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The slaughter of some 300 Lakota men, women and children by U.S. Army troops in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre marked a tragic coda to decades of violent confrontations between the United States and Plains Indians.
In the years leading up to the massacre, the Indigenous Lakota Sioux had suffered a generation of broken treaties and shattered dreams. After white settlers poured into the Dakota Territory following the 1874 discovery of gold in the Black Hills, they seized millions of acres of land and nearly annihilated the native buffalo population. As their traditional hunting grounds evaporated and culture eroded, the Lakota, who once roamed as free as the bison on the Great Plains, found themselves mostly confined to government reservations.
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Throughout 1890, the Lakota endured droughts and epidemics of measles, whooping cough and influenza. “The Lakota were very distraught at that time,” says Lakota historian Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College and a descendant of both survivors and victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre. “They lost massive amounts of land under the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, and many of them were dealing with the recent surrender to the reservation system, which forbade the Sun Dance, their most important religious ceremony, and required permission to leave.”
A glimmer of hope, however, arose with a religious movement that swept across the Great Plains. The Ghost Dance movement, which first appeared in Nevada around 1870, gained popularity among the Lakota after its 1889 revival by the Paiute prophet Wovoka. Its adherents believed that participants in a ritual circular dance would usher in a utopian future in which a cataclysm would destroy the United States, eradicate white colonists from the continent and bring about the resurrection of everything they had lost—their land, their buffalo herds and even their dead ancestors.
Wearing white muslin shirts that they believed would protect against danger and even repel bullets, nearly one-third of the Lakota had joined the messianic movement by the winter of 1890. “They saw the Ghost Dance as a panacea,” Sprague says. “All these great transitions were happening in their lives, and they thought this new religion offered them something.”
As the Ghost Dance movement spread, frightened white settlers believed it a prelude to an armed uprising. “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” federal agent Daniel F. Royer telegrammed U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in November 1890. “We need protection, and we need it now.”
“This is a big problem on the reservations because federal agents thought those who danced were going on the warpath, like the stereotype,” Sprague says. “I suppose the authorities did think they were crazy—but they weren’t,” a Lakota at Pine Ridge later recalled. “They were only terribly unhappy.”
The federal government banned Ghost Dance ceremonies and mobilized the largest military deployment since the Civil War. General Nelson Miles arrived on the prairie with part of the 7th Cavalry, which had been annihilated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn 14 years earlier, and ordered the arrest of tribal leaders suspected of promoting the Ghost Dance movement.
When Indian police attempted to take Chief Sitting Bull into custody on the Standing Rock Reservation on December 15, 1890, the noted Sioux leader was killed in the ensuing melee. With a military warrant out for his arrest, Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Spotted Elk (sometimes referred to as Chief Big Foot), fled Standing Rock with a band of Lakota for the Pine Ridge Reservation more than 200 miles away on the opposite side of the state.
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On December 28, the U.S. cavalry caught up with Spotted Elk and his group of mostly elders, women and children near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, which winds through the prairies and Badlands of southwest South Dakota. The American forces arrested Spotted Elk—who was too ill with pneumonia to sit up, let alone walk—and positioned their Hotchkiss guns on a rise overlooking the Lakota camp.
As tensions flared and a bugle blared the following morning—December 29—American soldiers mounted their horses and surrounded the Lakota. A medicine man who started to perform the ghost dance cried out, “Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us.” He implored the heavens to scatter the soldiers like the dust he threw into the air.
The cavalry, however, went tipi to tipi seizing axes, rifles and other weapons. As a soldier attempted to wrestle a weapon out of the hands of a Lakota, a gunshot suddenly rang out. It was not clear which side shot first, but within seconds the American soldiers launched a hailstorm of bullets from rifles, revolvers and the rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns that tore through the Lakota.
Spotted Elk was shot where he lay on the ground. Boys who only moments before were playing leapfrog were mowed down. Through the dust and smoke, women and children dove for cover in a ravine. “Remember Custer!” one cavalryman cried out as soldiers executed the defenseless at point-blank range.
When the shooting stopped hours later, bodies were strewn in the gulch. Some were breathing, most not. Victims who had been hunted down while trying to flee were found three miles away. Some had been stripped of their sacred shirts as macabre souvenirs. At least 150 Lakota (historians such as Sprague put the number at twice as high) were killed along with 25 American soldiers, who were mostly struck down by friendly fire. Two-thirds of the victims were women and children.
The dead were carried to the nearby Episcopal church and laid in two rows underneath festive wreaths and other Christmas decorations. Days later a burial party arrived, dug a pit and dumped the frozen bodies in a mass grave.
“To add insult to injury, some of the survivors were taken to Fort Sheridan in Illinois to be imprisoned for being at Wounded Knee,” Sprague says, until William “Buffalo Bill” Cody took custody of them for inclusion in his Wild West Show. “The show was not a positive portrayal of their people, but it beat sitting in a jail cell.”
Although Miles, who wasn’t present at Wounded Knee, called the carnage “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children,” the U.S. Army awarded the Medal of Honor, its highest commendation, to 20 members of the 7th Cavalry who participated in the bloodbath.
“When I look back now from this high hill of my old age,” survivor Black Elk 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 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.”
It was not the last time blood flowed next to Wounded Knee Creek. In February 1973, activists with the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the site for 71 days to protest the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. The standoff resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans.