Siege of Wounded Knee

Siege of Wounded Knee

On February 27, 1973, 200 American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders and supporters occupied the South Dakota reservation town of Wounded Knee, site of the infamous massacre of 300 Sioux by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry in 1890. Reporters on the scene relay information about the takeover.


Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement

On February 27, 1973, a team of 200 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) activists and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized control of a tiny town with a loaded history -- Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They arrived in town at night, in a caravan of cars and trucks, took the town's residents hostage, and demanded that the U.S. government make good on treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Within hours, police had surrounded Wounded Knee, forming a cordon to prevent protesters from exiting and sympathizers from entering. This marked the beginning of a 71-day siege and armed conflict.

Russell Means, one of AIM's leaders, died yesterday. Means was a controversial figure within the movement and outside of it as his New York Times obituary put it, "critics, including many Indians, called him a tireless self-promoter who capitalized on his angry-rebel notoriety." After getting his start in activism in the 1970s, Means went on to run for the Libertarian presidential nomination in 1987, and for governor of New Mexico in 2002. He also acted in scores of films, most famously in a lead role in the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans.

For all the contradictions of his life, he was no less controversial than AIM itself. The Wounded Knee siege was both an inspiration to indigenous people and left-wing activists around the country and -- according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which besieged the town along with FBI and National Guard -- the longest-lasting "civil disorder" in 200 years of U.S. history. Two native activists lost their lives in the conflict, and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed. Like the Black Panthers or MEChA, AIM was a militant civil rights and identity movement that sprung from the political and social crisis of the late 1960s, but today it is more obscure than the latter two groups.

The Pine Ridge reservation, where Wounded Knee was located, had been in turmoil for years. To many in the area the siege was no surprise. The Oglala Lakota who lived on the reservation faced racism beyond its boundaries and a poorly managed tribal government within them. In particular, they sought the removal of tribal chairman Dick Wilson, whom many Oglala living on the reservation thought corrupt. Oglala Lakota interviewed by PBS for a documentary said Wilson seemed to favor mixed-race, assimilated Lakota like himself -- and especially his own family members -- over reservation residents with more traditional lifestyles. Efforts to remove Wilson by impeaching him had failed, and so Oglala Lakota tribal leaders turned to AIM for help in removing him by force. Their answer was to occupy Wounded Knee.

Federal marshals and National Guard traded heavy fire daily with the native activists. To break the siege, they cut off electricity and water to the town, and attempted to prevent food and ammunition from being passed to the occupiers. Bill Zimmerman, a sympathetic activist and pilot from Boston, agreed to carry out a 2,000-pound food drop on the 50th day of the siege. When the occupiers ran out of the buildings where they had been sheltering to grab the supplies, agents opened fire on them. The first member of the occupation to die, a Cherokee, was shot by a bullet that flew through the wall of a church.

To many observers, the standoff resembled the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 itself -- when a U.S. cavalry detachment slaughtered a group of Lakota warriors who refused to disarm. Some of the protesters also had a more current conflict in mind. As one former member of AIM told PBS, "They were shooting machine gun fire at us, tracers coming at us at nighttime just like a war zone. We had some Vietnam vets with us, and they said, 'Man, this is just like Vietnam.' "

When PBS interviewed federal officials later, they said that the first death in the conflict inspired them to work harder to bring it to a close. For the Oglala Lakota, the death of tribe member Buddy Lamont on April 26 was the critical moment. While members of AIM fought to keep the occupation going, the Oglala overruled them, and, from that point, negotiations between federal officials and the protesters began in earnest. The militants officially surrendered on May 8, and a number of members of AIM managed to escape the town before being arrested. (Those who were arrested, including Means, were almost all acquitted because key evidence was mishandled.)


The Military Buildup to Wounded Knee

More than five thousand U.S. Army officers and soldiers were mobilized in the weeks leading up to the Wounded Knee Massacre. The troops – sent to subdue “hostile” Indians on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations - totaled nearly a quarter of the U.S. Army’s fighting strength. In the Spring 2014 issue of Nebraska History, historian Jerome Greene explains this drastic escalation of military tension step-by-step.

In the late 1880s, the future looked bleak for the Lakota Sioux. Confined to reservations, plagued by drought, disease, and low rations, many Lakotas turned to the Ghost Dance movement as a way to deal with their circumstances. The Ghost Dance was a religion that mixed Christianity and Native beliefs, teaching that following the dances correctly would bring salvation for the Native people and culture.

Government officials feared that the dances indicated an uprising. Agent Daniel Royer at the Pine Ridge Reservation sent a telegraph asking for military protection, saying: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. Nothing short of one thousand soldiers will settle this dancing.” White citizens around the reservations began requesting military protection as well. On November 13, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison ordered that a “body of troops sufficiently large to be impressive” be sent to the reservations.

Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles warned that Congress needed to address the Indians grievances directly, saying that “[the people] have been starved into fighting, and they will prefer to die fighting rather than to starve peaceably. Nevertheless, Miles followed his directions to send troops to the reservations. Troops were dispatched from Forts Omaha, Niobrara, and Robinson.

The press circulated sensationalized reports of battles, and more white settlers felt in serious danger. As hundreds of troops arrived on the reservation, the Indians began to feel in serious danger as well. A group of more than six hundred Indians on the Rosebud reservation began to flee towards Pine Ridge. Discovering soldiers there as well, they went north, killing cattle and wrecking cabins along the way.

Near the junction of Wounded Knee Creek and White River, the Indians resumed dancing, leading one Brig. Gen. John R. Brooke to report that “they are very defiant.” Within days, more troops were sent from Wyoming, Fort Omaha and Fort Sidney in Nebraska, and Fort Riley in Kansas, including an artillery unit. In December, nine troops of cavalry arrived. Later that month, hundreds of troops from Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and even California came to bolster forts and posts for miles around the reservations.

One Indian chief, Little Wound, was enraged by the soldiers’ presence. “Our dance is a religious one, and we are going to dance until spring…troops or no troops.”

Rumors and gossip spread fast while factual information hardly spread at all. Reporters predicted that the U.S. troops would advance to disarm the Ghost Dancers. Later, press representatives circulated a rumor that the Rosebud Indians were coming to kill Brooke.

More troops came. Tensions rose. And in the weeks leading up to Wounded Knee, the conflict had created the largest U.S. military mobilization between the Civil War and the Spanish-American war. All this conflict came to a head on December 29, 1890, when the Seventh Cavalry caught up to an escaping group of a Lakota. In the struggle to disarm them, a gun went off and the cavalry opened fire on men, women, and children. By the end of the massacre, more than 250 Lakota and 25 soldiers were dead.

Greene’s article is a part of a special issue of Nebraska History, “After the Indian Wars: People, Places, and Episodes,” which presents six papers from the Ninth Fort Robinson History Conference. Greene’s contribution is adapted from his new book American Carnage: Wounded Knee 1890, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

To learn more about the Wounded Knee Massacre, check out NSHS’s book Eyewitness at Wounded Knee.


The Battle at Wounded Knee is a significant battle in American history, as it put an end to the Indian Wars and is marked as the last official defeat of the Native Americans. But what’s not taught in history lessons is that Wounded Knee was one of the first federally backed gun confiscations in the history of the United States, and it ended in the massacre of nearly 300 unarmed people.

During the late 19th century, American Indians were allowed to purchase and carry firearms, just as white men were. The colonial gun laws did not bar Native Americans from possessing firearms, yet that natural right was violated by government forces at Wounded Knee. And once the guns were confiscated, the battle ensued.

When we look at the issues surrounding gun confiscation, Wounded Knee gives us an example of the devastation that an unarmed people can experience at the hands of their own government. This battle serves as a reminder to fight against gun confiscation and the gun control legislation that can lead to it.

Leading Up to Wounded Knee

At the beginning of the 19th century, it’s estimated that 600,000 American Indians lived on the land that is now the United States. By the end of the century, the people diminished to less than 150,000.

Throughout the 1800s, these nomadic tribes were pushed from the open plains and forests into “Indian Territories,” places determined by the U.S. government. It started during the Creek Indian War (1813-1815), when American soldiers, led by Andrew Jackson, won nearly 20 million acres of land from the defeated Creek Indians.

Unlike George Washington, who believed in “civilizing” the Native Americans, Jackson favored an “Indian Removal,” and when president in 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which was the first of many U.S. legislations that did not grant the Native Americans the same rights as colonial European-Americans. Davy Crockett was the only delegate from Tennessee to vote against the act.

The Plains Indians, who lived in the plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, weren’t as impacted by the U.S. government until later in the century, as U.S. expansion pushed into the “Wild West.” As people moved passed the Mississippi and into the Frontier, conflicts again arose between the Indians and Americans.

In an attempt at peace in 1851, the first Fort Laramie Treaty was signed, which granted the Plain Indians about 150 million acres of land for their own use as the Great Sioux Reservation. Then, 13 years later, the size was greatly reduced to about 60 million acres in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which recreated the Great Sioux Reservation boundaries and proclaimed all of South Dakota west of the Missouri river, including the Black Hills, solely for the Sioux Nation.

As part of the treaty, no unauthorized non-Indian was to come into the reservation and the Sioux were allowed to hunt in unceded Indian territory beyond the reservation that stretched into North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. If any non-Indian wanted to settle on this unceded land, they could only do it with the permission of the Sioux.

