On December 29, 1890, the nation endured a horrific event: the massacre of some 150 people at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. It was one of the last great battles between Native and White Americans; a significant turning point in one of the bloodiest and longest-lasting holocausts in human history.
Like many Indigenous American communities, the Lakota Sioux had seen their way of life come under siege by White Christian encroachers; people who viewed them as a menace, no different from the vermin that occupied the same land. The Lakota Sioux had fought as hard as they could, but by 1890, they’d been relegated to reservations where they were forced into dependency upon the American state. Like his fellow warrior, Chief Sitting Bull, Sioux Chief Big Foot had led a cavalry of resistance. But, government forces had managed to corner and kill Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation on December 15. They then set their sights on Big Foot.
When he heard of Sitting Bull’s death, Big Foot led his people southwards towards the Pine Ridge Reservation. The U.S. Army intercepted them on December 28 and brought them to the edge of the Wounded Knee to camp. The next morning the chief, already sickened with pneumonia, sat among his warriors and consulted with army officers. Then, the Army, under the command of Colonel James Forsyth and numbering 500 strong, descended upon the camp, guns blazing. As several young Sioux men retrieved their own firearms, others ran for safety. Some scampered into a ravine next to the camp only to be assaulted with bullets. Many of them were children.
Several Sioux were willing to surrender, but others – notably a medicine man named Yellow Bird – would accept nothing less than total resistance. Yellow Bird and others believed that mystical “Ghost Shirts” would protect the group from harm. But, nothing could protect them from the unabashed hate of the U.S. government. In less than an hour, the U.S. Army had killed at least 150 Sioux and wounded another 50. The Army suffered 25 fatalities and 39 injuries. In a fake attempt at humanity, the government charged Forsyth with war crimes for killing innocent, unarmed Sioux, but later exonerated him.
The 1890 Wounded Knee massacre became a symbol of the U.S. government’s intrinsic disrespect for Native Americans. It subsequently instilled a lack of trust in the government among Native Americans who ultimately became dependent on that same entity for survival as they entered the 20th century. Even now, Native American reservations are among the most impoverished in this country. The tensions over the 1890 Wounded Knee calamity would surface again in February 1973, when the Lakota nation made another stand against the U.S. government with the help of the American Indian Movement. That fiasco wasn’t nearly as deadly, but it was longer – 71 days – and it further cemented that distrust and animosity.
The tension is still present and unrelenting – not just in South Dakota, but among all Native American communities. In remembrance, this is for the souls lost on December 29, 1890.