One hundred and twenty-two years ago, the Pine Ridge Reservation witnessed the end of an epoch: the end of a people fighting for their way of life. Many see it, in Wikipedia’s words, as “the last battle of the American Indian wars”.
Except it wasn’t a battle; it was a massacre. And it was the end of life as Indians knew it. No more were the days of riding and hunting freely. Treaties had been broken, time and again, by the United States government; millions of buffalo had been killed for their hides and for sport; land was being taken left and right.
The US government recognized the Black Hills as belonging to the Sioux tribe by the Treaty of Laramie in 1868, but this treaty, too, was violated thanks to prospectors who kept coming to search for gold. By 1874, there was a full-fledged gold rush near Deadwood, South Dakota.
The fight for the land that was sacred to the Lakota – and which was coveted for its gold by the white incomers – came to a boiling point on 25 June 1876, when General George Armstrong Custer took his 7th cavalry regiment into an ambush led by Lakota leader Crazy Horse and their allies, the Cheyenne and Northern Arapahoe. The battle at Little Bighorn, often referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand”, did not sit well with the government as the whole regiment perished and the flags of the cavalry and the United States were captured.
A mere 14 years later, after the death of Crazy Horse and Chief Sitting Bull, the Lakota people were facing annihiliation. Their leaders were being killed by members of their own tribe who were scouts and police agents for the US government. They themselves were starving. Chief Spotted Elk (often referred to as Chief Big Foot) and his band traveled to the Pine Ridge agency in the hopes that a ghost dance would be an answer to prayers.
The chief was sick with pneumonia thanks to the bitter winter of 1890. His band was reduced to about 350 people, the majority being women and children. They were joined with some people from the Hunkpapa Lakota band from Fort Yates, who had left after the murder of their chief, Sitting Bull.
The group was intercepted at Porcupine Butte on 28 December 1890 by a detachment of the 7th cavalry. They made camp that night at Wounded Knee Creek, five miles west of the butte. Here, the Indian encampment was surrounded by the full muster of the 7th cavalry regiment, armed with an artillery battery of four Hotchkiss guns.
Under the command of Colonel James Forsythe, the troops began entering the Lakotas’ tipis the next morning, 29 December, and disarming the Indians: confiscating the men’s guns and even the knives that the women used to cook. As cavalrymen tried to take a rifle from a deaf man who was trying to exclaim he paid a lot for it, the rifle discharged accidentally. At that, the men of the 7th cavalry started shooting indiscriminately on the encampment.
With fire from the four Hotchkiss guns and with over 500 soldiers encircling the tipis on all four sides, several of the soldiers of the 7th cavalry fell to friendly fire. The men from Chief Spotted Elk’s tribe fought back, the ones that were further out on the ridge ran forward to help, but were soon outnumbered. The women and children, who were standing to the side of the camp, began to run for the ravines. Some were later found up to two miles away from the camp after soldiers had hunted them down and killed them. Four babies were found alive beneath their mother’s bodies.
By the time the incident was over, the US army estimated that about 150 men, women, and children had died that day, including Chief Spotted Elk, gunned down in the snow. The army counted another 50 Indians injured. Some 25 troopers were killed and 39 injured, the majority as a result of friendly fire. Alternative estimates count the massacre far higher, at between 300 and 400 killed.
General Nelson Miles, who had overall command of this final act in the Indian wars, joined his troop a day later. He was deeply dismayed at the atrocity and, suspecting that Colonel Forsyth had deliberately engineered the massacre, relieved him of his command. The Lakota dead were thrown into a mass grave and buried.
The Lakota were stunned that this could happen to them. But public opinion – the opinion of majority white America – was not on their side. Then a young newspaper editor, later the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L Frank Baum editorialized for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on 3 January 1891:
“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”
Lending the United States’ official stamp to such attitudes, 20 troopers were awarded the congressional medal of honor for the action – an extraordinarily triumphalist endorsement. Forsyth was later exonerated and promoted to major general. To put those awards for military valor – the nation’s highest honor – in context, as Joseph Huff-Hannon points out in the Huffington Post, only seven such medals have been awarded to members of the US armed services during the more than decade-long conflict in Afghanistan.
There have been many previous attempts to rescind these medals, awarded for a war crime that has been compared with the 1968 My Lai massacre, when the rampaging soldiers of Charlie company killed between 300 and 500 unarmed villagers in Vietnam. These men, though, were not awarded medals. They were court-martialed and their commander was convicted of murder.
Senator John McCain, ranking member of the US Senate’s armed services committee, has acknowledged the great wrong of Wounded Knee, but defended the medals in a letter addressing a 1996 campaign for their rescindment.
“The policies and decisions of the United States government that led to the army’s being at Wounded Knee in 1890 doubtless can be characterized as unjust, unwise, or worse. Nevertheless, a retrospective judgement that the government’s policies and actions were dishonorable does not warrant rescinding the medals awarded to individual soldiers for bravery in a brief, fierce fight in which 25 soldiers were killed and 45 others wounded. Neither today’s standards for awarding the medal nor policies of the United States with regard to Indian tribes are what they were in 1890.”
The mindset was different then, I agree with McCain; the same views are not prevalent now. In 1990, on the centenary of the incident, the 101st Congress passed a resolution that apologized to the Sioux people for the Wounded Knee massacre and expressed support for the establishment of a “suitable and appropriate memorial to those who were tragically slain at Wounded Knee”.
And yet, here we are, 23 years later, and still there is no memorial. Calvin Spotted Elk, a descendant of the Lakota chief, has started a petition in an effort, once again, to argue for justice and have these medals of honor rescinded.
There is no vengeful spirit in the petition to rescind the medals; the soldiers who participated in that action are long gone. There is also precedent for rescindment: in 1917, 911 medals of honor (most relating to the American civil war) were rescinded, for a variety of reasons. Rather, the petition is about making a gesture of reparation for the fact that a long genocidal war was waged by the United States against its own indigenous peoples.