That was until 1874, when gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The treaties that were signed between the Native Americans and the U.S. government were ignored as gold rushers invaded Indian Territory and issues arose, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As time went on, the American Indians continued to be pushed into smaller territories and their lives began to diminish. In 1889, the U.S. government issued the Dawes Act, which took the Black Hills from the Indians, broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into five separate reservations, and took nine million acres and opened it up for public purchase by non-Indians for homesteading and settlements.

The Native Americans were squeezed into these smaller territories and didn’t have enough game to support them. The bison that had been a staple to their way of life were gone. Their ancestral lands that sustained them were no longer theirs. The resistance was over. They were no longer free people, living amongst themselves, but “Redskins” confined by the “white man” in reservations they had been forced to, many against their will.

With all of the Sioux Nation inhabiting less than nine million acres, divided up throughout South Dakota, the Indians were encouraged by the U.S. government to develop small farms. But they were faced with poor, arid soil and a bad growing season, which led to a severely limited food supply in the year following the Dawes Act. A miscalculation in the census complicated matters even more when the population on the reservation was undercounted, leading to less supplies sent from the U.S. government.

The situation was beyond bleak and the Sioux people were starving. That winter, an influenza epidemic broke out and caused a disproportionate number of Sioux children to die. And then in the summer of 1890, a drought hit, destroying yet another season of crops and the people of Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were in dire condition.

The Ghost Dance

Perhaps it was these desolate circumstances that led to the spread of what is known as the Ghost Dance. Based on a vision experienced by a Sioux religious leader, the Ghost Dance was a spiritual ritual that was supposed to call the coming messiah, who would be an American Indian. This messiah would force the white man off of Indian lands, return the bison to the plains, and resurrect both their deceased and the life the Native Americans had once enjoyed.

Although this was not a war dance, it was feared by those who believed the Indians were savages. One such man was Daniel Royer, who arrived as the new agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in October of 1890. He believed it to be a war dance and requested troops from President Benjamin Harrison on November 15th of that same year. His telegram read: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now.”

Harrison granted the request and part of the 7th Cavalry arrived on November 20th, with orders to arrest several Sioux leaders. Commander James Forsyth led the troops.

On December 15th, the 7th Cavalry attempted to arrest Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who annihilated Commander George Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn (he also toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and was a dear friend to Annie Oakley), because he didn’t attempt to stop the Ghost Dance amongst his people. During the incident, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.

The Lakota at Pine Ridge began to get nervous and the tribe’s leader, Big Foot, practiced the Ghost Dance and had caught the attention of the federal agents. After hearing of Sitting Bull’s death, he and his tribe fled to the Badlands.

They were pursued by the 7th Cavalry for five days. But Big Foot had come down with pneumonia and they were peacefully intercepted at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th.

December 29, 1890: The Wounded Knee Massacre

The next morning, Col. Forsyth demanded that the tribe surrender their firearms. Rifles were being turned over without issue until some of the Sioux men started a Ghost Dance and began throwing dirt into the air, as was customary to the dance.

Tensions among the soldiers increased.

A few moments later, a Sioux man named Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle. It’s been reported that the Indian was deaf, had recently purchased the rifle, and was most likely unaware of why the soldier was demanding it. Regardless, the two began to skuffle and the gun discharged.

The 7th Cavalry, who was the reconstructed regiment of Custer, opened fire on the Lakota. Along with their own weapons, they used four Hotchkiss guns, a revolving barrel machine gun that could fire 68 rounds per minute, devastating the entire tribe, which had just peacefully handed over their weapons.

The Sioux men, women, and children scattered, and the Cavalry pursued them. Dead bodies were later found three miles from camp.

Once the firing ended, some two hours later, an estimated 300 Native Americans lay dead in the snow, at least half of them women and children. Those that didn’t die immediately froze to death during the oncoming blizzard.

Nearly a week later, on January 3, 1891, the Cavalry escorted a burial party to the banks of the Wounded Knee River and they buried 146 Lakota Indians in a single mass grave. Other bodies were found in the surrounding areas, and the estimated body count is between 250 and 300 Sioux.

The 7th Cavalry lost 25 men.

After the Massacre

The Massacre at Wounded Knee brought an end to the Indian Wars. There was no more resistance. The Ghost Dancing stopped.

The Native Americans had been beaten. But the Cavalry’s attack was recognized as butchery, with Forsyth’s commanding officer, General Nelson Miles, calling it a “criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.”

However, President Harrison had an election around the corner and wasn’t in a position to look bad. Miles’ report was dismissed. Instead, the Cavalry men were made out as heroes against the Indian “savages.” And in the Spring of 1891, the president awarded the first of 20 Medals of Honor to the soldiers who disarmed then slaughtered the Sioux at Wounded Knee.

