The year 1990 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Wounded Knee, as the army called it -- or the Wounded Knee Massacre, as Indians remember it. This was the last tragic act in a violent saga that lasted for more than 100 years and pitted white settlers on the western frontier against Native Americans.
For decades, the Indians had angrily watched as white settlers grabbed their lands and even tore up their sacred burial grounds searching for gold. As one Sioux Indian remarked, "They (the white people) made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it."
The Ghost Dance Religion
By the 1880's, most of the Indian tribes had been forced onto reservations by the U.S. government. On the reservations the old tribal ways began to die out. No longer was the young Indian supposed to be a warrior and hunter roaming the land freely. Now Indians were told to live on the reservation and become farmers. Well-meaning missionaries told them that they must give up their Indian religion and become Christians. Corrupt Indian agents cheated them by providing only part of the food rations and clothing supplied by the U.S. government.
Into this bleak landscape suddenly appeared a ray of hope. In 1889, a young Paiute Indian prophet named Wovoka began preaching a new religion of salvation for the Indians. According to Wovoka, if the Indians followed his teachings, the white man would disappear and life would return to the way it had been before. The buffalo herds would come back; the spirits of dead Indians would rise up and rejoin the living; and there would be a new world of peace.
To make this come about, said Wovoka, the Indians must dance the Ghost Dance and sing Ghost Dance songs, which Wovoka taught his followers. Soon the Ghost Dance religion spread across the plains to most of the western tribes. Among those who joined in were many of the Sioux Indians living on the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations in the Dakotas.
At the Standing Rock Reservation lived the great Sioux chief and medicine man Sitting Bull. Fourteen years earlier, in 1876, Sitting Bull had been one of the Indian leaders who had defeated General George Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn -- better known as "Custer's Last Stand." Although Sitting Bull had lived peacefully on the reservation for many years, he was still feared by many of the local white settlers.
Army officers and reservation officials watched nervously as Sitting Bull's Sioux Indians joined in the Ghost Dance frenzy. Many whites feared that Sitting Bull was using the Ghost Dance to stir up an Indian uprising. Troops were rushed into the area and General Nelson Miles, the commanding officer, ordered Sitting Bull's arrest.
On December 15, the Indian reservation police, backed by troops, tried to arrest the old chief. When his followers protested, a gun battle broke out. Sitting Bull was shot to death by Indian policemen, and more than a dozen Sioux warriors and Indian policemen were also killed.
The Last Major Clash
Now it was the Indians who were frightened. Fearing that the troops might attack them, many fled the reservation. Army officers persuaded most to return, but one band of Miniconjou Sioux under Chief Big Foot fled into the Badlands. General Miles believed that Big Foot intended to link up with the Sioux at the Pine Ridge reservation, and that this would spark a general uprising.
More than 3,000 troops were deployed to capture Big Foot's band. On December 28, a detachment of the 7th Cavalry corralled the fleeing Indians and marched them to the regiment's main camp on Wounded Knee Creek. By now the Indians were hungry, exhausted, and suffering from the cold. Big Foot was so sick with pneumonia that he had to be carried in an army wagon.
During the night, the troops surrounded the Indian band, which consisted of 120 warriors and 230 women and children. The 7th Cavalry was the same regiment that had been whipped by the Sioux fourteen years earlier at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Some of the soldiers were spoiling for a fight, and there was talk of avenging Custer.
At daybreak on the morning of December 29, Colonel James Forsyth, commander of the 7th, ordered his troopers to ring the Indian camp. Then he ordered the Sioux to turn in their guns. There were scuffles as soldiers roughly seized rifles from Indians unwilling to give them up.
Suddenly a shot rang out, probably fired by an Indian. In response, the soldiers unleashed a volley of carbine fire directly into the mass of Indians. Men, women, and children were shot down, many as they tried to run away. Indian warriors rushed at the soldiers -- believing that their ghost shirts would stop the soldiers' bullets -- and there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting.
When the shooting finally stopped, more than 150 Indians were dead -- half of them women and children. Many others later died of their wounds, and the final death toll was probably over 200. Twenty-five soldiers were also killed and 39 were wounded -- many, it is believed, by the crossfire of their fellow soldiers. The fight at Wounded Knee was the last major clash between Indians and the army on the western frontier. After that, the Plains Indians resigned themselves to reservation life.
Some historians have called Wounded Knee a tragic blunder rather than a deliberate massacre. But most people regard Wounded Knee as a symbol of the harsh and unjust treatment suffered by Native Americans during the settlement of the western frontier. (Henry I. Krutz, author, ‘The Art of the Toy Soldier’; Grolier Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia)