The Wounded Knee Massacre

Proposal: This research would like to focus on the Wounded Knee Massacre, specifically drawing the relationship between the events before, during and after it.

The Wounded Knee Massacre (also known as the Battle of Wounded Knee) is regarded as the event that put a close to the Indian wars in the United States. On December 29, 1890, federal troops slaughtered almost 300 Lakota men, women and children on the snowy banks of Wounded Knee Creek. At present, the Wounded Knee Massacre still manages to stir up strong political sentiments among Native Americans and their supporters. Furthermore, the incident “(symbolized) not only a culmination of a clash of cultures and the failure of governmental Indian policies, but also the end of the American frontier” (Liggett, 1998).

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Events Leading to the Massacre

The Native Americans were the original inhabitants of the United States. For thousands of years, they lived in the continent in isolation, allowing their tribes to develop distinct cultures. But white immigration in the 15th century nearly wiped out their existence, as well as their ways of life. Aside from seizing their lands, the whites sold countless Indians to slavery or killed them through warfare or disease (MSN Encarta, 2008). Consequently, some Native American tribes resorted to armed resistance.

The Effects of the Ghost Dance Outbreak

Wovoka (formerly known as Jack Wilson), a Paiute prophet, founded the Ghost Dance religion in the late 1880s. He promised that should the ritual ghost dance be observed, the Indians will regain their lands, their dead ancestors will rise, the whites will disappear and the future of the Native Americans will be characterized by eternal peace and prosperity (MSN Encarta, 2008). Many Native American tribes embraced the Ghost Dance as a result, viewing it as a salvation from their lives of hunger, disease, oppression and poverty (Liggett, 1998). But the emergence of the Ghost Dance religion frightened white settlers, prompting them to call for federal intervention (MSN Encarta, 2008).

The Arrest Order against Big Foot and Sitting Bull.

The Ghost Dance religion rapidly spread through all of the Sioux reservations. Led by Big Foot, Sioux Indians (many of whom were women who lost their husbands and or male relatives in wars against the Americans) would perform the Ghost Dance until they collapsed, hoping that their dead ancestors will indeed come back to life. His half-brother, Sitting Bull, did not believe that the Ghost Dance can raise the dead. Despite his disbelief, he respected the beliefs of those who practiced the Ghost Dance (Ghost Dancer’s Native American Indian Lodge, 1998).

But Sitting Bull was afraid of the rumors that soldiers were being sent to some reservations because the white settlers were afraid of the Indians who were practicing the Ghost Dance. He did not want to lose more of his people to American troops. Sitting Bull’s fears were well-founded – Agent McLaughlin accused him of being the mastermind of the Ghost Dance and telegraphed Washington for additional forces (Ghost Dancer’s Native American Indian Lodge, 1998). General Miles, meanwhile, had ordered the arrest of Big Foot, who, by then, had already fled to Pine Ridge with his followers (Last of the Independents, n.d.).

The Death of Sitting Bull and his Troops.

About 43 Indian police surrounded Sitting Bull’s cabin on the dawn of December 15, 1890. A squadron of cavalry was stationed three miles away to serve as reinforcements. Lieutenant Bull Head entered the cabin and roused Sitting Bull, who agreed to come with the police as soon as he was dressed. But as soon as they were outside, a large group of Ghost Dancers began to confront the police (Last of the Independents, n.d.).

The scuffle between the two parties resulted in bloodshed. One of the dancers, Catch-the-Bear, brandished a rifle and fired at Lieutenant Bull Head. Bull Head fired back at him in retaliation, only to accidentally shoot Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was also shot in the head by another policeman, Red Tomhawk. Although the cavalry later managed to quell the fighting, many Indian policemen had already died (Last of the Independents, n.d.).

The Capture of Big Foot by the Troops of Major Samuel M. Whitside.

In order to evade arrest, Big Foot and his followers went to the Pine Ridge Reservation on December 28, 1890. But they were intercepted at Porcupine Butte by Major Samuel M. Whitside and were instead taken to Wounded Knee Creek. While in custody, the Indians were interrogated all night regarding as to whether or not they participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 – the battle wherein the combined forces of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians defeated the troops of General George Armstrong Custer. The officers and troopers at Wounded Knee Creek were said to have gotten themselves drunk on whiskey celebrating Big Foot’s capture (Dill, n.d.).

The Deployment of Troops to Lakota Camp

On the evening of December 28, Colonel James Forsyth arrived at Wounded Knee Creek with reinforcements and assumed the commandership of the operation. At dawn on December 29, 1890, he announced that the prisoners will be taken to Omaha, Nebraska. An estimated 120 Lakota warriors were then summoned to a powwow (“council circle”) with the 7th Cavalry position (Forsyth’s troops) some 200 yards north. Even Big Foot, who was ill with pneumonia, was brought along to the meeting (Bateman, 2008).

In his article Wounded Knee (2008), Robert Bateman described how tight security was during the aforementioned powwow:

Three companies of dismounted troopers moved in to surround the assembled braves,

while two rows of mounted troopers waited in open skirmish order several hundred

yards to the south and west. This was not a combat formation, but one more suited to      crowd control, should the Sioux attempt to flee. As an added precaution, 7th Cavalry

commander Colonel James W. Forsyth placed four Hotchkiss light artillery guns on a rise overlooking the camp. (n. pag.)