It’s been speculated that the 7th Cavalry, which again was regrouped after it was destroyed by Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn, was looking for a fight and deliberately sought revenge on the Native Americans.

Black Elk, one of the few Lakota survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, recalled in 1931: “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw 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.”


Introduction

Photograph of the monument at Wounded Knee. June 1, 1916. The Oglala Light (Pine Ridge, SD), Image 46. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

In the late 1880s, US government anxiety about the Native American Ghost Dance Movement prompted many crackdowns on large Native American gatherings. On December 29, 1890, tragedy occurred as US Army troops fired upon Native Americans at Wounded Knee creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation, leaving an estimated 200 people dead. The incident was controversially referred to initially as a “battle” and inspired conflict and backlash that would fuel later Native American movements. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.


The Massacre at Wounded Knee

After Sitting Bull's death, Big Foot feared for the safety of his band, which consisted in large part of widows of the Plains wars and their children. Big Foot himself had been placed on the list of "fomenters of disturbances," and his arrest had been ordered. He led his band toward Pine Ridge, hoping for the protection of Red Cloud. However, he fell ill from pneumonia on the trip and was forced to travel in the back of a wagon. As they neared Porcupine Creek on December 28, the band saw 4 troops of cavalry approaching. A white flag was immediately run up over Big Foot's wagon. When the two groups met, Big Foot raised up from his bed of blankets to greet Major Samuel Whitside of the Seventh Cavalry. His blankets were stained with blood and blood dripped from his nose as he spoke.

Whitside informed him of his orders to take the band to their camp on Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot replied that they were going that way, to Pine Ridge. The major wanted to disarm the Indians right then but was dissuaded by his scout John Shangreau, in order to avoid a fight on the spot. They agreed to wait to undertake this until they reached camp. Then, in a moment of sympathy, the major ordered his army ambulance brought forward to accept the ill Minneconjou chief, providing a warmer and more comfortable ride. They then proceeded toward the camp at Wounded Knee Creek, led by two cavalry troops with the other two troops bringing up the rear with their Hotchkiss guns. They reached the camp at twilight.

At the camp, the Indians were carefully counted there were 120 men and 230 women and children. Major Whitside decided to wait until morning to disarm the band. They were assigned a camp site just to the south of the cavalry camp, given rations, and provided with several tents as there was a shortage of tepee covers. A stove was provided for Big Foot's tent and the doctor was sent to give aid to the chief. To guarantee against escape from the camp, two troops of cavalry were posted around the Indian tents and the Hotchkiss guns were placed on the top of a rise overlooking the camp. The guns were aimed directly at the lodges.

During the night the rest of the Seventh Cavalry marched in and set up north of Major Whitside's troops. Two more Hotchkiss guns were placed beside the two already aimed at the lodges. Colonel John Forsyth took over command of the operation and informed Major Whitside that he had orders to take the band to the railroad to be shipped to a military prison in Omaha.

In the morning a bugle call awakened the camp and the men were told to come to the center of the camp for a talk. After the talk they would move to Pine Ridge. Big Foot was brought out and seated before his tent. The older men of the band gathered around him. Hardtack was issued for breakfast. Then the Indians were informed that they would be disarmed. They stacked their guns in the center, but the soldiers were not satisfied. The soldiers went through the tents, bringing out bundles and tearing them open, throwing knives, axes, and tent stakes into the pile. Then they ordered searches of the individual warriors. The Indians became very angry but only one spoke out, the medicine man, Yellow Bird. He danced a few steps of the Ghost Dance and chanted in Sioux, telling the Indians that the bullets would not hurt them, they would go right by.

The search found only two rifles, one brand new, belonging to a young man named Black Coyote. He raised it over his head and cried out that he had spent much money for the rifle and that it belonged to him. Black Coyote was deaf and therefore did not respond promptly to the demands of the soldiers. He would have been convinced to put it down by the Sioux, but that option was not possible. He was grabbed by the soldiers and spun around. Then a shot was heard its source is not clear but it began the killing. The only arms the Indians had were what they could grab from the pile. When the Hotchkiss guns opened up, shrapnel shredded the lodges, killing men, women and children, indiscriminately. They tried to run but were shot down "like buffalo," women and children alike.

