The massacre at Wounded Knee: why did the US Army attack the Lakota Sioux?
The tragic events of 29 December 1890 are not a scar on American history, but, as the name of the small creek in South Dakota suggests, a gaping wound. Julian Humphrys explores why
Daniel F Royer was a nervous man. It was November 1890 and as the newly appointed agent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he was the representative for the US government’s dealings with the Lakota Sioux living there. Royer had little experience for the job and even less understanding of the ways of the Sioux peoples. They took to calling him ‘Young Man Afraid of Indians’. Royer had hoped to improve the lot of the Native Americans by encouraging them to adopt the ways of the white settlers, going so far as to bring his nephew in to teach them baseball. But an increasing number of the Sioux favoured a very different – and to Royer a very worrying – path to salvation: the Ghost Dance.
These were desperate times for the Lakota Sioux. The relentless westward march of white settlers had seen them driven from their traditional hunting grounds onto reservations, and the bison, vital to their way of life for the hides and meat, had been hunted virtually to extinction. The US government made them sign treaties to limit their freedoms and then broke them with impunity.
In 1889, they engineered the dismemberment of the Great Sioux Reservation, which covered the western half of South Dakota, in order to give approximately half the land to white settlers. The Lakota were left with just six smaller reservations. There was little to hunt, the soil was poor for farming and matters were made worse when the authorities miscalculated the additional supplies needed to survive the winter.
What led to the massacre at Wounded Knee?
Weakened by starvation and wracked by disease, many Sioux found solace in a new religion. Its origins lay in the teachings of Wovoka, a holy man from the Paiute people of Nevada. Having claimed to have had a vision during an eclipse of the sun, he foretold the resurrection of the dead, the return of the bison, the banishment of the white settlers and the revival of the Native American way of life.
His followers were to help bring this about by performing the Ghost Dance, a silent shuffle to the slow beat of a single drum. Wovoka’s message was a non-violent one, but as the Ghost Dance movement spread through the reservations and attempts by the authorities to ban it were ignored, many white settlers feared that it was the precursor to a major Native American uprising.
Daniel Royer was one of them. On 15 November, he sent the Commissioner for Indian Affairs the latest in a series of increasingly panicky telegrams: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. I have fully informed you that employees and government property at this agency have no protection and are at the mercy of these dancers. Why delay by further investigation?... The leaders should be arrested and confined in some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.”
Within days, 5,000 federal troops were heading for the South Dakota reservations under the overall command of General Nelson Miles.
A veteran of the American Civil War (who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during it), Miles was an experienced soldier. He had campaigned against Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse following their victory over Custer at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and subdued the Nez Perce tribe in the following year.
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Despite his concerns that military intervention would simply exacerbate an already tense situation, Miles ordered the arrest of several Sioux leaders. He was under no illusions about the root cause of the problem, writing: “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.
“The disaffection is widespread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life… unless the officers of the army can give some positive assurance that the government intends to act in good faith with these people, the loyal element will be diminished and the hostile element increased,” Miles concluded.
Before any acts of good faith, though, violence broke out on 15 December. Local agent James McLaughlin, wrongly believing that the legendary Hunkpapa Lakota chief Sitting Bull was a leader of the Ghost Dance movement, sent Indian agency police to arrest him at his home on the Standing Rock Reservation. When Sitting Bull refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered and shots were exchanged between the chief’s loyal and loving supporters and the police. By the time the gunfire subsided, 15 men lay dead – among them Sitting Bull himself.
Lost without their talismanic leader and fearful of reprisals, his supporters fled and headed for the neighbouring Cheyenne River Reservation to join the Miniconjou Lakota Sioux chief Spotted Elk. Although a man of peace, who always showed a willingness to compromise with the US authorities and discouraged violence against settlers, Spotted Elk (known by the white settlers as Big Foot) too feared arrests or attacks on his people. On 23 December, he and 350 of his followers – many of whom were women and children – set off southwards across the prairies and Badlands of South Dakota. Their goal was the Pine Ridge Reservation, where they hoped to secure the protection of the influential Oglaga Lakota leader Red Cloud. Along the way, Spotted Elk fell ill with pneumonia and was forced to travel in a wagon.
What were the Indian Wars?The encroachment of firstly European and then American and Canadian settlers onto territory long inhabited by Native American tribes would cause three centuries of warfare in North America.
Thanks to Hollywood, we tend to focus on the Plains Indian wars of the later 19th century, but there was considerable conflict elsewhere, notably in the 18th century when tribes would actually make the white interlopers their ally against a rival.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowed the US government to force Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to move to more sparsely populated lands in the west. As white settlers continued to migrate towards the Pacific – driven on by ‘Manifest Destiny’, the belief that Americans were destined by God to expand their dominion – the wars continued.
Defeated peoples had to sell or exchange territory and were confined to designated reservations. By 1900, the Native American population had declined to under 250,000.
Five days later, they were intercepted near a prominent landmark called Porcupine Butte by a detachment of the US 7th Cavalry under Major Samuel Whitside. Hoisting a white flag of truce, the Lakota offered no resistance and immediately surrendered. Whitside had been warned by one of his half-Sioux scouts not to attempt to disarm them immediately as it would almost certainly lead to violence, so he ordered his troopers to escort Spotted Elk’s band to a camping site at nearby Wounded Knee Creek. At this stage, there was no hint of the tragedy to come.
