Tuesday, December 29, 2015, marks the 125th anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, a “sad and horrible event” Native and non-Native Americans still struggle to comprehend. This article, by historian Mark Hirsch, was first published in American Indian, the membership magazine of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The winter wind blows cold along Wounded Knee Creek, which threads the badlands and prairies of southwestern South Dakota. This is hallowed ground for the Sioux Nation—a powerful place of sorrow, remembrance, and healing. Here, on December 29, 1890, some 300 of their ancestors—men, women, and children—were killed by soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry.
Memories of the Massacre at Wounded Knee have always run deep in Lakota Country. For survivors and their families, the event was a slaughter of innocents. For others, Wounded Knee was a battle—“the last major armed encounter between Indians and whites in North America,” according to historian Robert Utley.
Dee Brown demolished that notion in 1970, when he published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The book, which sold five million copies, describes the opening of the American West from the perspective of Native people. Brown’s narrative struck a chord with readers, and reminded the world that indigenous people paid dearly for the fulfillment of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”
Most accounts of the massacre end on the killing fields, but there is another, living history of Wounded Knee. That story is about the survivors’ and their descendants’ struggles to memorialize the dead, seek reparations for lost loved ones, and heal the wounds of the past. Theirs is a story about reclaiming history and, in so doing, turning darkness into light.
Lakotas were ready for a message of hope in the late 1800s. The buffalo were gone, and treaties with the United States reduced the Lakotas’ homelands. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 created the Great Sioux Reservation, 26 million acres encompassing all of what would later become the state of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. In 1877, the U.S. confiscated the gold-rich Black Hills, 7.3 million acres located within the Great Sioux Reservation. Eight years later, the Great Sioux Reservation was carved into several smaller reservations, and the remaining lands, some nine million acres, were opened to white settlement. The seven Lakota bands—the Brule (or Sicangu), Oglala, Minneconjou, Two Kettle, Hunkpapa, Sans Arc, and Blackfeet—were confined to the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Crow Creek, and Lower Brule reservations, where life was hard and food scarce.
Hope came from a Paiute holy man from Nevada. Wovoka envisioned a beautiful world in which the living would be reunited with the dead. The buffalo would return, and life would return to what it was before the arrival of the Europeans. Wovoka’s message generated a new religious movement, the Ghost Dance, which spread throughout Sioux Country. Many Lakotas left their homes and converged on the Stronghold, an isolated plateau in the badlands of southwest South Dakota. Wearing special shirts, which some believed would deflect bullets, they danced to hasten the coming of the new world.
The Ghost Dance unsettled local officials, alarmed at the sight of the Sioux uniting once again. At Pine Ridge, the Indian agent responsible for managing day-to-day reservation affairs wired Washington for protection. In response, more than half the U.S. Army was sent, including the Seventh Cavalry—Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s unit, which had been obliterated at the Battle of the Little BigHorn, 14 years before.
The presence of troops worried Chief Big Foot, leader of the Minneconjou Lakota. Big Foot had ridden in battle with Sitting Bull, and his people’s acceptance of the Ghost Dance stoked fears that his band was ready for war. Fearing for his people’s safety, Big Foot and his band left their camp on the Cheyenne River in central South Dakota and trekked southward over 200 miles off rigid prairie toward the Pine Ridge Reservation, where Chief Red Cloud had invited them to seek refuge. They were intercepted by—and surrendered to—army troops, who escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, some 45 miles south of the Stronghold. That night, Big Foot’s band of 106 warriors and roughly 250 women and children made camp, surrounded by 470 soldiers. Four Hotchkiss cannons, capable of firing 50 two-pound explosive shells per minute, were installed on a hillside overlooking the camp.
The next day, Seventh Cavalry Commander James Forsyth ordered Big Foot’s people to surrender their weapons. Suddenly a gun was fired and the soldiers began shooting. Half the men were killed in the first five minutes. Women and children were riddled with shrapnel. People ran, but the soldiers pursued them. Bodies were later discovered three miles from camp. When the smoke cleared, 146 men, women, and children lay dead. Others perished from their wounds or froze to death in the hills. Some 31 soldiers died, many from friendly fire.
Looters quickly stripped the bodies of Ghost Dance shirts and other possessions, which were sold to collectors and museums. Photographers canvassed the corpse-ridden fields, and sold their photos as postcards. Advertisements said they were “just the thing to send to your friends back east.” On January 1, the bodies were buried in a mass grave. Later, 27 leaders of the Ghost Dance were imprisoned at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and then released into the custody of Buffalo Bill Cody, who featured them in his Wild West show. By agreeing to go on tour, the Ghost Dancers were spared lengthy prison terms. From 1891 to 1895, the U.S. awarded 18 Medals of Honor to soldiers who served at the “Battle of Wounded Knee.”
After the massacre, survivors vowed to honor the memory of the dead. In 1901, they founded the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, which continues today. Original members included Dewey Beard (Minneconjou Lakota)—the last survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn—and Joseph Horn Cloud (Minneconjou Lakota), whose father, Chief Horn Cloud (Minneconjou Lakota), died at Wounded Knee. The two raised money for a monument that was erected near the mass grave in 1905. The association also pushed for Congressional hearings to compensate members of Big Foot’s Band, who, as “hostiles,” were disqualified from receiving monies under the Sioux Depredations Act of 1891. Hearings were held in 1939, 1975, 1990, and 1991, but no compensation was made.
In 1986, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe began to make an arduous, 13-day pilgrimage on horseback to commemorate the massacre. The annual Big Foot Memorial Ride, begun in 1986, retraces the route taken by Chief Big Foot and his people on their fateful journey to Pine Ridge in 1890.
Alex White Plume (Oglala Lakota), former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and one of the original organizers of the Big Foot Memorial Ride, told a Congressional committee that the purpose of the ride in 1990 was to “mark the end of 100 years of mourning,” and to release the spirits of Chief Big Foot and his people “in accordance with sacred Lakota principles.” In recent years, the memorial ride has become a means for renewal—a way of teaching younger generations about their history and their cultural responsibilities.
In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, White Plume declared: “The United States needs to admit that its soldiers were wrong at Wounded Knee when they killed and wounded unarmed men, women, and children.” He urged the government to “make a meaningful apology for the 1890 Massacre and establish a national monument and memorial at the mass grave site.”
Finally, on the 100th anniversary of the massacre, the U.S. Congress expressed “deep regret to the Sioux people and in particular to the descendants of the victims and survivors of this terrible tragedy…” Although Congress defined the event as a massacre, the absence of the word “apology” and unwillingness to fund a memorial to the victims have miffed many. Interest in the creation of a national monument and for the rescission of the soldiers’ Medals of Honor continues.
The Wounded Knee Survivors Association has also successfully advocated for the repatriation of objects pilfered from their ancestors’ bodies. Mario Gonzalez (Oglala Lakota), former attorney for the survivors’ association, brokered a deal to repatriate objects held by a library in Barre, Massachusetts. The collection, which included locks of hair believed to belong to Chief Big Foot, was replaced with replicas crafted by traditional Lakota artists.
The survivors’ association also asked the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, to repatriate a Ghost Dance shirt acquired in 1892 from a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1999, the shirt was returned at a special ceremony at Pine Ridge. “The spirit of the man that wore that shirt is smiling down,” survivors’ association member Orville Sully (Oglala Lakota) told BBC News. Marcella LeBeau (Two Kettle Band/Cheyenne River Sioux) agreed: “This will bring about a sense of closure to a sad and horrible event. Now healing can begin.”
Mark Hirsch is a historian in the Scholarship Group of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.