When the mass insanity of the soldiers ended, 153 dead were counted, including Big Foot but many of the wounded had crawled off to die alone. One estimate place the final death toll at 350 Indian men, women and children. Twenty-five soldiers died and 39 were wounded, most by their own shrapnel and bullets. The wounded soldiers were started back to the Pine Ridge agency. Then a detail of soldiers went over the battlefield, gathering up any Indians that were still alive and placing them in wagons. As a blizzard was approaching, the dead were left where they had fallen. The wagons with the wounded arrived at Pine Ridge after dark. They contained only 4 Sioux men and 47 women and children. These people were left outside in wagons in the bitter cold while a search was made for housing for them. Finally the Episcopal mission was opened, the benches removed and hay scattered over the floor as bedding for the wounded Sioux. As they were brought in, those who were conscious could see the Christmas decorations hanging from the rafters.

There are also tributes to those who fell in the "battles" in both sieges at Wounded Knee in the lyrics of modern Native American musicians. Among these are Bury my heart at Wounded Knee by Buffy Sainte-Marie and For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash by Joy Harjo & Poetic Justice.

There is a movement now to make a national monument of the Wounded Knee site. At first glance it would appear to provide a small amount of historical balance, a recognition that many of our fellow human beings, our Indian brothers and sisters, were massacred here by a troop of ignorant and scared men paid by the United States government to make sure that no trouble was caused for the white men seeking their fortunes in this "new territory." But this is not our monument, our sacred place. It belongs to the Sioux. It must be honored in their way not with paved parking lots and souvenirs, rangers to give a sanitized version of what happened here to tourists who will stop for a few hours and spend a few dollars. There is active opposition to this park proposal from within the Pine Ridge community. The park opponents have a detailed list of reasons for their opposition.

And from the National Archives Photograph Collection:
[This image collection is temporarily offline. If should become available again in 1999.] Officers in tent by fire during the Pine Ridge campaign, 1890-91 Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, captured at the battle of Wounded Knee, S.D "Return of Casey's scouts from the fight at Wounded Knee, 1890-91." Soldiers on horseback plod through the snow. "Brig. Gen Nelson A. Miles and Buffalo Bill viewing hostile Indian camp near Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota." from the National Archives Photograph Collection.

Shop at our online calendar & poster store! We have selected a great group of posters with images of Notable Native Americans, creations of many Native American artists, portraits made by Edward Curtis, and a large selection of other images and calendars.


The Wounded Knee Massacre: The Forgotten History of the Native American Gun Confiscation | The Resistance Library Podcast

Today Dave and Sam discuss the disarmament of Native Americans by the U.S. government and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The Battle at Wounded Knee is a significant battle in American history, as it put an end to the Indian Wars and is marked as the last official defeat of the Native Americans. But what’s not taught in history lessons is that Wounded Knee was one of the first federally backed gun confiscations in the history of the United States, and it ended in the massacre of nearly 300 unarmed people.

During the late 19th century, American Indians were allowed to purchase and carry firearms, just as white men were. The colonial gun laws did not bar Native Americans from possessing firearms, yet that natural right was violated by government forces at Wounded Knee. And once the guns were confiscated, the battle ensued.

When we look at the issues surrounding gun confiscation, Wounded Knee gives us an example of the devastation that an unarmed people can experience at the hands of their own government. This battle serves as a reminder to fight against gun confiscation and the gun control legislation that can lead to it.


Siege of Wounded Knee - HISTORY

Sioux tribespeople taking part in the Ghost Dance, 1890, drawn by Frederic Remington based on sketches from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Louis S. Warren
July 6, 2017

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 appears in many history textbooks as the “end of the Indian Wars” and a signal moment in the closing of the Western frontier. The atrocity had many causes, but its immediate one was the U.S. government’s effort to ban a religion: the Ghost Dance, a new Indian faith that had swept Western reservations over the previous year.

The history of this episode—in which the U.S. Army opened fire on a mostly unarmed village of Minneconjou Lakotas, or Western Sioux, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—teaches us about the moral perils of abandoning religious freedom. Although the First Amendment guarantees freedom of conscience, only in recent decades did that protection extend to American Indian ceremony and belief.

For most of U.S. history, the federal government sought to assimilate native peoples by eradicating their religious ceremonies and belief systems. These efforts increased with all-out campaigns to turn Indians into Protestant, English-speaking farmers in the closing years of the 19th century. Under government regulations that took effect in 1883, the Department of Interior banned “heathenish” (meaning virtually all) Indian dances, in an effort to force conversion to Christianity.

Thus, customary ceremonies that once brought spiritual relief to Lakotas, such as the Sun Dance, became illegal. At the same time, reservations grew dramatically poorer. Congress’ 1889 decision to reduce food rations to Lakota Sioux, bringing many to the point of starvation, and to strip Indians of most of their reservation lands, increased native peoples’ sense of desperation. On other reservations, among Arapahos and Cheyennes, for example, similar pressures also contributed to a growing feeling of crisis.

