125 years ago one of the final chapters of the conquest of the Native Peoples in the United States was carried out. It was on this day in 1890 in the frigid snow that troopers of the 7th Cavalry surrounded a starving band of Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota and opened up with deadly carbine and Hotchkiss gun fire. By the end of the day by the banks of Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, as many as 300 tribal members lay dead or dying, most of them women, children, and the infirm. Twenty-five troopers also died, 56 were injured and six of those later died—almost all from “friendly” cross fire during the chaotic “battle.”
The legendary Lakota medicine man Black Elk, who survived the massacre as a child, later wrote:
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.
Trouble had been brewing for years after the back of Indian resistance on the high plains was finally broken following the massacre of Col. George Armstrong Custer and members of the 7th Cavalry in 1876. The Lakota and their allies the Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe were forced to sign treaties ceding most of their remaining lands and were moved onto desolate reservations. They were promised generous annual payments and provision of food, blankets, and clothing to make up for their lost buffalo hunting economy. A parsimonious Congress and a corrupt system of Indian Agents failed continuously to make good on those promises. Attempts to convert the Lakota to farmers on the poor arid reservation land largely failed, especially after an extended drought in the last half of the 1880’s. Starvation and disease swept the reservations and annually hundreds died.
As a result of the increasing privation the Lakota nation welcomed and adopted the Ghost Dance preached by the Piute prophet, Wovoka also known as Jack Wilson. As originally conceived it was a ritual of spiritual cleansing and actually emphasized a common brotherhood among all people, including the Whites and emphasized pacifism. But the rapid spread of the movement frightened local settlers across the west. This alarm grew greater when a tribe in Utah introduced the Ghost Shirt to the movement, apparently inspired by the Mormon temple garments that protected wearers from harm.
The Lakota variation of the Ghost Dance was more militant than that practiced on the Southern plains and the Ghost Shirts were interpreted as having the power to stop bullets thus possibly making warriors invincible.
At the same time in the summer of 1890 the Great Sioux Reservation that had once encompassed most of western South Dakota including the sacred Black Hills and parts of adjacent Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, was broken up into five much smaller reservations with land being squatted on by White settlers given to them. Many Lakota living outside the new reservations were told to relocate or be labeled Hostiles and hunted down by the army.
|A contemporary illustration of a Ghost Dance on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Unlike other widely circulated images, this one captures the desperate physical condition of the the people.
Ghost dancing only intensified as a result. Alarmed settlers petitioned the War Department for protection. Against the advice of the senior Army officer on the Northern Plains, General Nelson A. Miles, the 7th Cavalry and other units including companies of Black Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched to the reservations to squelch the Ghost Dance and retrieve bands of renegades. Miles was particularly worried about the assignment of the 7th which harbored deep resentments for the Custer massacre.
Indian Agents and Army officers on the scene believed that Sitting Bull, the medicine man who had been the spiritual leader of the Lakota at the time of the fight on the Little Big Horn, was the mastermind behind the Dance. Although he approved, he seems to have had no leadership role in it. Indian Police were dispatched to Sitting Bull’s cabin on the Standing Rock Reservation on December 15, 1890 and in the chaotic struggle that followed the old man was killed along with several others on both sides.
News of Sitting Bull’s murder inflamed the Lakota. General Miles assessed the situation and wired Washington on December 19:
The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.
They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures.
The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.
His appeal for calm and for adequate rations to relieve starvation on the reservation fell on deaf ears.
|Spotted Elk called by Whites Big Foot
Some of Sitting Bulls Hunkpapa from the Standing Rock Reservation, fearing further reprisals from the Army or Indian Police, bolted to seek refuge with Spotted Elk—often called Big Foot by Whites—and his Miniconjou on the Cheyenne River Reservation. They were immediately declared Hostiles. When they arrived at Cheyenne River they found a band in even more desperate condition than themselves. Rations had not been issued in weeks. The Miniconjou were starving and had nothing to share with the new arrivals. Spotted Elk himself, like many of his band, was desperately sick with pneumonia. And by harboring their cousins, they had become de facto hostiles themselves.
On December 23 with three hundred of his own band and about 64 Hunkpapa, Spotted Elk made the desperate decision to jump his reservation and make a run to find refuge with the largest of the Lakota Bands—Red Cloud’s Oglala on the Pine Ridge. As a peace chief Red Cloud got marginally better payment of rations and it was hoped his influence with the whites would protect the runaways.
