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126 Years On

December 16, 2016

December 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Creek (Lakota: Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála), Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota. To paraphrase FDR: “A date that will live in infamy!”

Many if not most are familiar with the Wounded Knee Massacre. We are familiar, if not by historical reference, then by the book and movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It was certainly not America’s proudest moment. It was one in a long line of our country’s disgraces suffered by Native Americans. However, 126 years on, what has America learned? Do we treat Native Americans any better? The short answer in most every case is a resounding no. I am not going to the Standing Rock Pipeline argument here; suffice it to say, both sides have valid points. Rather, I want to look at the Wounded Knee Massacre as an example of American ethnic cleansing. Here’s a short version of what happened:

In the years leading up to the massacre, the U.S. government had continued to seize Lakota lands. The once-large bison herds (an indigenous peoples’ Great Plains staple) had been hunted to near-extinction by European settlers. The Lakota people were forced onto reservations where they could not hunt openly as they had for hundreds of years. Treaty promises to protect reservation lands from encroachment by settlers and gold miners were not implemented as agreed. Generally, the U.S. government sided against the Lakota on every major issue. As a result, there was extreme unrest on the reservations. The government sought to blame influential chiefs including Sitting Bull.

On December 15, 1890, 40 Native American policemen arrived at Chief Sitting Bull’s house to arrest him. Crowds gathered in protest, and the first shot was fired when Sitting Bull tried to pull away from his captors, killing the officer who had been holding him. Additional shots were fired, resulting in the deaths of Sitting Bull (shot in the head at close range), eight of his supporters, and six policemen. After Sitting Bull’s death, 200 members of his Hunkpapa band, fearful of reprisals, fled Standing Rock to join Chief Spotted Elk (later known as “Big Foot”) and his Miniconjou band at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Spotted Elk and his band, along with 38 Hunkpapa, left the Cheyenne River Reservation on December 23 to journey to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to seek shelter with Red Cloud.

On December 28, 1890 a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou Lakota and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them 5 miles westward to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp in the frozen winter. The remainder of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel James W. Forsyth, arrived and surrounded the encampment. The regiment was supported by a battery of four Hotchkiss mountain guns (42 mm small cannons).

On the morning of December 29, 1890 the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. One version of events claims that during the process of disarming the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle because he didn’t understand the soldiers’ request. A scuffle over the rifle ensued and escalated into a full armed conflict. By the time it was over, more than 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota had been killed and 51 were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. Twenty-five soldiers also died, and 39 were wounded (6 of the wounded later died). Many accounts refer to the incident as a scuffle. I prefer the more correct word massacre.

The Wounded Knee Massacre defines the very end of Native Americans as an independent people and the complete destruction of the once proud Lakota Horse Culture. Native Americans have since been largely relegated to the world of wooden Cigar Indians and the bad guys in western movies.

In looking for the one historical quote that sums-up the Native America experience, I always land on this one:

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” ― Sitting Bull.

Note: The above photo is of Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot, lying dead after the Wounded Knee Massacre.

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3 Comments
  1. Joan Garby permalink

    I read the book about 25 years ago and was forever changed by this heartbreaking story. Ethnic cleansing then, ethnic cleansing today. You are right…nothing has changed in the ongoing saga of man’s inhumanity to man.

    Like

  2. Philámayaye….

    Like

  3. Ee yo monk pee shnee! Woe ksue yea….

    Like

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