It was at this point, in the fall of 1889, that the new teachings of what became known as the Ghost Dance religion began to energize believers among Lakotas and in other Indian communities, especially on the Great Plains. Many greeted its teachings with joy. This was no violent uprising: Armed resistance to U.S. authority had ended in 1877. For well over a decade, Lakotas had peacefully occupied reservations in South Dakota and North Dakota. Other peoples who took up the Ghost Dance, such as Arapahos and Cheyennes, had lived on reservations in Montana, Oklahoma, and elsewhere for even longer.

A view of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

None of these peoples were threatening hostility. What they sought was redemption from their suffering, and the new religion promised it. Tribal members passed along rumors of an Indian messiah who would come in the spring, bringing a new earth, on which believers would find no white people, but abundant buffalo and horses. For this wondrous event to transpire, said the evangelists, believers must adopt a new ceremony: a sacred dance in which participants held hands and turned in a large circle. Among Lakotas, the circle turned at an ever faster pace until some dancers collapsed into trances. On awaking, many recounted visions of the afterworld and encounters with spirits of their departed kin and friends.

At its peak, perhaps one in three Lakotas joined the dance circle, and the exuberance of believers was spectacular, with hundreds dancing at any moment and dozens falling into visions. But to U.S. government officials responsible for administering the reservations, the excitement could only mean trouble. “The dance is indecent, demoralizing, and disgusting,” wrote one. “I think,” wrote another, “steps should be taken to stop it.”

Why did the dancing elicit such strong condemnation? The wave of Ghost Dance enthusiasm had run headlong into the government’s policy of assimilation, the ongoing effort to force Indians to look and behave like Protestant white people. While most officials recognized Ghost Dancers were peaceful, they were nonetheless perturbed by the sudden appearance of the large circles of ecstatic dancers. The rhythmic movement of bodies proved to white observers that Indians were refusing to assimilate, to abandon old religions and embrace Christianity. The Ghost Dance looked like dangerous backsliding toward “paganism.”

And yet, to many Indians and even a few white defenders, the Ghost Dance religion also looked a lot like Christianity. Some white observers compared the dance to evangelical camp meetings, and one urged officials to let Ghost Dancers “worship God as they please.” The religion, after all, promised the coming of a messiah, who some adherents called “Christ,” and some of its teachings were not that different from those of Christianity.

The prophet of the Ghost Dance was a Northern Paiute named Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, who hailed from Nevada. By 1889, Northern Paiutes had long since entered the Nevada workforce as teamsters, road graders, builders, domestic servants, and general rural laborers. Wovoka himself was a well-regarded ranch hand. According to multiple accounts from the period, he instructed his followers not only to dance, but to love one another, keep the peace, and tell the truth. He also told Ghost Dancers to take up wage labor, or as he put it, “work for white men.” They should send children to school, attend Christian churches (“all these churches are mine,” Wovoka counseled), and become farmers. Such teachings were transmitted to distant followers on the Plains. Lakota evangelists, too, instructed their followers, “Send your children to school and get farms to live on.”

The Ghost Dance religion was no militant rejection of American authority, but an effort to graft Indian culture on to new ways of living, and to the new economy of wage work, farming, and education that the reservation era demanded. But to government officials, the dancing was a sign of religious dissent and had to be stopped.

The wave of Ghost Dance enthusiasm had run headlong into the government’s policy of assimilation, the ongoing effort to force Indians to look and behave like Protestant white people.

When Ghost Dancing continued throughout 1890, President Benjamin Harrison sent in the army. On December 28, some 500 heavily-armed cavalry accepted the surrender of a village of 300 elderly Minneconjous, women, children, and some lightly-armed men. The next morning, as troops were carrying out orders to disarm their prisoners, a gun fired, probably by accident. Nobody was hurt, but an impulsive commanding officer ordered his troops to open fire. By the time the shooting stopped, some 200 Lakotas lay dead and dying. In the aftermath, a brief shooting war finally erupted, with skirmishes taking the lives of dozens of Indians and a handful of soldiers before Lakotas once more surrendered their arms.

To this day, the pain of Wounded Knee is still deeply felt within the Pine Ridge community and by descendants of the victims. The stain of the Wounded Knee Massacre remains on the army and the U.S. government.

But efforts to suppress the Ghost Dance religion had the opposite effect. Army violence convinced many believers that its prophecies must be true, and that the government was trying to stop them from being fulfilled. Why would the government want to stop prayers to the Messiah, unless white people knew the Messiah was real? Clearly, said believers, the government knew the Messiah was coming.

After a brief period, secret Ghost Dances returned to South Dakota. Elsewhere, dances among Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes took on renewed energy. Among some peoples, Ghost Dances were held regularly through the 1920s. Across many different Indian reservations, the ceremony and its teachings endure to this day.

