Monday, December 30, 2013

AN ECHO FROM THE PAST: THE BATTLE AT WOUNDED KNEE

By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Well, another year is drawing to a close. As many of us contemplate our hopes and best wishes for the New Year, it is also a time for reflection of the past. As some of you know, I can get rather lost in the past -- especially doing research for a book. Quite often, that research is exciting and fascinating. At other times, it can be terrible and so dark that one cannot help but reflect on why things happened the way they did.

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.

As such, in an attempt to thwart the Ghost Dance and its effect, the government decided to show its strength and 'control' against any contemplated uprising by arresting some of the great chiefs.

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.

On December 19th, General Nelson A. Miles (pictured) wired General John Schofield in Washington, D.C., as follows:

"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]

The number of soldiers present at Wounded Knee amounted to 500; the number of Indians was estimated to be 350, “of whom all but 150 were women and children”.

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 .

After the battle, a 3-day blizzard ensued. When the storm had passed, civilians were hired to bury the frozen dead Lakota in a mass grave [pictured]. Although an incensed General Nelson Miles immediately relieved Col. Forsyth of his command, the Army Court of Inquiry exonerated the colonel of responsibility. In agreement with their decision, Secretary of War Redfield Proctor reinstated Forsyth to command the 7th Cavalry again. However, General Miles continued to maintain his belief that Forsyth had deliberately destroyed the Indians, stating that what happened at Wounded Knee was a deliberate massacre, not a “tragedy caused by poor decision”.

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

Sources:

The Wounded Knee Massacre: Martin Gitlin (2011)
Wounded Knee Museum

17 comments:

  1. Ashley, what a great post. I have been researching the Trail of Tears. It made me so sad, and so do the events at Wounded Knee. Man is so horrific to man. (I believe if women were in charge, there would be no wars. We wouldn't send our children to war or want them to kill others.) Your posts are always so thought provoking and well written. Thanks for sharing. Happy New Year!

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    1. Thank you, Carolyn. I agree with you about women. And the Trail of Tears was yet another shameful chapter in the treatment of Native Americans.

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  2. Great post, Ashley. I used the Battle of Wounded Knee is my time travel romance Birdie's Nest to prove to people in 1890 that she was from the future and knew what would happen on December 29th. It is one of the shameful times in our history. I'd not heard the part about the Ghost Dance. I'd like to know more.

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  3. Excellent post, Ashley. I always enjoy your posts so much--as Caroline says, they're well-written and well-researched, and make us want to know more. This is one of the saddest times in the history of the U.S., I believe. And there are a lot of them.
    Cheryl

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    1. Thank you very much, Cheryl. It is very painful to learn the facts about the past, and the dishonest decisions that only made matters worse, when honesty and respect could have been the wise and just course followed. But I really believe it is up to the people to learn the good and bad of history, and not allow deceit and corruption to destroy the future for everyone, including animals like the wild horses of the plains that are supposed to be protected by the government (Bureau of Land Management) in their natural habitat. Yet, like the Native Americans in our past, they are being rounded up, removed from their protected land, and injured or mistreated, or sold to slaughter houses for profit. When will the greed of government end? And what good is there to sign treaties or pass laws when they do not honor their pledge or duty?

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  4. We all need this reminder, Ashley. Sometimes we have done some shameful things in the history of our country and Wounded Knee was definitely one of them. Brutality is never acceptable. Even now, years later, not much has changed for Native Americans. A wonderful post.

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    1. You are so right, Sarah. Being informed and aware of what is being done (or not done) is the only way things can change...or never happen again. Thank you for commenting.

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  5. Thank you, Ashley! Being raised around two reservations, I'm always so proud when we remember our past and seek to make our future better! I wish for less bigotry and much more love for all of us!
    -Lani

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Lani. I hope with all my heart your wish comes true for all of us.

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  6. Wounded Knee is a blood-soaked stain on the history of this country, like so many other instances when greed, prejudice and hatred have led to the decimation of entire Native American tribes. Thank you for reminding us of that, Ashley. I did not know about the Medals of Honor. What a disgrace!

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  7. Brilliant, post, Ashley. And very needful I NEVER knew of this battle, never studied it in any U.S. History class ever. Nor of Chief Joseph. It was reading Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" that taught me the truth, a truly life-changing book. I remember the pix of Chief Bigfoot lying frozen in the snow. Shiver. And only 23 bison remained at the start of the twentieth century. Sickening. And don't get me started on the horses of Palo Duro canyon....

    Anyway, happy new year to all! xoxo

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  8. Thank you for your comment, Lyn. It is definitely important to teach about the good AND the bad events in our history. The more I research about Native Americans and the truth about so many truly barbaric events by the US Government at that time, the more parallels I find to many situations that are happening today, i.e., the Wild American Horses plight. If we don't learn from the past, and hold people accountable for their actions, nothing will really change. Yes, awarding Medals of Honor for the massacre of mostly women and children, as well as unarmed Indians, was horrific.

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  9. Hi Tanya - I almost posted that photo of Chief Bigfoot(an elderly man), but opted for the mass grave photo instead. And, I am with you on the barbaric killing of the Indian horses at Palo Duro Canyon. This act of cruelty was criminal in my opinion. Yet, the same thing is happening today with the chasing down by helicopters of family herds of Wild American Horses from what is supposed to be their protected lands by the Bureau of Land Management, a government agency entrusted to preserve these horses in their natural habitat. The cruelty continues, and few people are aware of it. If the public does not intervene, these horses will become extinct. I'd like to think that schools are teaching the facts about the history of the Native Americans and the US Government, but like you I didn't learn the truth until I researched information on my own as an adult. I cannot imagine teaching American History without addressing the Indians Wars of the American West, and what happened to the Native Americans of this land. Thank you for your comment. Let's hope 2014 bring happiness and hope for mankind and the animals who inhabit this world with us.

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  10. Excellent post, Ashley. When I was a Camp Fire Girl leader we did a lot of time learning the customs of American Indians. What I found fascinating was how spiritual they were and how they took care of their lands and only killed for food. What we did was terrible.

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    1. Well, what you did to educate those Camp Fire Girls was a wonderful gift, Paisley. Sadly, we cannot change history, but we can learn and share the truth with others. Thank you for your comment.

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  11. Do not call it BATTLE AT WOUNDED KNEE. Call it THE WOUNDED KNEE MASSACRE

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