December 29, 1890 – US Cavalry soldiers murdered over 300 Hunkpapa Sioux – men, women and children – near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. This event, now known as the Massacre at Wounded Knee, put a final stamp on US government policy of genocide and land appropriation towards the American Indian peoples.
U.S. government Indian policy in the West played out differently than it had during colonial times and in the early republic. By the end of the Civil War, the US had become an industrialized state with a large and mobile military, vastly outnumbering any remaining Indian nations. Consequently, when dealing with Indian nations, US agents negotiating land treaties simply dictated outcomes to whichever native peoples they were dealing with, rather than event pretending to negotiate in good faith. By the 1860’s US policy towards Indian nations was that of reservations: tribes would be told to cede the majority of their land to the US government and agree to live on small areas “reserved” for them. Those that refused would face the full might of the US army, with predictable outcomes.
The Sioux nation of the Northern plains included a number of different peoples who spoke a common language (Siouan). There were three main groups of Sioux people – the Lakota, the Eastern Sioux, and the Western Sioux – and these groups were each made up of dozens of different bands. Traditionally, the Sioux claimed a wide swath of land in the northern plains, including most of modern-day Minnesota and the Dakotas, along with parts of Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa. Conflict with white settlers began soon after the opening of the Oregon Trail, and in the 1860’s two large scale conflicts with the US military broke out, culminating in Red Cloud’s War in 1866.
That war ended with the Sioux fighting the US cavalry to a stalemate, which encouraged the US government to seek peace rather than continue fighting. That peace was finalized in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which secured for the Sioux an extensive reservation – called “The Great Sioux Reservation” – covering parts of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. Critical to the treaty was the acknowledgment of Sioux ownership of the Black Hills area of South Dakota, a place of great spiritual meaning to the Sioux.
Like every other US/Indian treaty, however, the ink had not yet dried before its provisions were broken. At first, white settlers slowly moved illegally onto Sioux land, and then, in 1875, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, bringing in a rush of unwelcome white settlers. When the Sioux refused US government demands that they sell the Black Hills to the U.S., all-out war broke out again.
The Great Sioux War (in which the Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe also fought along with the Sioux) began in earnest in the summer of 1876 with US cavalry assaults on Sioux camps near traditional Sioux buffalo hunting grounds. In June, US forces suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn, popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Even with that victory, however, many Sioux leaders realized that continued fighting would be fruitless, and surrendered themselves to US authorities in the spring of 1877 (others, led by Sitting Bull, went to Canada rather than submit).
In 1877 Congress passed a law unilaterally abrogating the 1868 Treaty, declaring US ownership of the Black Hills, and creating a smaller Sioux reservation. US agents then coerced a handful of demoralized chiefs to sign a treaty agreeing to the cession of the Black Hills, despite the fact that most Sioux opposed it. One chief who opposed the treaty, Crazy Horse, was murdered by US soldiers after turning himself in. His body was taken away by his parents to be buried at a secret location near a creek known to the Sioux as Wounded Knee.
As with every other treaty ever signed by Indians with white governments, the 1877 treaty boundaries were not worth the paper they were printed on. Over the next decade, as white settlers continued to encroach on Indian land, the U.S. government would force the sale of more and more Sioux land, slowly whittling down what was left of the Sioux reservation. Then, in 1889, government agents convinced a majority of Sioux to sell nearly all of their remaining land, breaking the reservation up into small islands which would be surrounded by oceans of white settlers. What had once been the Great Sioux Nation was no more.
At the same time a new messianic Indian religion was developing on the Plains. In 1890 a Piute Indians in Nevada, named Wovoka, claimed to be the Christ returned to earth. Wovoka, called the “Piute Messiah,” preached that he (the Christ) had returned to earth to renew it. Wovoko claimed that by the following spring (1891 the earth would be covered by new soil that would bury the white man, new herds of horses and buffalo would appear, and only Indians would remain.
Wovoka taught his followers a special dance, called the “Ghost Dance,” which would protect them as the earth was being renewed and bring back their dead ancestors to live with them. He also taught that if they wore special shirts painted with certain magical symbols, the bullets of white soldiers could not harm them. To a defeated and oppressed people, who had seen their land, livelihood and culture ripped away from them, such a message resonated, and Wovoka’s message spread quickly across the Plains.
In the fall of 1890 Sitting Bull, who had returned to the US with his people (the Hunkpapa Sioux) to the tiny Sioux Reservation at Standing Rock (in modern day North Dakota), was visited by a Sioux named Kicking Bear. Kicking Bear had met the Piute Messiah and had learned the Ghost Dance, which he wanted to teach to Sitting Bull’s people. While Sitting Bull did not necessarily buy Wovoka’s promises, he had no objection to his band of Sioux from learning the dance. After all, he must have thought, it was just a dance – what objection could the whites have?
Rhetorical question. Even though Wovoka’s message was one of non-violence – simply sing and dance and the renewal will come – white settlers and U.S. officials began to get nervous. As more and more Sioux turned to the Ghost Dance, the US government decided to officially suppress it. Soldiers were brought in to arrest the movement’s leaders and stop the dancing. On December 15, 1890, Reservation Indian police, supported by US Cavalry, showed up to arrest Sitting Bull. They were confronted by a group of Ghost Dancers, and shots were fired. In the melee, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.
Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa people, now Ghost Dance true believers, did not retaliate for the killing, as they believed that Sitting Bull would soon be resurrected. Instead, they fled the reservation, seeking refuge outside. On December 28 they ran into the US 7th Cavalry (the same Cavalry unit that had been defeated at Wounded Knee 14 years earlier), who then escorted the 350 men, women and children in the group to the Cavalry camp at Wounded Knee Creek, in South Dakota.
The next morning, December 29, the soldiers surrounded the band of Indians who were ordered to give up all of their weapons. Soldiers went through their tents and blankets, taking all of the Indians’’ guns, axes and knives that they could find. Tension built as one of the Sioux began dancing the Ghost Dance, singing that the soldiers’ guns could not harm them.
The tension peaked when one Indian refused to give up his rifle, claiming that it was new and had been expensive. One soldier grabbed him, the gun went off, and the rest of the soldiers opened fire into the crowd of panicked Indians, hitting men, women, and children. Some of the Sioux tried to fight back by grabbing the weapons that they had just surrendered, but they were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. Women and children who tried to run away were pursued by soldiers and shot as they tried to hide. Those wounded who were not immediately killed were left to freeze to death in the winter cold.
Out of 350 men, women, and children, only 50 survived, and most of those were wounded. Over 50 soldiers had been killed and wounded as well – nearly all due to friendly fire. As if the massacre wasn’t bad enough, Congress awarded the Medal of Honor to 20 of the soldiers involved in what the white press called the “Battle of Wounded Knee.”
The Massacre at Wounded Knee has the ignominious honor of being the final U.S. government massacre of Indians in their conquest of the West.