Only in the late 20th century would Indian people begin to secure limited rights to observe their own religions. As they have done so, our memories of assimilation campaigns and their tragic consequences have faded. But as Americans still debate the merits of religious freedom, the Ghost Dancers of Wounded Knee remind us of the terrible price of suppressing belief.


For this 1890 conflict, the army awarded twenty Medals of Honor, its highest commendation. Η] In the governmental Nebraska State Historical Society's summer 1994 quarterly journal, Jerry Green construes that pre-1916 Medals of Honor were awarded more liberally however, "the number of medals does seem disproportionate when compared to those awarded for other battles." Quantifying, he compares the three awarded for the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain's five-day siege, to the twenty awarded for this short and one-sided action. Η]

Historian Will G. Robinson notes that, in contrast, only three Medals of Honor were awarded among the 64,000 South Dakotans who fought for four years of World War II. ⎖]

Native American activists have urged the medals be withdrawn, calling them "medals of dishonor". According to Lakota tribesman William Thunder Hawk, "The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn't show heroism they showed cruelty." In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the Medals of Honor awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them. ⎗] In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the military awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them. ⎗]

Some of the citations on the medals awarded to the troopers at Wounded Knee state that they went in pursuit of Lakota who were trying to escape or hide. ⎘] Another citation was for "conspicuous bravery in rounding up and bringing to the skirmish line a stampeded pack mule." Η]

In 1990, the United States Congress apologized to the descendants of those killed at Wounded Knee but didn't approve to revoke the medals. ⎙]

In June 2019, a bill was proposed by the United States Congress to rescind the medals that were received for this action. ⎚] The bill, referred to as the "The Remove the Stain Act" is being sponsored by representatives Denny Heck, (D-Washington), Deb Haaland, (D-New Mexico), and Paul Cook, (R-California). ⎚]


The Wounded Knee Massacre: The Forgotten History of the Native American Gun Confiscation

The Battle at Wounded Knee is a significant battle in American history, as it put an end to the Indian Wars and is marked as the last official defeat of the Native Americans. But what&rsquos not taught in history lessons is that Wounded Knee was one of the first federally backed gun confiscations in the history of the United States, and it ended in the massacre of nearly 300 unarmed people.

During the late 19th century, American Indians were allowed to purchase and carry firearms, just as white men were. The colonial gun laws did not bar Native Americans from possessing firearms, yet that natural right was violated by government forces at Wounded Knee. And once the guns were confiscated, the battle ensued.

When we look at the issues surrounding gun confiscation, Wounded Knee gives us an example of the devastation that an unarmed people can experience at the hands of their own government. This battle serves as a reminder to fight against gun confiscation and the gun control legislation that can lead to it.

Leading Up to Wounded Knee

At the beginning of the 19th century, it&rsquos estimated that 600,000 American Indians lived on the land that is now the United States. By the end of the century, the people diminished to less than 150,000.

Throughout the 1800s, these nomadic tribes were pushed from the open plains and forests into &ldquoIndian Territories,&rdquo places determined by the U.S. government. It started during the Creek Indian War (1813-1815), when American soldiers, led by Andrew Jackson, won nearly 20 million acres of land from the defeated Creek Indians.

Unlike George Washington, who believed in &ldquocivilizing&rdquo the Native Americans, Jackson favored an &ldquoIndian Removal,&rdquo and when president in 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which was the first of many U.S. legislations that did not grant the Native Americans the same rights as colonial European-Americans. Davy Crockett was the only delegate from Tennessee to vote against the act.

The Plains Indians, who lived in the plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, weren&rsquot as impacted by the U.S. government until later in the century, as U.S. expansion pushed into the &ldquoWild West.&rdquo As people moved passed the Mississippi and into the Frontier, conflicts again arose between the Indians and Americans.

In an attempt at peace in 1851, the first Fort Laramie Treaty was signed, which granted the Plain Indians about 150 million acres of land for their own use as the Great Sioux Reservation. Then, 13 years later, the size was greatly reduced to about 60 million acres in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which recreated the Great Sioux Reservation boundaries and proclaimed all of South Dakota west of the Missouri river, including the Black Hills, solely for the Sioux Nation.

As part of the treaty, no unauthorized non-Indian was to come into the reservation and the Sioux were allowed to hunt in unceded Indian territory beyond the reservation that stretched into North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. If any non-Indian wanted to settle on this unceded land, they could only do it with the permission of the Sioux.

