By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Without question, the history of the United States is comprised of great accomplishments, founded on the core values of freedom, liberty and justice for its people. It is a land built upon the hard work, dedication, perseverance, faith, and courage of millions who contributed to its tapestry as a nation. Yet, there have been times when it has faltered and turned a blind eye to injustice. A time when promises made in good faith were broken, when corruption, greed, and lapses of moral and honorable judgment resulted in blood-stained battlefields, persecution, and ribbons of scars that remain to this day. There is a saying that one cannot move forward, without remembering the past and learning from the past. And so, today, as many of us turned our thoughts to the coming New Year, I am going to reflect upon something that happened 123 years ago, an event that marked the tragic last chapter of the wars between the American government and the Indians of the American West.
On December 29, 1890, the Battle at Wounded Knee in South Dakota took place, an act allegedly mitigated by the United States government’s concern about a growing spiritual movement called the Ghost Dance.
For years the US Government had continually seized Indian lands. The buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction. Treaty promises to protect reservation lands from settlers and gold miners had been repeatedly broken. As unrest and resentment simmered on the reservations, word came that a Paiute prophet named Wovoka had seen a vision that prompted a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance.
Wovoka stated that in his vision, the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to Earth as a Native American, and that he would “raise the Native American believers above all the earth”. The herds of buffalo and other animals would return to the plains, and the white man would disappear from the Native lands. The ghosts of their ancestors would also return to earth. Wovoka explained the Indians had been conquered by the white man and sent to live on reservations because they had abandoned their customs and beliefs. Yet, if they practiced the Ghost Dance, they could restore their favor with the Great Spirit.
Hope and belief by Native Americans in the promise of the Ghost Dance had been growing steadily during 1890; however, the government became anxious its influence could incite violence. Whether by narrow-mindedness, resentment over past battles, or outright prejudice, a mania soon developed about the Ghost Dance. White people were alarmed when they saw Indian tribes performing the Ghost Dance, fearing it was in preparation for an attack.
On December 15th, 40 reservation police attempted to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at his home on Standing Rock Reservation. Refusing to comply, Sitting Bull tried to break free from his captor, and shots were fired. The much revered Chief Sitting Bull--a man who once toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show to much acclaim--was killed, as well as 8 of his people and six policemen. Tension and mistrust among the Indians against the US Government escalated to fever pitch.
Approximately 200 members of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band fled Standing Rock. Some joined the Ghost Dancers in the Badlands, while others joined Chief Spotted Elk and his Miniconjou band on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
"The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing."
"They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures."
"The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyenne have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses."
Obviously, the concerns of General Miles fell on deaf ears in Washington.
On December 23rd, Chief Spotted Elk with his men and 38 of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa left for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, intending to seek shelter with Chief Red Cloud.
Five days later, on December 28th, a unit of the United States 7th Cavalry intercepted Chief Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou Lakota and the Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them five miles west to Wounded Knee Creek. An encampment was established there in the bitter cold and snow. The remainder of the 7th Cavalry arrived, under the leadership of Col. James Forsyth, and surrounded the camp…along with four Hotchkiss guns, also known as the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon. [Pictured: Soldiers at Wounded Knee with some of their Hotchkiss guns]
Just after daybreak on December 29th, the 7th Cavalry surrounded the Native Americans and demanded they surrender their weapons. Some weapons had already being relinquished when an argument broke out between a deaf Indian named Black Coyote (who did not understand why he must give over the gun he had purchased with his own money) and the soldiers. As the weapon was being wrestled away from him, it discharged. What immediately followed was a brutal massacre.
As soldiers shot the now predominately unarmed Indians at close range, others aimed the mighty Hotchkiss guns at the tipis in the camp that were occupied by women and children. Some women and children fled, taking shelter in an icy ravine, where they were hunted down and killed. Soldiers on horseback pursued any escaping Indians for miles across the snowy prairie.
The fighting lasted less than an hour. It was reported 300 Indians were killed by the 7th Cavalry. Half of the dead were women and children. The dead among the US Cavalry numbered 25.
Eyewitness accounts described horrific details of soldiers consumed by bloodlust who killed with a vengeance, even after promising that those who surrendered would not be harmed. Testimony by Capt. Edward Godfrey of Company D of the 7th Cavalry stated: “Little boys came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there.”
Many historians maintained the 7th Cavalry deliberately sought revenge at Wounded Knee in response to their regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Whatever the reason behind their actions, the end result remains the same as does this bloody chapter regarding the history between the US Government and the Native Americans .
It would seem that history now agrees with the belief of General Miles, yet in an unconscionable display of political whitewashing, the US Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor to officers and soldiers of the 7th Cavalry for what happened at Wounded Knee.
In 1965, the Wounded Knee Battlefield was declared a National Historic Landmark, and was listed on the US National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
I appreciate you taking the time to read my post this day, and regret that it is not about something more cheerful. As I mentioned earlier, the more research I do into the American West, especially legal and government matters during the time my novel-in-progress takes place, the more I am confronted with disparaging truths that one cannot help but wish had never happened. There is nothing we can do today to change history; however, by reviewing and remembering the past we can hopefully learn how to respect one another better in the present, and not allow prejudice or hatred to dictate the choices we make in the future. As Chief Sitting Bull once said: "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."
May the New Year bring you many blessings, and may there be peace in our hearts, in our daily lives, and in this world we all share. ~ AKB
The Wounded Knee Massacre: Martin Gitlin (2011)
Wounded Knee Museum