Massacre at Wounded Knee

On December 29, 1890, there was an encounter between Big Foot’s band of Miniconjou Sioux and the 7th US Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. This confrontation is seen as the last major ar med conflict between the Indians and the whites in the United States. Although some authors make a brief mention to the incident, saying, "The Army trapped the Indians... and destroyed them", Wounded Knee was a crucial event in the growing hostility betwe en the Sioux Indians and the US government.

The outbreak of Wounded Knee was in part the result of the growing support of the Ghost Dance religion. Founded by Wovoka, a Paiute Indian religious leader, the religion rapidly gained many followers through the Plains Indians. The belief of the Gh ost Dance religion was a hope to return to the ‘old ways’. It was taught that God would restore the Indian world to the way it was before whites arrived. Through the dance, the Indians felt they could bring back ancestors and the buffalo killed by the whi te man. Army leaders feared the religion would lead to an Indian uprising and called for troops to be sent to keep things under control.

General Nelson A. Miles assembled an army of over 5,000 soldiers to handle the Indians of the area. During an attempt to arrest him, Chief Sitting Bull was killed at his camp on December 15, 1890. As Big Foot and his band of 350 people, which consisted of 120 men and 230 women and children, were trying to flee south to the Pine Ridge Agency, the 7th Cavalry intercepted them. Federal troops rounded up the Sioux and placed them in a camp on Wounded Knee Creek.

The round up of the Lakota was in response to the growing fear and ignorance on the part of the US Govt. The white people did not know about the culture, beliefs, or lives of the Lakota and saw them as a threat to the society they were trying to pr eserve: the white society. The Lakota were seen as outsiders; the "other" in a world where a person’s looks and background determined who belonged here. Through much of American history, where a person was born also determined if they belonged. Ironically, the Native Americans were here on this land first, but were treated as though they were visitors. Their assumption was that because they look different or act different, they are not the same; they are not Americans. The white people refused to recogniz e the Lakota’s right to the land and did everything in their power to remove them. This ignorance led to violence in an obvious act of proving power and control.

Col. James W. Forsyth ordered the Sioux people to be disarmed. A shot was fired and the fighting ensued. The federal troops fired on the Lakota with rifles and powerful, rapid-shooting Hotchkiss guns. Sioux casualties totaled 153 dead and 44 wounded, half of whom were unarmed women and children. Survivors were pursued and butchered by US troops. Cavalry losses totaled 25 dead and 39 wounded. Charges were brought against Col. Forsyth for his part in the bloodshed, but a court of inquiry exonerated him.

At the time, and continually after, people regarded the confrontation as a massacre. This terrible blow to the Lakota people proved to break down their strength in fighting back. To subsequent generations of Indians, it "symbolized the injustices a nd degredations inflicted on them by the US government" (Robert Utley). It later served as an inspiration for the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee.

We must never forget this moment in US history of the horrific destruction of human life and liberty. For many, the picture of US history is filled with tales of brave rebels, fighting for a belief in equality, such as the ideals which started and foun ded the nation. However, not many recognize the hypocritical actions of the nation which went against this idea of equality. This is just another example where the question of "Who belongs?" and "Who has a right to ‘American’ liberties?" is tested. The La kota were never allowed a place in the nation, forced to give up their land and suffered immensely in loss of lives and rights. The Wounded Knee massacre serves as a reminder to a time when those people seen as "foreigners" were exterminated and refused t heir rights as Americans.