day’s family, her great-grandmother and two younger boys, who had lost their parents at Wounded Knee, returned to the Cheyenne River Reservation. The boys stayed with and helped Day’s great-grandmother until very soon after, they and other children were taken and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. “It was a very sad situation,” she said.
“My great-grandfather John Makes it Long-High Hawk came back, and after the boys went to Carlisle, he stayed with my great-grandmother Buffalo Pretty Hair Woman.” Day said she is happy to see that many still remember Wounded Knee. “They honor Spotted Elk—the Memorial Riders are coming to Bridger and going to Wounded Knee on horseback… In August, we have the Wounded Knee memorial motorcycle riders. So they really honor him, and I am so proud of the people who are doing these things to remember Wounded Knee.”