Background Information on the Events at Wounded Knee
This essay outlines the events leading the massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, including the role of Ghost Dancers, and the chaotic violence that ensued on December 29, 1890.
The 1800s represented a century of despair for the Indian nations as the burgeoning population of white settlers moved further westward, placing heavy demands on the land and natural resources. As the era progressed, the Indians were pushed onto increasingly smaller living areas, forced to sign treaties that were invariably broken by whites, and unable to stop the vanishing of their primary food source, the buffalo.
As the end of the nineteenth century drew to a close, the few remaining free-roaming Indian tribes were pushed onto reservations and forced to become dependent on government rations and relinquish their customary way of life. In addition, throughout the century there had been numerous armed conflicts between the U.S. army (which was carrying out the government policy of manifest destiny) and the Indian tribes who resisted the destruction of their own cultural values. In particular, tension between the U.S. government and the Sioux nation escalated after the Indians, led by Sitting Bull, defeated Gen. George Custer at The Battle at Little Bighorn in 1876.
In December of 1890, a catastrophic event shook the Native American community, and well might have been the final act that resulted in the eventual depletion of the Native population and culture. On a lonely little hill in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, lies a memorial and burial ground for some of the casualties of the incident simply known as Wounded Knee.
In a simpler time, a Piaute holy man from Nevada devised, or was enlightened by, a new religious tradition called the Ghost Dance. Though government soldiers thought the Ghost Dance was a dangerous attempt by Native tribes to re-take lost tribal lands and revolt against their new government, the Ghost Dance was far less than that. A peaceful religion, it was believed that certain dances, songs and prayers would bring back to life their dead ancestors, return vanished buffalo herds, and restore the customs and traditions of the old ways, before the coming of the "white man."
In its effort to stifle the "revolt," soldiers were dispatched to halt all Ghost Dance activities, forcing many tribes and people to flee their homelands in search of a place where their cherished practices could still be employed. In so doing, around December of 1890, a group of Miniconjous Sioux, lead by Chief Big Foot, fled their Cheyenne River reservation, to travel some 150 miles across plains and the Badlands to a hopeful haven on the Pine Ridge reservation, where Chief Red Cloud had promised to welcome them.
Since the government had banned the Ghost Dance and all its related activities, any Natives continuing to practice the religion were arrested for "attempts to incite their people to war." Fearing the fleeing Miniconjous Sioux were going to rendezvous with Red Cloud in preparation of war, soldiers set out to capture the fleeing band. On December 28th, at Pine Ridge and close to Red Cloud's Oglalas Sioux, Big Foot's band ran into a military group of the rebuilt 7th cavalry, remnants of Custer's old regiment.
Fearing for the safety of his 120 men, and 230 women and children, Big Foot and some of his men moved toward the military group, carrying a white flag of truce. Assured by the cavalry Major Samuel M. Whiteside that there would be no fighting if Big Foot's band surrendered their weapons and came under military control, Big Foot agreed to the terms and accompanied the soldiers to their camp no Wounded Knee Creek.
The next morning, December 29, 1890, the Miniconjous Sioux were surrounded by the 7th Cavalry and ordered to relinquish their weapons. The Sioux had understood that, as soon as all guns were collected, they would be allowed to continue on to Pine Ridge Agency and Red Cloud's people just a few miles away. But, what is believed to be a "random shot," possibly caused by a deaf Sioux soldier who hadn't understood the order to give up his weapons, began a wholesale slaughter of innocent men, women and children.
It is believed that the accidental shot, fired while the deaf Native tried to maintain his hold on his weapon, caused others in the crowd (Native or white, there are counter claims as to which) to open fire. Suddenly, a peaceful surrender turned into a massacre, which resulted in the deaths of most of the 350 of Big Foot's band. Though some soldiers were also wounded and killed, many of them are thought to have died from their own cross-fires.
Many Sioux already disarmed, there was little chance for the Natives to defend themselves. Accounts differ as to exact numbers of the dead Sioux, but some may have escaped, while the remaining Natives were killed in their attempt to flee. Twenty-five of the army's soldiers died, while 37 soldiers and 2 civilians were reported wounded.
According to recollections by some of the Indian survivors, the soldiers cried out "Remember the Little Bighorn" as they sportingly hunted down those who fled—evidence to them that the massacre was in revenge of Custers demise at Little Bighorn in 1876. (Recorded by Santee Sioux, Sid Byrd, from oral histories of several survivors.)
"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 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 . . . . the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." (Black Elk Speaks, c. 1932)
The memory of that day still evokes passionate emotional and politicized responses from present-day Native Americans and their supporters. The Wounded Knee Massacre, according to scholars, symbolizes not only a culmination of a clash of cultures and the failure of governmental Indian policies, but also the end of the American frontier. Although it did bring an end to the Ghost Dance religion, it did not represent the demise of the Lakota culture, which still thrives today. Many of the injured died of exposure in the freezing weather, and several days after the incident the dead were strewn as far as approximately two to five miles away from the original site. By mid-afternoon on December 29, 1890 the indiscriminate slaughter ceased. Nearly three-hundred men (including Chief Big Foot), women, and children—old and young—were dead on the frosty banks of Wounded Knee Creek. Twenty-nine soldiers also died in the melee, but it is believed that most of the military causalities were a result of "friendly" crossfire that occurred during the fighting frenzy. Twenty-three soldiers from the Seventh Calvary were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the slaughter of defenseless Indians at Wounded Knee.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1970).
Jensen, Richard E., R. Eli Paul and John E. Carter, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (Lincoln, Ne. & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).
Bowling Green State University, http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1890s/woundedknee/WKIntro.html.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
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Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Information on the Events at Wounded Knee,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed January 24, 2021, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/523.