1890 Wounded Knee Massacre
On December 29, 1890, the troops of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry slaughtered nearly 300 men, women and children at the Pine Ridge Reservation community of Wounded Knee. The people of Sitanka (Big Foot) were traveling from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation under a white flag of truce. They were stopped at Wounded Knee and surrounded. And then the slaughter started.
One story says that a Lakota man stood and raised a rifle above his head holding it horizontally with both hands. A soldier yelled at him to drop the weapon. When the warrior did not obey immediately, he was shot in the back by another soldier. Some say that it was learned much later that the Indian with the rifle was deaf.
That first shot opened the floodgates and the Hotchkiss machine guns positioned on the hill above Wounded Knee ripped bullets into the unarmed Indian men, women and children. The women shielded the children with their bodies and in turn were torn to shreds by the high-powered bullets.
One first hand recollection was that of a Lakota woman treated by an Indian physician named Dr. Charles Eastman after the slaughter. She would later die of her wounds. However, before she died she told Dr. Eastman she hid in a clump of bushes to get away from the deadly gunfire. When two terrified little girls came running by she grabbed them and pulled them into the bushes.
She put her hand over their mouths to keep them silent, but when she looked up, there was an American soldier on horseback looking down at them. He aimed his rifle at one little girl and fired. He calmly reloaded and fired into the other little girl. As the woman cringed in terror, he reloaded once more and shot her. She feigned death and although badly wounded, lived long enough to give her eye-witness account to Dr. Eastman.
Unbelievably 21 soldiers engaged in this wholesale slaughter of innocent Lakota men, women and children were awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor. What gallant deeds had they done to deserve such a distinguished award? It is believed that the 25 soldiers who perished in the brief encounter were victims of the deadly crossfire brought down upon them by their own comrades. On March 16, 1968 U. S, Army troops slaughtered between 347 to 504 innocent Vietnamese at a place called Mai Lai. Did any of these soldiers get the Medal of Honor?
The tiospaye (extended family or camp) of Sitanka had fled to the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking the protection of Chief Red Cloud. Because Sitanka had sanctioned the practice of a new religion called the Ghost Dance, he believed he and his followers were in danger. After all, hadn’t Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa been assassinated by tribal police led by Bull Head up on the Standing Rock Reservation just 14 days ago for practicing the Ghost Dance?
The Ghost Dance had been brought to the Lakota through the teachings of a Paiute medicine man known as Wovoka. It taught that the buffalo herds would soon return and the Lakota would return to their days of power. The Lakota had seen much death among their people and one of the most intriguing aspects of the Ghost Dance was that the participants would see their departed loved ones once more.
The Ghost Dance religious belief was not one of violence, but of pacifism. And yet, the newspapers of the day quickly took it upon themselves to condemn this religious practice labeling it as that of zealot’s intent upon killing all of the white people.
To kill a religious belief, Sitting Bull was murdered. Big Foot and his band next became the victims of the white man’s fear of this new religion.
As a young boy I lived at Wounded Knee. My father worked as a clerk at the Wounded Knee Trading Post .When I wandered off by myself playing the games small boys play or riding a tricycle with my friend Joanne Gildersleeve, the daughter of the people who owned the trading post, we listened to the chirping of the birds in the trees around Wounded Knee Creek, we often had an uneasy feeling as if there were other children present in those woods.
And, also ironically, there are Lakota alive today that had relatives still living on this day of infamy. My grandmother Sophie Giago was working at Holy Rosary Mission, about 10 miles from Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 and she was ordered, along with the other employees and students, to help feed and water the horses of the troopers from the 7th Cavalry as they rode on to the Mission grounds looking for stragglers. She recalled that some of them had bloody uniforms.
In 1990 on the 100th anniversary of the massacre Birgil Kills Straight, Alex White Plume and Jim Garrett organized a ride that followed the exact trail of Sitanka and finished the ride at the mass grave site where a ceremony known to the Lakota as “Wiping away the tears,” was held.
Because of Birgil, Alex and Jim, I editorially challenged Governor George Mickelson, then governor of South Dakota, to honor the victims at Wounded Knee by introducing a bill to remove Columbus Day as a state holiday and replace it with Native American Day and to initiate a Year of Reconciliation between Indians and whites. In the spirit of Wounded Knee the bill was submitted before the 100th anniversary and passed by the South Dakota legislature. Sometimes something good does come from something bad. South Dakota remains the only state in the union to have a state sanctioned holiday to honor Native Americans. In this red state, who would have thought it was possible.
Ironically, an editor of an Aberdeen, South Dakota newspaper wrote an editorial just 6 days after the massacre calling for the total annihilation of all Sioux Indians. His name was L. Frank Baum and he later wrote a book called The Wizard of Oz. His call for genocide of the Sioux was comparable to the call for the slaughter of the Jews in a book penned by Adolph Hitler called “Mein Kampf.” Baum is honored all over America for his wonderful children’s book even though he was a promoter of genocide. The hatred and guilt associated with America’s feelings about American Indians precludes the condemnation of L. Frank Baum because after all it was no crime in 1890 to kill Indians.
Sidney H. Byrd, an elderly Dakota man in his 90s, wrote an article about the Indian version of Wounded Knee. He lived near there as a young boy and often asked questions of the elder survivors of that massacre.
Byrd always concludes his story with; “Sometimes the wind blows over the hilltops at Wounded Knee Creek and moans its mournful death song for the heroes of Big Foot’s band resting peacefully in the bosom of Mother Earth. The guns of the soldiers are silent now as are the moans and groans of the Indians who died there. Little children laugh and play on the grass hillside oblivious to what happened there one cold winter day many years ago. Ho, mitakoyapi, iyuskinyan nape ciyuzapi yelo (My grandchildren, I give you my hand of friendship).”