The Disarmament of the Siuox.

Forsyth had a very good reason for tightening the security – the powwow was intended to strip the detainees of their weapons, particularly firearms. During the meeting, he demanded (with the aid of a translator) that the Indian delegates turn over all their arms. Despite an order from Big Foot to surrender their weapons, the Indians gave up only two broken carbines. Upset, Forsyth ordered a complete search (Bateman, 2008).

Misunderstandings between the Lakota and the Federal Troops

Back in the main camp, rumor was rife among the other prisoners that they will be deported to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). This story stirred panic among them, as Indian Territory was notorious for very abject living conditions. While Forsyth’s soldiers were searching the remaining Indians in the camp for weapons, some of the Native Americans began performing the Ghost Dance. As part of the ceremony, one of the performers threw dirt – an act which was misinterpreted by the soldiers as a manifestation of hostility. The situation worsened when Black Coyote, an Indian who was believed to be deaf, accidentally fired his gun as soldiers tried to take it away from him (Liggett, 1998).

The Massacre

Although nobody was injured from the shot, the soldiers construed it as a sign that the Indians wanted to fight. As a result, the troops struck back by gunning down defenseless Indians using small arms and the Hotchkiss cannons. Big Foot and his troops tried to fight back, but they were no match against the superior firepower of the soldiers. It must be noted that Hotchkiss cannons have the capacity to fire 50 two-pound explosive shells per minute (Liggett, 1998).

The 350 unarmed Indians also tried to fight back with their bare hands. But they were outnumbered by the almost 500 well-armed government troops. Although most of the massacre’s casualties were killed during the first ten to twenty minutes of the slaughter, soldiers had to spend several hours more going after Indians who attempted to flee into a nearby ravine (Liggett, 1998). The army spared no one, not even the women and the children. Below is an eyewitness account from an Oglala Sioux named American Horse:

There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce…A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing…The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through…and after almost all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys…came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there. (n. pag.)

On January 1, 1891, a burial team returned to Wounded Knee and buried the bodies of the dead in a single burial pit. The injured and those at the point of death, meanwhile, were brought to an improvised hospital in the Pine Ridge Improvised Church. Ironically, 23 soldiers from the 7th Cavalry later received the Congressional Medal of Honor for killing unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee (Liggett, 1998).

Despite the carnage of the Wounded Knee Massacre, public outrage over the event prompted General Miles to use political diplomacy in ending the federal government’s war with the Native Americans. Although he had the Stronghold (a major Sioux base) surrounded with 8,000 troops, he urged the Sioux to lay down their arms in exchange for good treatment from the government. The Sioux finally surrendered on January 15, 1891, ending the decades-long hostilities between the Indians and the Americans (Phillips, 2008).

Conclusion

The Wounded Knee Massacre is an event in American history that validates the claim that the oppression of Native Americans by white settlers is the first instance of American imperialism. The white settlers disregarded the fact that the Indians were the original inhabitants of the United States simply because the latter had a way of life which they considered “uncivilized.” Difference in culture was used as a license to kill defenseless individuals. If this is how the Americans treated those from their own land, why should the world get surprised if it eventually treated people from other lands worse?

 

References

Bateman, R. (2008). Wounded Knee. Military History, 24, n. pag. Retrieved August 3, 2008

from EBSCOhost.

Dill, J.S. Cankpe Opi. (n.d.). Chronology of Events Leading Up to the 1890 Wounded Knee

Massacre. Retrieved August 3, 2008, from http://www.clickshovel.com/wkup.html

Ghost Dancer’s Native American Indian Lodge. (1998). Ghost Dance Movement. Retrieved

August 3, 2008, from http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Bayou/6029/Wolf/gdance.html

Last of the Independents. (n.d.). Wounded Knee: The Ghost Dance. Retrieved August 3,

2008, from http://www.lastoftheindependents.com/wounded.htm

Liggett, L. Bowling Green State University, American Culture Studies Program. (1998). The

Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890): An Account of the Massacre.

Retrieved August 3, 2008, from

http://www.bgsu.edu/department/acs/1890s/woundedknee/WKmscr.html

Liggett, L. Bowling Green State University, American Culture Studies Program. (1998). The

Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890): An Introduction. Retrieved August 3, 2008, from http://www.bgsu.edu/department/acs/1890s/woundedknee/WKIntro.html

Liggett, L. Bowling Green State University, American Culture Studies Program. (1998). The

Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890): Ghost Dance Religion. Retrieved

August 3, 2008, from

http://www.bgsu.edu/department/acs/1890s/woundedknee/WKghost.html

MSN Encarta. (2008). Native Americans of North America. Retrieved August 3, 2008, from

http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761570777/Native_Americans_of_North_

America.html

MSN Encarta. (2008). Wounded Knee. Retrieved August 3, 2008, from

http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761574723/Wounded_Knee.html

Phillips, C. HistoryNet.com. (2008). Wounded Knee Massacre: United States versus the

Plains Indians. Retrieved August 3, 2008, from

Wounded Knee Massacre: United States versus the Plains Indians

 

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