That was until 1874, when gold was discovered in South Dakota&rsquos Black Hills. The treaties that were signed between the Native Americans and the U.S. government were ignored as gold rushers invaded Indian Territory and issues arose, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As time went on, the American Indians continued to be pushed into smaller territories and their lives began to diminish. In 1889, the U.S. government issued the Dawes Act, which took the Black Hills from the Indians, broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into five separate reservations, and took nine million acres and opened it up for public purchase by non-Indians for homesteading and settlements.

The Native Americans were squeezed into these smaller territories and didn&rsquot have enough game to support them. The bison that had been a staple to their way of life were gone. Their ancestral lands that sustained them were no longer theirs. The resistance was over. They were no longer free people, living amongst themselves, but &ldquoRedskins&rdquo confined by the &ldquowhite man&rdquo in reservations they had been forced to, many against their will.

With all of the Sioux Nation inhabiting less than nine million acres, divided up throughout South Dakota, the Indians were encouraged by the U.S. government to develop small farms. But they were faced with poor, arid soil and a bad growing season, which led to a severely limited food supply in the year following the Dawes Act. A miscalculation in the census complicated matters even more when the population on the reservation was undercounted, leading to less supplies sent from the U.S. government.

The situation was beyond bleak and the Sioux people were starving. That winter, an influenza epidemic broke out and caused a disproportionate number of Sioux children to die. And then in the summer of 1890, a drought hit, destroying yet another season of crops and the people of Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were in dire condition.

The Ghost Dance

Perhaps it was these desolate circumstances that led to the spread of what is known as the Ghost Dance. Based on a vision experienced by a Sioux religious leader, the Ghost Dance was a spiritual ritual that was supposed to call the coming messiah, who would be an American Indian. This messiah would force the white man off of Indian lands, return the bison to the plains, and resurrect both their deceased and the life the Native Americans had once enjoyed.

Although this was not a war dance, it was feared by those who believed the Indians were savages. One such man was Daniel Royer, who arrived as the new agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in October of 1890. He believed it to be a war dance and requested troops from President Benjamin Harrison on November 15th of that same year. His telegram read: &ldquoIndians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now.&rdquo

Harrison granted the request and part of the 7th Cavalry arrived on November 20th, with orders to arrest several Sioux leaders. Commander James Forsyth led the troops.

On December 15th, the 7th Cavalry attempted to arrest Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who annihilated Commander George Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn (he also toured with Buffalo Bill&rsquos Wild West Show and was a dear friend to Annie Oakley), because he didn&rsquot attempt to stop the Ghost Dance amongst his people. During the incident, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.

The Lakota at Pine Ridge began to get nervous and the tribe&rsquos leader, Big Foot, practiced the Ghost Dance and had caught the attention of the federal agents. After hearing of Sitting Bull&rsquos death, he and his tribe fled to the Badlands.

They were pursued by the 7th Cavalry for five days. But Big Foot had come down with pneumonia and they were peacefully intercepted at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th.

December 29, 1890: The Wounded Knee Massacre

The next morning, Col. Forsyth demanded that the tribe surrender their firearms. Rifles were being turned over without issue until some of the Sioux men started a Ghost Dance and began throwing dirt into the air, as was customary to the dance.

Tensions among the soldiers increased.

A few moments later, a Sioux man named Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle. It&rsquos been reported that the Indian was deaf, had recently purchased the rifle, and was most likely unaware of why the soldier was demanding it. Regardless, the two began to skuffle and the gun discharged.

The 7th Cavalry, who was the reconstructed regiment of Custer, opened fire on the Lakota. Along with their own weapons, they used four Hotchkiss guns, a revolving barrel machine gun that could fire 68 rounds per minute, devastating the entire tribe, which had just peacefully handed over their weapons.

The Sioux men, women, and children scattered, and the Cavalry pursued them. Dead bodies were later found three miles from camp.

Once the firing ended, some two hours later, an estimated 300 Native Americans lay dead in the snow, at least half of them women and children. Those that didn&rsquot die immediately froze to death during the oncoming blizzard.

Nearly a week later, on January 3, 1891, the Cavalry escorted a burial party to the banks of the Wounded Knee River and they buried General Nelson Miles, calling it a &ldquocriminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.&rdquo

However, President Harrison had an election around the corner and wasn&rsquot in a position to look bad. Miles&rsquo report was dismissed. Instead, the Cavalry men were made out as heroes against the Indian &ldquosavages.&rdquo And in the Spring of 1891, the president awarded the first of 20 Medals of Honor to the soldiers who disarmed then slaughtered the Sioux at Wounded Knee.

It&rsquos been speculated that the 7th Cavalry, which again was regrouped after it was destroyed by Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn, was looking for a fight and deliberately sought revenge on the Native Americans.

Black Elk, one of the few Lakota survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre, recalled in 1931: &ldquoI can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw 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&rsquos dream died there.&rdquo


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