Reframing Wounded Knee

By Debra Adams Simmons, Executive Editor, History & Culture

More than a century after U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, a movement is underway demanding that medals granted to the soldiers who participated be rescinded. 

In December 1890, 500 U.S. soldiers killed at least 300 Lakota people to try to silence Native Americans whose lives were being upended by white settlement. Twenty of the soldiers would receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest and most prestigious commendation. 

President Joe Biden is being pushed by members of Congress to revoke the medals awarded to the soldiers who participated in the massacre, among many historical atrocities of which the U.S. is being forced to reckon. In January 2021, the South Dakota state Senate passed a bill that called on the U.S. Congress to open an official inquiry into the medals. Many expect Biden to rescind the medals, a position he has supported in the past

The Ghost Dance Movement, which began in the 1870s and prayed for the rise of Native Americans and the demise of white men, gave hope to Plains Indians whose lives had been upended by white settlement. The movement took on special significance for the Lakota people of North and South Dakota, Erin Blakemore writes for National Geographic. During a few decades they had lost more than 58 million acres of their land and were forced to share what was left among multiple tribes and bands. By 1889, they had been split into five separate reservations in North and South Dakota.

Convinced the movement posed a threat to whites, the U.S. Army banned Ghost Dance ceremonies on all reservations. When Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, known for taking down Lt. Col. George Custer and his army at the Battle of Little Bighorn, was confronted and refused to be silenced, he was killed along with hundreds of men, women, and children. 

“The U.S. Army recovered its own dead but left the Lakota victims to freeze during the three-day blizzard that followed. Before flinging the frozen bodies into a mass grave, many soldiers stripped the Lakota naked, saving their ghost shirts as souvenirs,” Blakemore writes

American newspapers portrayed the massacre as a necessary battle; white settlers celebrated it as a victory over a warlike people. Native Americans interpreted the massacre as a sign that the U.S. government would stop at nothing to eradicate them. “I did not know then how much was ended,” wrote Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man who survived the massacre. “The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” 

It would be the last large skirmish in a century of armed conflict between Native Americans and American troops. Wounded Knee became a rallying cry for activists (pictured at top in 1973) who point out how centuries of land theft, broken treaties, and forced assimilation affected Native Americans. In 1990, Congress formally apologized for the slaughter. 

Re-enactment of the Ghost Dance in 1898

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