Chief Big Foot (Spotted Elk) lies lifeless in the snow near Wounded Knee Creek following the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890. One hundred and twenty-five years following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, indigenous peoples continue to heal.

The Truth About the Wounded Knee Massacre

Patti Jo King

In 1889, the pronouncements of Paiute mystic Wovoka sparked hope of the dawning of a new age among Western tribes; an age that promised an end to Euro-American oppression and a return to tribal autonomy, abundance and spiritual renewal. According to Wovoka, deliverance required participation in a regime of ritual dance and prayer. As word of his Ghost Dance Revival spread, a Lakota delegation visited him, and then carried the Ghost Dance back to their respective reservations.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot), leader of a band of some 350 Minneconjou Sioux, sat in a makeshift camp along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The band was surrounded by U.S. troops sent to arrest him and disarm his followers. The atmosphere was tense, since an order to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation just 14 days earlier had resulted in his murder, prompting Big Foot to lead his people to the Pine Ridge Agency for safe haven. Alerted to the band’s Ghost Dance activities, General Nelson Miles commanded Major Samuel Whiteside and the Seventh Cavalry to apprehend Big Foot and his followers, and the regiment intercepted them on December 28, leading them to the edge of the creek. While confiscating their weapons, a shot pierced the brisk morning air. Within seconds the charged atmosphere erupted as the Indian men rushed to retrieve their confiscated rifles and troopers began to fire volley after volley into the Sioux camp. From a hill above, a Hotchkiss machine gun raked the tipis, gun smoke filled the air, and men, women, and children ran for a ravine near the camp, only to be cut down in crossfire. More than 200 Lakota lay dead or dying in the aftermath as well as at least 20 soldiers.

The caption says: Famous Battery “E” of 1st Artillery. These brave men and the Hotchkiss gun that Big Foot’s Indians thought were toys, together with the fighting 7th what’s left of Gen. Custer’s boys, sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise and Gen. Miles with staff returned to Illinois. (J.C.H. Grabill/Library of Congress)

Although the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre is well-known, its causes and effects are still an enigma 125 years later. For 19th century Americans, it represented the end of Indian resistance and the conquest of the West. For Indians, it represented the utter disregard of the U.S. toward its treaty responsibilities, its duplicity, and its cruelty toward Native people. In the 20th century and beyond, Wounded Knee continues to fuel controversy and debate over the impetus and intent of the government that day, the role of the military, and the conflicting ways the tragedy is remembered today.

Extermination Policy Debate

Dance, a significant aspect of Native cultural expression, has always played a vital role in both utilitarian and religious ritual and ceremony. In the push west in the years after the Civil War, however, Americans viewed Indian dancing as a threat. Fearing an orchestrated Indian uprising, by the 1870s, both the U.S. and Canada had enacted laws banning the performance of cultural or religious rituals, including dancing. Some 19 years later, General Nelson Miles, assigned to investigate the Ghost Dance phenomenon among the Plains tribes, issued a warning that if the practice was not stopped, it could lead to an all-out Indian war. In response, the War Department deployed 7,000 troops to maintain control over the Lakota.

One of the most hotly debated topics among historians today is why deadly military force was used against the tribes to enforce the ban on dancing and whether that force was a byproduct of war or the result of premeditated murder or genocide. Some scholars are working to rewrite the long-accepted version of the frontier wars as advanced by scholars such as Robert Utley, who in his 1963 book The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, called the massacre “a regrettable, tragic accident of war… for which neither side as a whole may be properly condemned.”

According to Catharine Franklin, Indian War expert and assistant professor of history at Texas Tech, the definition of genocide does not fit. “In the last 10 years, I have read thousands of letters by army officers and other federal representatives. There is no evidence of an extermination policy.”

Jeffrey Ostler, professor of history at the University of Oregon argues that 19th century U.S. policy, underscored by imperial and colonial thinking, relied heavily on violent enforcement. He finds no basis for a belief in intentional extermination either, but states that the United States’ penchant for using military power to intimidate and coerce tribes resulted in wholesale slaughter.

Franklin points out that much has been made of the bitter remarks of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Commander of the U.S. Army and Phil Sheridan, at that time Commander of the Division of the Missouri under President Ulysses S. Grant after the 1866 Fetterman massacre, in which, 81 troops were lured to their death by Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. Sherman wrote to Grant, “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination.”

“If genocide were the aim, we would expect commanders in the field to then kill Indians indiscriminately when they had the chance, but we know they didn’t. Instead of using the word ‘genocide,’ perhaps it’s best to call it what it was—murder. People were murdered at Wounded Knee,” says Franklin.