Whitside lent the Lakota the regimental ambulance to carry Spotted Elk to Wounded Knee, supplied them with extra tents and issued rations before everyone made camp for the night. Later that evening, Colonel James Forsyth arrived with the rest of the 7th Cavalry and took over command. To ensure none of Spotted Elk’s followers could slip away, his hundreds of troopers ringed the encampment and covered the position with four rapid-fire Hotchkiss mountain guns.
What happened at Wounded Knee?
Following an uneasy night, Forsyth ordered Spotted Elk’s men to assemble and demanded the surrender of all firearms. As he was unable to stand, the ailing Spotted Elk had to be propped up on the ground outside his tent. A search of the camp yielded 38 rifles, and then the soldiers searched individual Lakota. It was at this point that things went suddenly wrong.
The scene grew increasingly tense when a medicine man named Yellow Bird began the Ghost Dance. It stirred up some of the young Lakota men, who were unwilling to hand over their weapons, which were not only expensive, but their best chance of feeding their families. One man, Black Coyote, held onto his rifle – possibly because he was deaf and hadn’t heard or understood the order to surrender it – and as soldiers tried to wrestle the weapon from his grasp, a shot rang out and carnage followed.
Forsyth’s men immediately began shooting into the surrounded Lakota. Caught in close-range crossfire, many of Spotted Elk’s men died there and then, while a number of soldiers fell after being hit by bullets fired by their comrades. The surviving Lakota grabbed what weapons they could find and fought back, but, outnumbered and outgunned, they stood little chance in the confused melee. To add to the panic and horror, Forsyth’s out-of-control men turned to the Hotchkiss guns, filling the air with earth-shaking booms, smoke and exploding shells that ripped through both Lakota and soldiers.
The women and children, who had been separated from their menfolk, attempted to run for their wagons and horses or fled on foot, but, for most, there was no escape. Some were slain by rifle fire or the Hotchkiss guns, while others were hunted down as anyone and everyone fell victim to the indiscriminate bloodletting.
Later, a Lakota chief named American Horse reported: “A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed.
“All the Indians fled in these three directions and after most all of them had been killed, a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”
In less than an hour, it was all over. Spotted Elk lay dead, together with hundreds of his followers. As many as 300 may have been slaughtered, dozens of them women and children. The soldiers lost 25 dead and 39 wounded, mostly as a result of their own fire. Forsyth’s men gathered up their dead and wounded, and took around 50 surviving Lakota to the Agency on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A severe blizzard was approaching, so no attempt was made to bury the bodies of the dead Lakota. They were left where they fell on the frozen ground.
In fact, there was still more violence to come the very next day. When Forsyth’s 7th Cavalry rode to investigate reports that a catholic mission on the reservation had been burned down, they found themselves pinned down in a valley by hostile Lakota and Brulé Sioux and had to be rescued by the black ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ of the 9th Cavalry. From then on, the soldiers remained at the Pine Ridge Agency until 3 January, concerned that further revenge attacks may be mounted against them. That day, a civilian burial party rode under military escort to Wounded Knee and buried nearly 150 now-frozen bodies in a single mass grave. More dead were found and buried later.
General Nelson Miles, the man in overall command, was appalled when he heard about what had happened. Writing to his wife, he described Wounded Knee as “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children”.
He relieved Forsyth and demanded an inquiry. His own report was so damning that even his own secretary suggested he tone it down, but the authorities would have none of it. They replaced Miles’s report with their own, blaming the Lakota and recasting the soldiers in the roles of heroes. Forsyth was exonerated and reinstated (eventually retiring as a major-general in 1897). Miles spent the rest of his life campaigning for compensation payments to the survivors.
What was the American reaction to the Wounded Knee Massacre?
Some took a grim view of the massacre, which was initially dubbed a battle. As the burial party got to work, the editor of South Dakota's The Aberdeen Pioneer, wrote: "The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untameable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past."
The writer was L Frank Baum, who, 10 years later, penned one of history's best-loved children's stories, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The site of the massacre (few now call it a battle) is aptly named, as Wounded Knee has left a still-open wound in the American psyche. Its legacy is fear and hatred, and it marked the effective end of the Native American attempt to preserve their way of life.
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Speaking some 40 years later, a survivor called Black Elk recalled: “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 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.”
How many Medals of Honor were awarded after the Wounded Knee Massacre?
No fewer than 20 Medals of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States, were subsequently awarded to troopers of the 7th Cavalry present at Wounded Knee. A further 12 were given to soldiers involved in other aspects of the campaign.
Although the Medal of Honor was a far more common award in the 19th century than it is today, it has been argued that the issue of so many for Wounded Knee is evidence of the government’s determination at the time to present the massacre in as favourable a light as possible. Following a review of the award in 1916, over 900 Medals of Honor were rescinded for various reasons, and there have been repeated calls for the Wounded Knee medals to follow this example.
Wounded Knee 1973
Wounded Knee was once again propelled to the forefront of national consciousness in February 1973, when the hamlet there was occupied by 200 Oglaga Lakota and the radical American Indian Movement (AIM).
The protestors, who chose Wounded Knee for its symbolic value, demanded the removal of Oglaga tribal leader Dick Wilson, who they accused of corruption, and an inquiry into the US government's failures to honour treaties made with Native American tribes.
Wilson responded by laying siege to Wounded Knee, with the backing of the government. During the ten-week stand-off, law enforcement officers and AIM members regularly exchanged gunfire. Two Native Americans were killed and a federal marshal was permanently paralysed before the AIM leaders finally surrendered on 8 May.
Although failing to bring about the demanded changes, the occupation made headlines worldwide and drew attention to the problems of modern Native Americans, which inspired other groups and causes.
This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed