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Wounded Knee Massacre

Mass grave for the dead Lakota after massacre at Wounded Knee
Location Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota
Date December 29, 1890
Attack type Massacre
Death(s) 84 men, 44 women, 18 children
Perpetrator(s) 350 troops of the U.S. 7th Cavalry

The Wounded Knee Massacre or the Battle of Wounded Knee was the last armed conflict between the Great Sioux Nation and the United States of America and of the Indian Wars.

On December 29, 1890, 365 troops of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, supported by four Hotchkiss guns, surrounded an encampment of Miniconjou (Lakota) and Hunkpapa Sioux (Lakota) near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.[1] The Sioux had been cornered and agreed to turn themselves in at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. They were the very last of the Sioux to do so. They were met by the 7th Cavalry, who intended to disarm them and ensure their compliance.

During the process of disarming the Sioux, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote could not hear the order to give up his rifle and was reluctant to do so.[2] A scuffle over Black Coyote's rifle escalated into an all-out battle, with those few Sioux warriors who still had weapons shooting at the 7th Cavalry, and the 7th Cavalry opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troopers. The 7th Cavalry quickly suppressed the Sioux fire, and the surviving Sioux fled, but U.S. cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed.

By the time it was over, about 146 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed. Twenty-five troopers also died, some believed to have been the victims of friendly fire as the shooting took place at point blank range in chaotic conditions.[3] Around 150 Lakota are believed to have fled the chaos. Despite the brevity and inequality of the fighting, the U.S. Army awarded more Medals of Honor for action at Wounded Knee than for any other engagement in the history of the US Army.[4]

The site has been designated a National Historic Landmark.[5]



Map of Wounded Knee

On March 2, 1889, the U.S. Congress enacted a law dividing the Great Sioux Reservation of South Dakota, an area that formerly encompassed the majority of the state, into five smaller reservations.[6] This was done to accommodate homesteaders from the east. It also carried out the government's policy of "breaking up tribal relationships"[7] and "conforming Indians to the white man's ways, peaceably if they will, or forcibly if they must".[7] Once on the half-sized reservations, tribes were separated into family units on 320-acre (1.3 km2) plots, forced to farm, raise livestock, and send their children to boarding schools that forbade inclusion of traditional Native American culture and language[citation needed].

To support the Sioux during this period of transition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was responsible for supplying the Sioux with food (they were traditionally a hunter-gatherer society) and hiring White American farmers to teach them agriculture. But the Bureau was notoriously corrupt, its agents embezzling the money intended to buy supplies for the Indians; the meager and third-rate supplies that it provided to the Sioux were inadequate to support them.[8] The farming plan also failed to take into account the difficulty Sioux farmers would have in trying to cultivate crops in the semi-arid region of South Dakota. By the end of the 1890 growing season, a time of intense heat and low rainfall, it was clear that the land was unable to produce substantial agricultural yields.

U.S. officers at scene of Wounded Knee, Buffalo Bill, Capt. Baldwin, Gen. Nelson A. Miles, Capt. Moss, and others, on horseback

This, however, was when government officials' patience with supporting the so-called "lazy Indians" ran out. They cut rations to the Sioux in half. As American bison had been nearly eradicated from the North American Plains a few years earlier, the Sioux began to starve. Tribal members turned to spiritual revival, and many performed the Ghost Dance religious ceremony. Supervising agents of the BIA were alarmed at the activity. They requested and were granted thousands more troops deployed to the reservation.[9]

A reenactment of the U.S. troops surrounding the Lakota at Wounded Knee. The photograph shows the Lakota encampment in the foreground with a short line of U.S. troops in the background. Taken November 10, 1913.

Ghost Dance

Wovoka – Paiute spiritual leader and creator of the Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance was a form of circle or spirit dancing which, according to contemporary anthropologist James Mooney, had existed for centuries.[citation needed] It is a religious ceremony that participants believe would allow their dead relatives to come back, and that the world will be restored. In some places that restoration included the removal of all white people from their lands. Paiute prophet Wovoka reported in 1888 that the Great Spirit had spoken to him in a vision, asking him to take the message to all Indian tribes that performing the Ghost Dance would bring about a renewal of the earth, the return of the buffalo, and their deceased loved ones would live again. Wovoka preached peace, saying that God asked Indians not to fight each other or the white man. ("You must not fight. Do right always.") Tribal leaders met with Wovoka and took the message home. Many people began to hold Ghost Dances because of Wovoka's message. The movement spread to the Plains and beyond. All tribes adopted Wovoka's advice against violence.[citation needed]

Ghost Dancing was a spiritual ceremony; however, some U.S. Indian agents for other tribes misinterpreted it as a war dance. This was distant from the pacifistic teachings of the Pauite prophet Wovoka [10]. Fearing that the Ghost Dance philosophy signalled an Indian uprising, many agents outlawed it.

On November 15, 1890,[11] believing that a renewal of the earth would take place in the coming spring, the Lakota of Pine Ridge and Rosebud defied their agent, Daniel F. Royer, whom they called Young-Man-Afraid-of-Indians due to his inexperience, and continued to hold dance rituals. Lakota delegations to Wovoka's Paiute reserve had reinterpreted Wovoka's message to suggest that the whites would disappear —they would be exterminated by the Messiah[12]— and that the renewed earth would be for Indians alone[13]. Royer interpreted their dance as a threat and immediately contacted the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.[11] Within 5 days, armed U.S. troops arrived with heavy artillery that sent the Ghost Dancers into a panic and they quickly retreated back to the Pine Ridge Reservation where they continued to dance.[11] Lakota Ghost Dancers wore Ghost Shirts, specially consecrated garments which they believed rendered them impervious to harm from rifle bullets when in battle against the whites</ref>(Utley, p. 86)</ref>. Devotees were dancing to pitches of excitement that frightened the government employees. "[T]he Sioux apostles had perverted Wovoka's doctrine into a militant crusade against the white man." [14] White settlers became panicked. Pine Ridge agent Royer called for military help to restore order with the Indians and calm white settlers.[citation needed]

Spotted Elk

Spotted Elk, (Heȟáka Glešká {Cheyenne} or Hoh-pong-ge-le-skah {Lakota}) who later became known as 'Big Foot' or 'Si Tȟaŋka' in a 1872 portrait taken while part of a Dakota delegation visiting Washington D.C.
Spotted Elk's band of Miniconjou Sioux in regalia at a dance Cheyenne River, South Dakota, August 9, 1890

On December 15, 1890, 40 Indian policemen arrived at Chief Sitting Bull's camp, prepared to follow orders to arrest him after he threatened to join the Ghost Dancers in protest against reservation life.[11] Crowds gathered to protest the arrest, and the first shot was fired when Sitting Bull tried to pull away from his captors,[11] killing the officer who had been holding him. Shots broke out and by the end Sitting Bull, along with eight other Native Americans and six policemen were dead.[11] After Sitting Bull's death, refugees from his tribe fled in fear. They joined Sitting Bull's half brother, Chief Spotted Elk (later known as "Big Foot"), at a reservation at Cheyenne River. Unaware that Big Foot had renounced the Ghost Dance, General Nelson A. Miles ordered him to move his people to a nearby fort.

On December 28, 1890, Spotted Elk became seriously ill with pneumonia. The tribe set off to seek shelter with Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation. On December 29 Big Foot's band was intercepted by Major Samuel Whitside and his battalion of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment. Ill with pneumonia, Spotted Elk surrendered peacefully and the cavalry took him and his band into custody. They were escorted five miles (8 km) westward to a site near Wounded Knee Creek, where they were to set up camp. The campsite was already established with a store and several log houses. There, Colonel James W. Forsyth arrived to take command and ordered his guards to place four Hotchkiss guns in position around the camp. The soldiers numbered around 500. There were 350 Native Americans; all but 120 were women and children.

There is some controversy as to exactly how many Native Americans were killed during this conflict. Estimates range from 146 to 200.

The massacre

The scene three weeks afterward, with several bodies partially wrapped in blankets in the foreground.

