wounded knee

Louis Warren is also known as “Theory Man.” His most recent book, Buffalo Bill’s America, won a host of prizes last year, including the American Historical Association’s “Beveridge Award…given annually for the best book in English on the history of the United States, Latin America, or Canada from 1492 to the present.” That’s an easy get, obviously. Being asked to write for this blog, on the other hand, is something to crow about. I’ve invited Louis to stop by and say a few words because I’m lazy he’s currently writing about the Ghost Dance. And given that I’ve blogged a bit about the need for a reinterpretation of the Indian Wars, the following post is particularly welcome. So thanks, Louis, for taking the time to do this.

“Wounded Knee” — Louis Warren

On this day in 1890, the United States Seventh Cavalry massacred dozens of Minneconjou Sioux beside Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. With all the discussion of the Civil War and its causes, it’s worth taking a minute to think about the causes and meaning of the Wounded Knee Massacre, which many consider the last major engagement of the Indian Wars.

In fact, as far as the Minneconjou and other Lakota (or Western) Sioux were concerned, the war with the U.S. had been over for a decade by the time of Wounded Knee. Defeated, starving, and confined to shrinking reservations, some had taken up a ritual dance which visionaries announced would bring on the return of Christ and resurrect the dead. Dubbed ‘the Ghost Dance’ by a sensationalist press, the revival made some authorities nervous and so they ordered all Indians to cease dancing and report to reservation headquarters.

Thus it came to pass that a band of 350 Minneconjou Sioux (only 140 of whom were men) were on the road to Pine Ridge in late December of 1890. They were understandably nervous when they met 500 Seventh Cavalry troops sent to escort them. They grew more tense when Col. James W. Forsyth called all Indian men and teenage boys to a meeting and demanded that they surrender their rifles. Surrounded, the Minneconjous stacked up some guns for Forsyth, but he sensed they were hiding more. He ordered a search of their lodges.

It was at this moment that two soldiers seized a Minneconjou man who was refusing to hand over his gun unless they paid him for it. As the soldiers grappled with him, the rifle fired harmlessly into the air. The Seventh was Custer’s old regiment, a legendary Indian fighting outfit. But they had few veterans. They were mostly green. They were scared. They opened fire.

“It sounded much like the tearing of canvas,” recalled Rough Feather. “The smoke was so thick,” said White Lance, “I couldn’t see anything.”

Blasting from the perimeter (and in many cases shooting at each other), the soldiers exacted a dreadful toll from the largely defenseless Indians. Minneconjou men scrambled to their guns, returned fire, and soon broke through the Army cordon and headed to their lodges. At this point, the Army opened up with their Hotchkiss guns, which rained exploding shells at the rate of fifty per minute on retreating Indian men, women, and children.

Those who survived the slaughter fled to near-by relatives, or died in the numbing cold after nightfall. Back at Wounded Knee, bodies froze into grotesque positions. The Seventh Cavalry lost 30 soldiers. Indians in the single mass grave included 84 men and 62 women and children, although to this day the Lakota point out that many wounded died days later and far from the scene.

The massacre occasioned both adulation and recrimination. Some newspapers praised it. Eighteen Wounded Knee veterans received Congressional Medals of Honor.

But many Americans were uneasy with the slaughter. By 1890, most believed that Indians could be assimilated into American culture. The purpose of Indian Wars had been to ensure a society that was freer, richer, and kinder than the Indian communities it supplanted. To people who thought this way, Wounded Knee looked like an atrocity. Some saw the bloodshed as a blow against religious freedom. General Nelson A. Miles, commander of forces in the West and a veteran of many Indian battles, denounced Wounded Knee as “a general melee and massacre.” He would order two courts of inquiry into Forsyth’s conduct (he was exonerated), and conduct a lifelong campaign for congressional compensation of Wounded Knee survivors.

And what does it mean to Americans today? Wounded Knee reminds us that the Louisiana Purchase may look like a cheap land deal, but Napoleon did not have title to the property he sold. The moral costs of dispossessing the real owners were incalculably high.

The Civil War settled the question of whether or not there would be slavery in South Dakota and elsewhere. But what was the purpose of the Indian Wars? For Americans of 1890 the answer was easy: the U.S. took Indian land to make a better country. But today, that answer perhaps implies a responsibility that is hard to acknowledge. The modern United States tolerates enormous disparities in wealth, and descendants of Wounded Knee survivors have ended up, overwhelmingly, on the poorest side of the divide. Is the United States better than the society it replaced? One hundred and seventeen years after the Hotchkiss guns erupted at Wounded Knee Creek, the most troubling questions of that morning endure.

Editor’s Note: Winter Rabbit, at Progressive Historians, also wrote about Wounded Knee today. For more information on Wounded Knee, you can go here, here, here, here, here, or here for video. Don’t, under any circumstances, go here.