The Indian Agents at Standing Rock and Cheyenne River called on the Army to intercept the band. On December 28 elements of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Major Samuel Whitside intercepted Spotted Elk near Porcupine Butte. They surrendered without resistance but were not immediately disarmed. Instead they were force marched five miles through the snow to the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek where they were allowed to go into camp.
|Col. James Forsyth, 7th Cavalry.
That evening Col. James W. Forsyth and the rest of the 7th Cavalry arrived, bring the total troops on hand to over 500. Forsyth was a known Indian hater who had publicly advocated their extermination as the only solution to the “Indian Problem.”
Forsyth ordered the camp surrounded on all sides. He set up his four Hotchkiss guns, one to each side of the camp. At dawn he ordered troops into the camp to seize weapons and to prepare the Hostile for transportation by train to a place “outside the zone of military operations.” None of the old men were armed and 38 rifles were voluntarily surrendered before troopers began searching younger men for weapons.
When they came to Black Coyote, who was deaf and could not understand the commands of the soldiers, a struggle ensued for his rifle, which discharged in the struggle. A young warrior named Yellow Bird and five of his friends may have pulled rifles from under their blankets and opened fire on the troopers. Likely they did not, at least until after troopers began their indiscriminate fire into the exposed Indians. A brief melee including some close fighting lasted no more than five minutes.
But the panicked troops on the perimeter of the camp let loose indiscriminate fire from all sides, many rounds tearing into their own ranks. When resistance stopped, enraged troopers swarmed the “battle field” executing wounded men where they lay.
|The 7th Cavalry's rapid fire Hotchkiss guns which mowed down the Lakota at Wounded Knee--and many of their fellow troopers.
Hotchkiss gun fire raked the teepees where the women, children, sick and infirm were still hiding. Many tried to flee down a ravine. Those who stayed behind were burned alive in the tepees. Troopers pursued the fleeing women, as well as the few men who escaped chasing them for miles and executing them as they found them.
In a couple of hours it was all over. That evening a three day blizzard moved in freezing the corpses where they fell, including that of old, sick Spotted Elk contorted in pain.
|The corpse of Spotted Elk frozen to the ground three days after the massacre.
Three days later when the storm lifted General Miles arrived on the scene along with civilian workers hired to bury the dead. He was outraged by what he found and immediately relieved Col. Forsyth of command. As the contract workers scoured the prairie for the dead, they dug a long trench into which the corpses were unceremoniously dumped. The Cavalry dead were placed in caskets and prepared for an honorable military funeral.
Miles urged that Forsyth be court-martialed for dereliction of duty and for “completely losing control over his troops.” He freely shared his criticism with the press. None the less, most of the country, particularly in the West, approved of the action and regarded the Cavalry as heroes. A Court of Inquiry did find fault with Forsyth, but he was never charged. His command was restored and he continued to advance in the army, retiring with full honors as a Major General in 1897.
Twenty soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for the engagement, one of the highest percentages per troops engaged in any action in history.
|General Nelson A. Miles seen in 1898 as Commanding General of the Army was harshly critical of Col. Forsyth and the 7th Cavalry and pushed for a court martial.
General Miles’s career was temporarily damaged by his dogged criticism of Forsyth and of the Army’s performance that day. But he soldiered on. In 1893 he was placed in command of the troops that were called in to crush the Pullman Strike in Chicago. In 1895 he became Commanding General of the Army. Despite this staff command position, he elected to take to the field and command the operation which seized Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War, which he accomplished without the bloody battles in Cuba and the Philippines. Then he did double duty as the post-war military governor of the new possession. In 1900 he was made a three star Lt. General, the army’s highest possible peace time rank. When he retired from the Army still Commanding General in 1903, the post was abolished and replaced with the Army Chief of Staff—a star spangled military bureaucrat who would never, ever take to the field again. In 1925 he keeled over and died of a heart attack while watching a circus performance with his grandchildren.
As for the Lakota, well, so many of them were permanently good Indians at last—dead ones. The nation was crushed physically as well as spiritually. Survivors lived under virtual military occupation in shabby open air concentration camps for a couple of decades. Then they were allowed simply to rot, hopefully into oblivion.
In 1973 there was another nasty flare up and a new siege at Wounded Knee. The American Indian Movement briefly captured the nation’s attention. But it soon wandered.
Today the Pine Ridge Reservation is officially the poorest county in the United States. Unemployment hovers around 80. Alcoholism, sexually transmitted disease, chronic depression, and violence are epidemic. Life expectancy is decades shorter than the national norm. Allegedly benign neglect seems to be the official policy of administration after administration regardless of the party in the White House.
But I hear drums are beating there again. Can the ghost shirts be far behind?