“A Bloodthirsty and Wanton Massacre”

It’s also important to note that American Indian policy was originally founded on the goal of civilization-not extermination. Enlightenment ideals on which British-American Indian policy was initially formed, taught that all humans began as savages; primitives with no concept of individual property ownership. Savages, it was thought, evolved naturally from hunting and gathering to herding, and into a full agrarian lifestyle, which was the Euro-American ideal of civilization. As Thomas Jefferson surmised in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, once the tribes fully adopted agriculture, they would move west voluntarily to become yeoman farmers. Then, he reasoned, Americans could intermarry with them honorably, and through generations of offspring eventually “breed the Indian out” of them. White Americans would then claim rightful ownership of the continent.

By the crest of the 20th century, however, Americans had revised their thinking on such natural evolution. In the late 1880s, a new federal Indian policy of forced assimilation took precedence, as land-hungry Americans grew impatient waiting for the tribes to evolve to civilization on their own time. Franklin believes that frontier violence escalated in large part as a result of this kind of uneven Indian policy. “The army was tasked with pushing Indians onto reservations and trying to keep them there. This wasn’t always a violent process. Lakotas, Kiowas, and Comanches had freely moved on and off reservations in the late 1860s and early 1870s without reprisal from the army. We tend to think of the ‘Indian Wars’ as a series of constant conflicts, but that’s not accurate. The military often functioned as a buffer between whites and Indians; for instance, army officers also worked alongside Lakota warriors to force miners out of Paha Sapa.

The caption says: What’s left of Big Foot’s Band. Taken near Deadwood, South Dakota in 1891. (This was after the Massacre of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. This was all that remained of Big Foot’s Band.) (J.C.H. Grabill/Library of Congress)

Media also had a great impact on the way Americans began to view Indians as the 20th century approached. Immediately after the Wounded Knee massacre, the incident was widely reported through the press, with most articles echoing the government’s public stance—that the military had put down a dangerous insurrection organized by bloodthirsty Sioux. William Fitch Kelley, a Nebraskan reporter and eyewitness wrote, “I doubt that either a buck or squaw will be left to tell the tale of this day’s treachery. The members of the Seventh Cavalry have once more shown themselves to be heroes.” The New York Times referred to Wounded Knee as a “battle,” mentioning little about the deaths of women and children. In January 1891 however, a Times editorial observed that the event was “almost uniformly treated as a bloodthirsty and wanton massacre” in European papers.

Some of the harshest criticism was aimed at federal policy and came from military officers in the field. Although discouraged by his superiors from doing so, Miles called for a court of inquiry into the massacre, but despite his condemnation, the War Department awarded 20 Medals of Honor to the troops involved and erected a monument to honor their fallen soldiers. Miles subsequently emerged as a prominent champion of justice for wrongs committed at Wounded Knee.

“The military carries out policy as an instrument of the federal government, then as now,” Franklin points out. “There was no coherent Indian policy beyond the vague mandates of Ulysses S. Grant’s broad recommendations—i.e. the so-called peace policy of 1869. In the absence of clear guidelines, army officers had a great deal of latitude in dealing with Indians and their problems. Some officers relied on violence. Others worked for peaceful resolutions.” In the case of Miles, his advocacy led to government investigations in 1917 and 1920 through which bureaucrats recorded dozens of statements from the remaining survivors.

Although the 1920 inquiry concluded with a modest proposal to compensate the Lakota $20,000 for property stolen from the killing field by artifact seekers, the government took no action. Miles died in 1925. His longstanding opposition to the use of excessive force against Native people and his public condemnation of the Wounded Knee incident were widely quoted in Congress in support of bills designed to “liquidate the liability of the United States” for the massacre.

In 1914, four former Indian fighters, including William Cody (Buffalo Bill), Theodore Wharton, Nelson Miles and Charles King, participated in a film produced by the Buffalo Bill Historical Picture Company. The film, originally titled Wars of Civilization, was renamed The Indian Wars Refought. A reenactment of four major conflicts between the U.S. and the Sioux, battle scenes, ghost dance, and simulated acts of scalping are interspersed with footage of the capture of Big Foot and the so-called Wounded Knee “Battle.” The purpose of the film, which received wholehearted support of the federal government, was to present a true depiction of the resistance of the Sioux and the events that followed. The film raised even more controversy among U.S. officials who thought it too sympathetic toward the Sioux, and among Indian survivors who claimed the depiction was inaccurate. After being shown in New York City and Denver, it was locked away due to governmental pressure to suppress its “pro-Native American” sentiment.

Although agreement may never be reached on the causes or blame for the tragedy, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, originally touted as a “battle,” remains a revered symbol of colonial repression and Native resistance for indigenous people throughout the world.

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