On December 28, 1890, Chief Spotted Elk (later to be known as "Big Foot") of the Miniconjojou Sioux nation and 350 of his followers were intercepted by James W. Forsyth and a squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment as they camped along Wounded Knee Creek. The Indians were on their way to the Pine Ridge Reservation, in hopes of persuading the warriors at Stronghold to surrender.[15] During the night more soldiers arrived at the camp and began to set up their artillery; four powerful Hotchkiss guns capable of rapid fire were placed along the south and west hills surrounding Spotted Elk's camp.[16]

At daybreak on December 29, 1890, Col. Forsyth ordered the surrender of weapons and the immediate removal and transportation of the Indians from the "zone of military operations" to awaiting trains. Angered by the demands of the troops, Yellow Bird, a tribal medicine man, began dancing, and urged his people to put on their sacred shirts and defy the demands of the troops. At that moment Black Coyote, a young warrior, raised his gun in protest shouting that he had paid money for his weapon and was not going to just give it to anyone.

Forsyth's troops surrounded Black Coyote to disarm him and a struggle ensued. During the struggle Black Coyote's firearm rang out. With the sounding of gun shots the troops began shooting at the Indians, many of whom were unarmed.[17]

Birds-eye view of canyon at Wounded Knee, dead horses and Lakota bodies are visible.

At first the struggle was fought at close range; fully half the Indian men were killed or wounded before they had a chance to get off any shots. Some of the Indians grabbed rifles they had been hiding and opened fire on the soldiers. With no cover, and with many of the Sioux unarmed, this phase of the fighting lasted a few minutes at most. While the Indian warriors and soldiers were shooting at close range, other soldiers used the Hotchkiss guns against the tipi camp full of women and children. It is believed that many of the troops on the battlefield were victims of friendly fire from their own Hotchkiss guns. The Indian women and children fled the camp, seeking shelter in a nearby ravine from the crossfire.[15] The officers had lost all control of their men. Some of the soldiers fanned out to run across the battlefield and finish off wounded Indians. Others leaped onto their horses and pursued the Lakota (men, women and children), in some cases for miles across the prairies. By the end of the fighting, which lasted less than an hour, at least 150 Lakota had been killed and 50 wounded. Army casualties numbered 25 dead and 39 wounded.

Specific details of what triggered the fight are debated, with the above being a summary from multiple accounts. According to historian Robert M. Utley, a medicine man named Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance, reiterating his assertion to the Lakota that the ghost shirts were bulletproof. As tension mounted Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle; he was deaf and had not understood the order. Another Indian said: "Black Coyote is deaf." (He did not speak English). When the soldier refused to heed his warning, he said "Stop! He cannot hear your orders!" At that moment, two soldiers seized Black Coyote from behind, and in the struggle (it is believed but not necessarily accurate that), his rifle discharged. At the same moment Yellow Bird threw some dust into the air, and approximately five young Lakota men with concealed weapons threw aside their blankets and pointed their rifles at Troop K of the 7th. The Lakota opened fire on the soldiers and did damage; a massive volley was returned back at the tribe.[18]

According to commanding Gen. Nelson A. Miles, a "scuffle occurred between one warrior who had [a] rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Spotted Elk, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed."[19] The military hired civilians to bury the dead Lakota after an intervening snowstorm had abated. Arriving at the battleground, the burial party found the deceased frozen in contorted positions. They were gathered up and placed in a common grave. It was reported that four infants were found alive, wrapped in their deceased mothers' shawls. In all, 84 men, 44 women, and 18 children reportedly died on the field, while at least seven Lakota were mortally wounded.

Burial of the victims
Wounded Knee grave, 2003

Following the massacre that day, U.S. soldiers left the wounded Native Americans to die in a three-day blizzard.[20] They later hired civilians to remove the bodies and bury them in a mass grave.[20]

In 1903 a monument was erected at the site of the mass grave by surviving relatives to honor the "many innocent women and children who knew no wrong..."[20] who were killed in the massacre. Some family members are still seeking compensation from the U.S. government as heirs of the victims, but they have been unsuccessful in receiving any monetary settlement.

Beginning in 1986 a group began the Big Foot Memorial Riders to continue to honor the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre, specifically Chief Spotted Elk.[20] This ceremony has grown increasingly larger every year since then, and riders subject themselves to the cold weather, as well as the lack of food and water that their family members faced. They carry with them a white flag to symbolize their hope for world peace, and to continue to honor and remember the victims so that they will not be forgotten.


