“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream…” – Nicholas Black Elk
The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota.
Reservations were very untrusting of the U.S. Government because they had seized their lands and hunted bison to near extinction. Treaty promises to protect reservation lands from encroachment by settlers and gold miners were not implemented as agreed. Rumors of a great Paiute prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance religion had been circulating throughout the reservations. He had a vision that the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to Earth in the form of a Native American.
Wovoka believed the Messiah would raise all the Native American believers above the earth. He would make the white man disappear from Native lands, the ancestors would lead them to good hunting grounds, the buffalo herds and all the other animals would return in abundance, and the ghosts of their ancestors would return to earth. They would then return to earth to live in peace. All this would be brought about by performance of the slow and solemn “Ghost Dance,” performed as a shuffle in silence to a slow, single drumbeat. Lakota ambassadors to Wovoka, Kicking Bear and Short Bull taught the Lakota that while performing the Ghost Dance, they would wear special Ghost Dance shirts as seen by Black Elk in a vision. Kicking Bear said the shirts had the power to repel bullets.
American settlers were alarmed by the sight of the many Great Basin and Plains tribes performing the strange Ghost Dance, worried that it might be a prelude to armed attack. They did not understand their way of life nor their religious beliefs. Among them was the US Indian Agent at the Standing Rock Agency where Chief Sitting Bull lived. US officials decided to take some of the chiefs into custody in order to quell what they called the “Messiah Craze”. The military first hoped to have Buffalo Bill (a friend of Sitting Bull) aid in the plan to reduce the chance of violence. Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin overrode the military and sent the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull.
On December 15, 1890, 40 Indian policemen arrived at Chief Sitting Bull’s house to arrest him. Crowds gathered in protest, and the first shot was fired when Sitting Bull tried to pull away from his captors, killing the officer who had been holding him. Additional shots were fired, resulting in the deaths of Sitting Bull, eight of his supporters, and six policemen. After Sitting Bull’s death, 200 members of his Hunkpapa band, fearful of reprisals, fled Standing Rock to join Chief Spotted Elk (later known as “Big Foot”) and his Miniconjou band at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Spotted Elk and his band, along with 38 Hunkpapa, left the Cheyenne River Reservation on December 23 to journey to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to seek shelter with Red Cloud.
The U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside, Colonel James W. Forsyth and four Hotchkiss mountain guns caught up with Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou Lakota and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them five miles westward (8 km) to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp.
On the morning of December 29, the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. It’s believed that during the process of disarming the Lakota, Black Coyote (he was deaf) was reluctant to give up his rifle, claiming he had paid a lot for it. He began to resist and a scuffle over the rifle escalated, and a shot was fired which resulted in the 7th Cavalry’s opening fire and killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their fellow soldiers. The Lakota warriors who hadn’t given up their weapons began shooting back at the soldiers. The surviving Lakota fled, but cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed.
By the time the gunfire stopped, more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota had been killed and 51 were wounded (4 men, 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. Twenty-five soldiers also died, and 39 were wounded (6 of the wounded later died). At least twenty soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them.The site of the battlefield has been designated a National Historic Landmark.