By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Claimed by the vision and blood of patriots, it remains a great Republic built upon principles of democracy and freedom, forged by hard work and sacrifice, dreams and dedication, perseverance, faith, and the courage of millions who contributed to its tapestry as a nation.
Yet, just as it has happened with other nations throughout the world, there have been times when the United States faltered, lost its way, and turned a blind eye to injustice. There have been wars waged for freedom (here and in other parts of the world). There have been bloodstained battlefields, lost lives, and wounded warriors -- too many to count. However, although we may stumble or fail from time-to-time, and perhaps find ourselves divided by different opinions, our love and loyalty to country and its foundation has always prevailed.
And so it is today, that I am looking into the distant past, to a time 126 years ago, and to an event that marked a tragic chapter in our nation's history. An event that never should have happened.
On December 29, 1890, the Battle at Wounded Knee in South Dakota took place, a battle that became a massacre, mitigated by mistrust between two peoples and a growing spiritual movement called the Ghost Dance.
For years tension and war between the Native American Indians and the white settlers protected by the US Government had caused much bloodshed and a mistrust that never ebbed. To end the constant friction, Treaties were made and lands were given to the Indians where they might live peacefully as a people and preserve their way of life. Unfortunately, it seemed before the ink had dried, the buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction. Treaty promises to protect their reservation lands from settlers and gold miners were repeatedly broken. The flames of unrest and resentment stirred in the hearts of the Indian nations.
Wovoka stated that he'd had a vision wherein the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to Earth as a Native American, and said 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 tribal lands. Wovoka also said the ghosts of their ancestors would return to walk the earth.
Wovoka triggered the resentment and anger of the Indians by telling them they had been conquered and sent to live on reservations because they abandoned their customs and beliefs. However, if they practiced the Ghost Dance, they would reclaim favor with the Great Spirit.
Today we may look upon Wovoka as a zealot or false prophet seeking followers, especially since everything he promised never happened. But back in 1890, he stirred hope in the hearts of the Indians, and in the promise of the Ghost Dance.
Unfortunately, as devotion to the Ghost Dance prophecy increased, white settlers and the US government saw it as a grave warning, and that its influence would incite renewed violence and bloodshed by the Indians. Settlers, who remembered all too well the raids and savage attacks of the past, saw the Indian tribes performing their Ghost Dance, and feared it was in preparation for an attack.
As such, in an attempt to thwart the Ghost Dance movement and its potential violence, the government decided to show its strength against any contemplated uprising by arresting some of the great Chiefs.
Refusing to comply, Sitting Bull tried to break free from his captors. 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 and admiration among the whites) was killed. In addition, eight of his people and six policemen were also killed.
Needless to say, anger and mistrust escalated to fever pitch.
Approximately 200 members of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band fled Standing Rock. Some joined the Ghost Dancers in the Badlands. Others joined Chief Spotted Elk and his Miniconjou band on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
On December 19th, General Nelson A. Miles 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."
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 US 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. There, in the bitter cold and snow, an encampment was established. The remainder of the 7th Cavalry arrived, under the leadership of Col. James Forsyth.
The number of soldiers present at Wounded Knee amounted to 500. The number of Indians was estimated at 350, with an estimated 150 of this number to be women and children.
Just after daybreak on December 29th, the 7th Cavalry demanded all the Indians surrender their weapons. Some weapons had already been relinquished when an argument suddenly 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). As the weapon was being wrestled away from Black Coyote, it discharged. And in the blink of an eye, what followed was a brutal massacre.
As soldiers shot the now predominately unarmed Indians at close range, others targeted the mighty Hotchkiss guns toward the tipis in the camp. These tipis were occupied by women and children. Some women and children fled, taking shelter in an icy ravine; however, they were hunted down and killed. Soldiers on horseback also pursued any escaping Indians for miles across the snowy prairie.
The Battle at Wounded Knee lasted less than an hour. It was reported 300 Indians were killed by the 7th Cavalry. Half of this number were women and children. The dead among the US Cavalry numbered 25.
Eyewitness accounts described the soldiers as being consumed by bloodlust, killing with a vengeance -- even after promising Indians who surrendered would not be harmed.
Testimony by Capt. Edward Godfrey of Company D of the 7th Cavalry stated: “Little boys came out from 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 US 7th Cavalry deliberately sought revenge in response to their regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Whatever the reason, the end result remains the same, as does this bloody chapter regarding the history of relations between the US Government and its Native Americans.
After the battle, a three-day blizzard ensued. When the storm passed, civilians were hired to bury the frozen dead Lakota in a mass grave. Although an incensed General Nelson Miles immediately relieved Col. Forsyth of his command, the Army Court of Inquiry exonerated Forsyth of responsibility.
In agreement with their decision, Secretary of War Redfield Proctor reinstated Forsyth’s command of the 7th Cavalry.
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.
Yet, one cannot help but contemplate how many more battlefields and monuments will commemorate a tragedy that could have been avoided?
Hindsight is 20/20 -- or so it has been said. Today, we can reflect on the Battle at Wounded Knee and see what went wrong and how -- in THAT particular situation -- if there had been respect, unity, and better communication, this stain that mars the fabric of America’s past might never have happened.
At the same time, there is a memorial today in New York City commemorating one of our nation's worse tragedies, one that lives in the hearts and memories of not only the loved ones of those who were taken on 11 September 2001, but every citizen of America.
Collectively, we must also work together with respect and look to our elected leaders to do their best and honor their oath to preserve and protect the nation...ALL its citizens (including our indigenous brothers and sisters)...and our freedom.
No one knows with certainty how history will look back upon us, upon our accomplishments, our struggles, our behavior toward one another, and whether or not in times of trial we respected and worked together regardless of our differences .
Time alone will tell.
I appreciate you taking the time to read my post this day. We live in turbulent times, just as our ancestors did. Regrettably, there is nothing we can do to change the past; however, we can change how to listen better and communicate with respect. To set an example with our words and behavior for our children, and prove that just as compassion is essential to preserve our humanity, there must also be the clear understanding that in order to ensure there IS a future, we cannot ignore the dangers of the present. ~ AKB