Manataka™ American Indian Council
December 29 is the Anniversary
of Wounded Knee
By John Christian Hopkins, Diné Bureau - Hopkins1960@hotmail.com
ROCK - To the rebuilt 7th Cavalry, what happened at Wounded Knee 115
years ago today was a great victory; with 20 of the soldiers winning
Congressional Medals of Honor for their "heroic" deeds that bloody
The chain of events that led to the massacre began earlier that year, when a Paiute prophet named Wovoka predicted the coming of The Messiah to restore the Indians' place in the world. It was a crude combination of Paiute religion and Christianity.
To entice The Messiah to appear, the Lakota Indians began to perform the Ghost Dance. It quickly built to a frenzy.
Settlers feared another Indian war and soldiers were sent to stop it. It was decided to arrest Sitting Bull who did not practice the Ghost Dance; but did nothing to thwart its popularity.
The aging chief was confronted by Indian policeman, backed by soldiers. Shots rang out suddenly and the unarmed chief was killed.
The soldiers retreated to their fort; the Sioux feared more soldiers were coming to kill them all. Chief Big Foot fled the reservation. Cavalry reinforcements arrived and encircled the fleeing Indians. As it was near dark, the troops the 7th Cavalry surrounded the Indians and waited for morning.
A gray, frigid morning came and the Indians found themselves surrounded by soldiers and Gatling guns.
The commanding officer told the Sioux to surrender their weapons. A deaf Indian was confused when a nearby soldier tried to yank his rifle away; the Indian tugged back and the gun went off, harmlessly into the air.
The soldiers opened fire on mostly unarmed elderly Indians, and women and children. When the firing halted, approximately 300 defenseless Sioux had been butchered.
Most of the wounded soldiers were the victims of friendly fire, since they had formed a circle around the Indians and were then struck by their own comrades.
It was too cold to bury the dead, so the soldiers took their captives and herded them into the closest building where they could be guarded. The building was a church, still decorated with a Christmas banner reading "Peace on earth, Good Will to Men."
Another Version of the Wounded Knee Massacre
Faced with the threat of starvation, the Ghost Dancers began to return to their agencies in late December. Chief Spotted Elk's band was now made up of nearly 400 cold and hungry people. Nearby, troops of the Seventh Calvary found some of the Ghost Dancers and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek to spend the night. The night before the ‘Wounded Knee Massacre', Colonel James Forsyth had arrived at Wounded Knee Creek, and had ordered his men to place four Hotchkiss cannons in position around the area in which the Indians had been forced to camp. Despite their cooperation, the Indians were disarmed in the morning. They were surrounded by 500 U.S. soldiers, and had no choice but to surrender their weapons. However, the soldiers met resistance from one, Black Coyote (a deaf man), who was hesitant to relinquish his gun. As they struggled to take it from him, the gun was accidentally fired and on December 29, 1890, what has become known as the ‘Wounded Knee Massacre’ took place. Following the firing of the first shot, many Indians retrieved their guns and began firing at the soldiers. While the soldiers fired back with cannons and explosives, the Indians attacked with knives and tomahawks, but their weapons were no match for the soldiers' heavy artillery. The end result was the massacre of at least 150 Indian men, women and children, Spotted Elk being among one of the killed, as well as 25 officers dead and 40 wounded.
The accidental firing by the Native Americans is open to criticism. One account by Phillip Wells, a mixed-blood Sioux who was an interpreter for the Army, claims that the incident was started by a medicine man. A meeting took place on December 29, 1890 between Colonel Forsyth and Spotted Elk. At the meeting Colonel Forsyth demanded that the Native Americans turn over their weapons. Spotted Elk claimed that they had no weapons. At this point a medicine man commenced to perform the Ghost Dance, during which he encouraged the young warriors, saying that the soldier's bullets would not harm them, and they would turn to dust. After the medicine man had completed his dance, a gun was discovered under a blanket of one of the Native Americans. The gun was confiscated by a cavalry sergeant. After Phillip Wells told the Indians that is was important that they be searched individually, five warriors cast off their blankets, revealing guns. One warrior fired his weapon into a group of soldiers who were told to return fire. The medicine man then proceeded to stab Phillip Wells, nearly slicing off his nose.
Following the Massacre that day, U.S. soldiers left the wounded Native Americans to die in a three day blizzard. They later hired civilians to remove the bodies and bury them in a mass grave:
"Then still frozen stiff, the bodies were dumped unceremoniously into the hole..."
It was said that some of the Americans stripped the corpses of their clothing and collected some of their personal items as mementos of the occasion. Following the burial, the Americans lined up and took their picture beside the mass grave and twenty medals of honor were later given to honor the U.S. soldiers who participated in the massacre.
In 1903, a monument was erected at the site of the mass grave by surviving relatives to honor the "many innocent women and children who knew no wrong..." who were killed in the massacre. Today, some family members are still seeking compensation from the U.S. government as heirs of the victims but they have been unsuccessful in receiving any monetary settlement so far.
Beginning in 1986, a group began the Big Foot Memorial Riders to continue to honor the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre, specifically Chief Spotted Elk. This ceremony has grown increasingly larger every year since then, and riders subject themselves to the cold weather, as well as the lack of food and water that their family members faced. They carry with them a white flag to symbolize their hope for world peace and to continue to honor and remember the victims so that they will not be forgotten.
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