The Story Behind The Gruesome Wounded Knee Massacre, December 29, 1890

The Wounded Knee Massacre was one of the most notorious episodes of violence by the United States government against Native Americans.

American soldiers dump the Sioux dead into a mass grave after Wounded Knee.

While most peoples know about the horrors of the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, few know the backstory to the incident, which involves a Paiute prophet named Wovoka.

In 1889, Wovoka went into a deep trance. When he emerged, he told his tribesmen that he had foreseen the way to paradise. He claimed that if the Native Americans returned to their traditional ways and performed a sacred dance, the buffalo would come back to the plains, the whites would be driven out, and the dead would return to help in the fight. It was this last prophecy that gave the religious movement its name – the Ghost Dance.

The Plains Indians who had once roamed free across the American west had seen their centuries-old way of life disappear within a generation. Confined to small reservations on the lands that had once been theirs and dependent on American bureaucrats to meet even their most basic needs, some Native Americans turned to this new religion in a last hope that their old way of life could be restored.

The movement spread like wildfire amongst the Sioux, where it would set off the final chapter in the great war between whites and natives that had begun when the first European settlers arrived two centuries earlier.

Before the Wounded Knee Massacre, tensions were already high between the Sioux and the Americans by the time the Ghost Dance craze became popular. The government agents who worked on the reservations had no idea of the meaning behind it and became nervous that is was some kind of war dance. One bureaucrat finally became so frightened that he sent a telegram to the government requesting military backup, frantically claiming, “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy… we need protection and we need it now.”

Sioux ceremonial dancers in the late 19th century.

In response, the United States sent in 5,000 cavalry troops to arrest several leaders who had been marked as agitators. They caught up to one of their targets, Chief Big Foot, as he and 350 Sioux made their camp near Wounded Knee Creek. The atmosphere was already charged when the soldiers went around the camp on the morning of Dec. 29, 1890 and began seizing all weapons they found.

One of the men sent on this mission to tame the Sioux was Philip Wells, who was part Sioux himself and served as an interpreter. Wells clearly described the state of unease as Colonel Forsyth spoke with Chief Big Foot, who was so ill at the time that he could not even walk and had to be carried from a wagon and lain on the ground.

The colonel asked that the Sioux surrender their arms, to which the chief replied that they had none. Forsyth then ordered Wells “tell Big Foot he says the Indians have no arms, yet yesterday they were well armed when they surrendered. He is deceiving me.”

Some of the nearby Sioux became agitated as they overheard the conversation and one medicine man who was “gaudily dressed and fantastically painted” began performing the ghost dance, shouting “I have lived long enough! Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong!” Some of the younger warriors joined in, further worrying the soldiers, who feared this might be the prelude to a fight.

Everything came to a head when the soldiers tried to order a deaf man to surrender his gun. Since he could not hear what they were saying he did not immediately give his weapon up, and the soldiers attempted to forcibly grab it from him. At some point during the scuffle, a shot was fired and the Wounded Knee Massacre began.

By the time the massacre was over, more than 250 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 as high as 300. Twenty-five soldiers also died and thirty-nine were wounded (six of the wounded later died). Twenty soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the military awards and called on the federal government to rescind them. The Wounded Knee Battlefield, site of the massacre, has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1990, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a resolution on the historical centennial formally expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.

An artist’s imagining of the massacre that appeared in Harper’s Weekly, 1891

It is unknown to this day who fired the shot, but the soldiers, already on edge because of the atmosphere of hostility and the ghost dance they could not understand, immediately opened fire.

The Sioux were unprepared and the majority had just had their weapons taken from them; they could offer little resistance.

Chief Big Foot was shot on the ground where he was lying sick.
Brothers, (left to right) White Lance, Joseph Horn Cloud, and Dewey Beard, Wounded Knee survivors; Miniconjou Lakota
Soldiers pose with three of the four Hotchkiss-designed M1875 mountain guns used at Wounded Knee. The caption on the photograph reads: “Famous Battery ‘E’ of the 1st Artillery. These brave men and the Hotchkiss guns that Big Foot’s Indians thought were toys, Together with the fighting 7th what’s left of Gen. Custer’s boys, Sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise, and Gen. Miles with staff Returned to Illinois.”

Chief Big Foot was killed where he was lay, along with 150 (perhaps many more) of his people, half of whom were women and children. The United States suffered a total of 25 casualties and the Wounded Knee Massacre would be remembered as the great conflict between the whites and the natives.

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre (Title: What’s left of Big Foot’s band).
View of canyon at Wounded Knee, dead horses and Lakota bodies are visible.
Civilian burial party, loading victims on a cart for burial.
Frozen corpse on field.
The scene three days afterwards, with several bodies partially wrapped in blankets in the foreground.
Buffalo Bill, Capt. Baldwin, Gen. Nelson A. Miles, Capt. Moss, and others, on horseback, on battlefield of Wounded Knee.
Gen. L. W. Colby holding Zintkala Nuni (Little Lost Bird), found on the Wounded Knee battlefield.

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