For decades, the Lakota Sioux watched helplessly as their way of life on the American Great Plains faded away. They’d witnessed a generation of broken treaties by the US government. They’d watched as the white man came come like a flood from the East, first after their land, then buffalo, then gold in the Dakota Black Hills. The once nomadic Lakota were now confined to small government reservations on land chosen by Washington.
From the earliest colonial days, contact between white European settlers and Native American tribes had been troublesome. As white settlers pushed westward, they killed or forced Native Americans off ancestral lands and onto reservations. One of the most infamous was the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The most violent conflicts in the late1800’s were known as The Indian Wars. By the end of the 1880’s, a series of brutal massacres and forced removals had reduced the native population to a fraction of what it had once been.
Reservation life was slowly destroying Native American culture as well, so some tribal leaders attempted to bolster their spiritual traditions. In 1889, a new “Ghost Dance” movement began to grow. It preached that all the bad things happening were because the tribes had abandoned their traditions and angered the gods. Ghost Dance leaders promised that the buffalo would return and the white man would be cast away, IF they performed the “Ghost Dance.”
During a solar eclipse in 1889, a shaman of the Nevada Paiute tribe named Wovoka had a vision.
He said the Great Spirit had revealed to him a bountiful land of love and peace. Wovoka founded the Ghost Dance spiritual movement. He foresaw the uniting of the remaining western tribes, the banishment of the white man, the return of the near extinct buffalo, and a lasting revival of the Native American way, in an Eden like world.
According to Wovoka, the Ghost Dance reunited the spirits of the dead with those of the living, and the collective power of these spirits would protect them in battle against the white man’s army. Dancers wore brightly colored shirts emblazoned with images of the buffalo and the eagle. They believed their “Ghost Shirts” would protect them from the white man’s bullets. It quickly spread to other Indian tribes in the west, including in the Dakotas.
Four years earlier, the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, better known as Custer’s Last Stand, marked the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars. Nevertheless, the Ghost Dancers triggered one last wave of resistance. As the movement began to spread, white settlers grew increasingly alarmed and feared it was the prelude to yet another armed uprising.
On the reservations, Native Americans found themselves dependent on the government for food. There was widespread anxiety among the Oglala around their federal dependency. The once proud Sioux found their nomadic life destroyed, the buffalo gone, and themselves confined to reservations, dependent on unreliable US Indian Agents for their very existence.
In October 1890, Daniel Royer arrived at the Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, as the new Indian Agent. Unfortunately, he knew next to nothing about Native Americans and in fact had an irrational fear of them. His dispatches back to Washington were full of unwarranted warnings of an imminent Sioux uprising.
In Royer’s paranoid mind, the new Ghost Dance was in fact a War Dance that threatened imminent bloodshed.
In his telegrams to Washington, he urged that troops be sent immediately. “Wild and crazy Indians are dancing in the snow,” he wrote to the Indian Affairs Commissioner in November 1890. “We need protection and we need it now! The leaders must be arrested and confined at a military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done now!”
President Benjamin Harrison ordered the army to the southwest Dakota Territory. On the troop train was a group of newspaper reporters. The “Crisis in the Badlands” had made headlines due to rumors about the Ghost Dancers. These false stories fed a growing anxiety of another Indian War. By mid-December, both government and news reports referred to the Ghost Dancers as “Hostiles.” This news also trickled into the reservations, where the Lakotas heard of an impending troop build-up.
The troops and reporters made their way to Pine Ridge Reservation. General Nelson Miles arrived with 500 troops as part of the US Army 7th Cavalry, General Custer’s old command. He ordered the arrest of several Sioux leaders thought to be the Ghost Dance instigators, including the famous Sitting Bull.
Chief Sitting Bull had led the Sioux victory over the US 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He too embraced the Ghost Dance movement and helped spread it throughout the Sioux Nation. They would arrest the Chief at his home in Standing Rock Reservation. On December 15th, officers feared that Sitting Bull was about to flee the reservation. Police tried to arrest the Chief, but a gun fight erupted.
The famous Sioux leader was shot and killed in the melee.
At the Cheyenne River Reservation, the Miniconjou Lakotas grew nervous. Their leader, Chief Big Foot, also a Ghost Dancer, was under close observation by the military. When he heard of Sitting Bull’s death, Big Foot led his people out to seek protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation. On December 23, about 350 left their village under the cover of night and fled towards the Badlands.
Chief Big Foot was also on General Miles’ arrest list. The tribe managed to avoid the military for five days. But on December 28th, the cavalry caught up with them. A cold, bleak winter gripped the snow-covered hillsides in 1890. The Lakota were camped in their teepees near the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, which winds through the Dakota Badlands. Charged with arresting Big Foot and disarming his warriors, the Army positioned their Hotchkiss Guns (a deadly cousin of the Gatling gun) on a rise overlooking the Lakota camp.
As a bugle sounded the following morning—December 29th, 1890—American soldiers mounted their horses and entered the Lakota camp. A Medicine Man started to perform the Ghost Dance, praying loudly, “Do not fear. Let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us, but their bullets cannot harm us.” He implored the heavens to scatter the soldiers like the dust as he threw dirt into the air. Both sides were tense and on high alert. Many of the warriors were dressed as Ghost Dancers.
Col. James Forsyth convened a council with Chief Big Foot and his leaders. Big Foot was racked with pneumonia and could not even stand. He sat among his warriors and powwowed with the army officers. Forsyth demanded they surrender all their firearms and told them they’d be relocated to a new camp. The order was interpreted as exile to yet another reservation, a prospect the Lakotas found intolerable.
The cavalry soldiers went teepee to teepee seizing axes, rifles and other weapons. A warrior named Black Coyote refused to surrender his rifle, hidden under a blanket, to a soldier. The two began wrestling over the gun, and in the struggle … it went off.
Within seconds, the troops launched a hail of bullets at the Lakota.
The warriors attempted to retrieve their collected weapons and returned fire. Chaos erupted as troopers fired volley after volley into the Sioux camp. The cavalry’s rifle fire was quickly complemented by the rapid-fire Hotchkiss Guns up on the hillside. Their impact was deadly as they tore the Sioux teepees into ribbons, killing the women and children huddled within.
The shouts of the soldiers and screams of their victims filled the morning air. Clouds of gun smoke blew through the camp as men, women and children scrambled for their lives. Many ran for Wounded Knee Creek only to be cut down in cross fire. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Lakota could offer little resistance. Survivors fled into the hills only to be pursued by the cavalry.
When the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared, approximately 150 Sioux were lying dead in the blood-stained snow. Unarmed Chief Big Foot among them, shot where he sat at the powwow. Young children who moments before were playing leapfrog, had been mowed down. In just a matter of minutes, almost half the Lakota were killed, along with 25 American soldiers. Nearly half the Sioux victims were women and children.
By midafternoon, the troops had gathered up their dead and returned to Pine Ridge. Dead soldiers were placed in a nearby Episcopal church and laid in rows underneath Christmas decorations. As the cavalry began the grim task of burying the Sioux, a winter blizzard swept in. A few days later in January, they returned to the massacre site to complete the job. Chief Big Foot was still lying in the snow, his corpse frozen where he had been shot.
A burial party dug a single large pit and dumped in the 150 now frozen bodies in the mass grave.
Others killed in the surrounding hillside were late accounted for, bringing the total to more than 250 Lakotas. Reporters observed the burial and took a series of stark photographs. The snowstorm added a cold edge to the grim scene of carnage. Their news stories carried the story of the “Battle” of Wounded Knee worldwide. US public opinion of the massacre was generally favorable. The attack effectively ended the Ghost Dance movement. In the aftermath, an official Army inquiry exonerated the 7th Cavalry of any wrong doing.
Over time though, Wounded Knee became the symbol of the inhumanity of US government policy toward Native Americans. Those Sioux were guilty of no crime and were not engaged in combat. A substantial number killed were unarmed women and children. For decades, survivors of the massacre lobbied in vain for compensation. The U.S. Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to members of the Seventh Cavalry for their heroic roles.
Decades later, a Lakota survivor was interviewed: “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch, as plain as when I saw them with young eyes. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody snow, and was buried in the blizzard. Our people’s dream died there as well.”
The massacre at Wounded Knee was not the last armed conflict in the US Indian Wars, but it marked its end. The remaining tribes were subdued, forced onto reservations on unwanted land, and made to assimilate into white US society. Over the 19th century, 18 million Native Americans had been reduced to about 237,000 by 1900. Since then, the Native American population has recovered somewhat. 2.9 million Americans identified as “American Indian” in the 2010 US Census.
Compared to numerous military monuments across the country, today, only a small, fenced-in graveyard sits at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in southwest South Dakota. There you will find a historical sign and a simple, granite monument, just 8 feet high, erected by the survivors. If you visit the crowded grandeur of nearby Mount Rushmore, be sure to drive an hour south, and pay your quiet respects at Wounded Knew as well.