"Return of Casey's scouts from the fight at Wounded Knee, 1890–91.".

General Nelson Miles denounced Colonel Forsyth and relieved him of command. An exhaustive Army Court of Inquiry convened by Miles criticized Forsyth for his tactical dispositions but otherwise exonerated him of responsibility. The Court of Inquiry, however, was not conducted as a formal court-martial. Without the legal boundaries of that format, several of the witnesses minimized their statements to protect themselves or peers.[citation needed] The Secretary of War concurred with the decision and reinstated Forsyth to command of the 7th Cavalry. Testimony indicated that for the most part troops attempted to avoid non-combatant casualties. Nevertheless, Miles ignored the results of the Court of Inquiry and continued to criticize Forsyth, whom he believed had deliberately disobeyed his commands in order to destroy the Indians. Forsyth attempted to show compassion on that day, costing troopers their lives and angering Miles. Miles promoted the conclusion that Wounded Knee was a deliberate massacre rather than a tragedy caused by poor decisions, in an effort to destroy the career of Forsyth. This was later understood and Forsyth was promoted Major General.[21]

The American public's reaction to the battle at the time was generally favorable. The Army awarded twenty Medals of Honor, its highest award, for the action. When the awards were reviewed a decade later, Miles supported them.[citation needed]

Portrait of General L. W. Colby of Nebraska State Troops holding Zintkala Nuni (Little Lost Bird), found on the Wounded Knee battlefield, South Dakota, 1890.

In the 21st century, Native American activists have urged the medals be withdrawn, as they say they were "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 that condemned the Medals of Honor awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them.[22]

It is to be noted that one Medal of Honor was awarded to a commander who did not return fire when fired upon by women and children who were armed.[citation needed]

Historian Will G. Robinson noted that in contrast, only three Medals of Honor were awarded to men among the 64,000 South Dakotans who fought for four years of the World War II.[23]

Many non-Lakota living near the reservations interpreted the battle as the defeat of a murderous cult; others confused Ghost Dancers with Native Americans in general. In an editorial response to the event, the young newspaper editor L. Frank Baum, later the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891:

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.[24]

More than 80 years after the massacre, beginning on February 27, 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 71-day standoff between federal authorities and militants of the American Indian Movement.

Skirmish at Drexel Mission

Wounded Knee hill

Historically, Wounded Knee is generally considered to be the end of the collective multi-century series of conflicts between colonial and U.S. forces and American Indians, known collectively as the Indian Wars. It led to a dramatic decline in the Ghost Dance movement; however, it was not the last armed conflict between Native Americans and the United States.

A related skirmish took place at Drexel Mission the day after the Battle of Wounded Knee. One soldier died and six were wounded from K Troop, 7th Cavalry. Lakota casualties were not recorded. After news of Wounded Knee reached them, Lakota Ghost Dancers from bands which had surrendered, fled, burning several buildings at the mission as they left. They ambushed a squadron of the 7th Cavalry that responded to the incident and pinned it down until a relief force from the 9th Cavalry arrived. The 9th had been trailing the Lakota from the White River. Lieutenant James D. Mann, who had been a key participant in the outbreak of firing at Wounded Knee, died of his wounds 17 days later at Ft. Riley, Kansas, on January 15, 1891. The Drexel Mission skirmish is often overlooked.

Popular culture

The phrase "bury my heart at Wounded Knee" comes from the 1931 poem "American Names" by Stephen Vincent Benet. The poem is about Benet's love of American place names and makes no reference to the battle. However, when the line was used as the title of a 1970 book—Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by historian Dee Brown—it became popularly attached to the incident. Brown's book raised awareness of the massacre and became a bestseller, and Benet's phrase has since been used many times in songs and other references to the battle. Perhaps the best known is "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", written by Buffy Sainte-Marie and featured on her 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories

Other artists who have written or recorded songs referring to the massacre at Wounded Knee include Johnny Cash (1972's "Big Foot", which like many of Cash's songs about Native Americans is strongly sympathetic); The Indigo Girls (a cover of Sainte-Marie's song); Nik Kershaw ("Wounded Knee" on his 1989 album "The Works"); Southern Death Cult ("Moya"); The Waterboys ("Bury My Heart"), Uriah Heep, Primus, Five Iron Frenzy, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Marty Stuart, and Bright Eyes.

In 1973, the American rock band Redbone, formed by half-Native Americans Patrick and Lolly Vasquez, released the politically oriented song "We were all wounded at Wounded Knee". The song ends with the subtly altered sentence, "We were all wounded by Wounded Knee". The song reached the number one chart position across Europe. In the U.S., the song was initially withheld from release and then banned by several radio stations.[citation needed]

The 1992 video game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time included a Wild West level named "Bury My Shell at Wounded Knee".

In 1992, the film Thunderheart starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene combined a modern era crime-story with spiritual allusions to both the massacre in 1890 and a fictional version of the Wounded Knee incident in 1973 on the Sioux reservation.

Petri Hiltunen's 2000 graphic novel Aavetanssi (Ghost Dance in Finnish) depicted the massacre from a Native American point of view.

The 2004 film Hidalgo has a brief passage about the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

The 2005 film Into the West included a re-enactment of the massacre.

In 2007 HBO Films released a film adaptation of the Dee Brown bestseller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.


  1. ^ Liggett, Lorie (1998). "Wounded Knee Massacre - An Introduction". Bowling Green State University. Retrieved 2007-03-02. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Strom, Karen (1995). "The Massacre at Wounded Knee". Karen Strom. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "National Historic Landmarks Program: Wounded Knee". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-01-10. 
  6. ^ *Kehoe, B Alice "The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization", Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, p. 15. Thompson publishing; 1989
  7. ^ a b Wallace, Anthony F. C. "Revitalization Movements: Some Theoretical Considerations for Their Comparative Study", American Anthropologist, n.s. 58(2):264-81. 1956.
  8. ^ Stephen Dando-Collins (2005), Standing Bear is a Person: The True Story of A Native American's Quest for Justice, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0306814412, p. 27.
  9. ^ Mooney, James, "The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee", originally published as "The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890" as part of the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1896. 1973 Dover edition.
  10. ^ (Utley, p. 73)
  11. ^ a b c d e f Viola, Herman J. Trail to Wounded Knee: The Last Stand of the Plains Indians 1860-1890. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2003.
  12. ^ Utley, p. 73
  13. ^ (Mooney, p. 820)
  14. ^ (Utley, p. 87)
  15. ^ a b Bateman, Robert (June 2008), "Wounded Knee", Military History 24 (4): 62–67 .
  16. ^ Axelrod, Alan. (1993) Chronicles of the Indian Wars: From Colonial Times to Wounded Knee. (p. 254).
  17. ^ Phillips, Charles. December 29, 1890. American History. Dec 2005 40(5) pp. 16-68.
  18. ^ Utley, Robert (1963). "The Last Days of the Sioux Nation". Yale University Press. Retrieved 2007-08-04. 
  19. ^ [ "Doctor Sally Wagner Testifies At Wounded Knee Hearings, Part One"].
  20. ^ a b c d Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., Trudy Thomas, and Jeanne Eder. Wounded Knee: Lest We Forget. Billings, Montana: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1990.
  21. ^ Ostler, Jeffrey. (2004) The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. (p. 354).
  22. ^
  23. ^ Doctor Sally Wagner Testifies At Wounded Knee Hearings Part Two.
  24. ^ Baum's "Genocide" Editorials.

Further reading

  • Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Owl Books (1970). ISBN 0-8050-6669-1.
  • Coleman, William S.E. Voices of Wounded Knee, University of Nebraska Press (2000). ISBN 0-8032-1506-1.
  • Smith, Rex Alan. Moon of Popping Trees, University of Nebraska Press (1981). ISBN 0-8032-9120-5.
  • Utley, Robert M. Last Days of the Sioux Nation, Yale University Press (1963).
  • Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier 1846-1890, University of New Mexico Press (2003). ISBN 0-8263-2998-5.
  • Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars The United States Army and the Indian 1866-1891, MacMillan Publishing (1973). ISBN 0-8032-9551-0.
  • Yenne, Bill. Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West, Westholme (2005). ISBN 1-59416-016-3.
  • Champlin, Tim. A Trail To Wounded Knee : A Western Story, Five Star (2001). ISBN 0-7826-2401-0.

External links


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