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On This Day: Unarmed Sioux Massacred at Wounded Knee

Last updated: February 15, 2023

December 29, 2010 06:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On Dec. 29, 1890, U.S. soldiers killed 200-300 unarmed Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, S.D., in what is considered the final significant battle of the Indian Wars.

The Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre

As white settlers spread across the United States during the 19th century, the government forced American Indians onto reservations. Many resisted the loss of their land and their traditions, and relations between whites and the various tribes were contentious, especially after Sioux Chief Sitting Bull’s 1876 triumph in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

In 1889, a Paiute shaman named Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, was inspired by a vision to found a new religion, the Ghost Dance, which foretold that whites would disappear from the Earth and Indians would live in happiness and prosperity along with their deceased ancestors. Wovoka preached that this apocalypse would come about through peace with white settlers.

Tribes throughout the Great Plains and much of the West began dancing the Ghost Dance, including Sitting Bull’s Lakota Sioux, who performed the dance while wearing brightly colored shirts that they believed to be bulletproof.

The dance unnerved white settlers around South Dakota’s Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, who believed it signaled a potential armed rebellion. Pine Ridge agent Daniel F. Royer telegraphed Washington in November 1890, asking that the leaders of the “wild and crazy” Sioux be incarcerated for the protection of the settlers.

The arrival of federal troops under Lt. Gen. Nelson A. Miles did not deter the Sioux from performing the Ghost Dance. On Dec. 15, Pine Ridge reservation police attempted to arrest Sitting Bull. However, as Sioux men protested their chief’s arrest, tribal policeman Bull Head accidentally shot and killed Sitting Bull.

Miles next pursued another Sioux leader, Chief Big Foot (also known as Spotted Elk) of the Miniconjou Sioux, who was ill with pneumonia and had recently repudiated the Ghost Dance religion. Soldiers in Col. James Forsyth’s Seventh Cavalry, which had been defeated at Little Bighorn 14 years earlier, captured Big Foot and his followers on Dec. 28, and took them to Wounded Knee Creek.

The next morning, soldiers attempted to disarm the captured Sioux. One of them, Black Coyote (who may have been deaf), resisted giving up his rifle; in the ensuing struggle, his rifle discharged. The 500 soldiers began firing not only at the 100-120 disarmed Sioux men, but also the women and children who were standing in a separate area.

Many of the Sioux men pulled out knives or grabbed their discarded guns to fight back. Others tried to escape up a ravine, while the women and children ran up the other side of the ravine. The soldiers shot at all the Sioux.

“When the firing began, of course the people who were standing immediately around the young man who fired the first shot were killed right together, and then they turned their guns, Hotchkill guns, etc., upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce,” described American Horse, a Sioux Indian who worked as a scout for the U.S. government.

When the shooting was over, hundreds of Sioux men, women, and children, including Big Foot, were dead, as were 29 soldiers. Between 200 and 300 of the 350 Sioux would die at Wounded Knee, either by gunshot or by exposure while trying to escape.

Witness Accounts of the Massacre

PBS provides testimony given by four Sioux scouts (Turning Hawk, Spotted Horse, American Horse and Captain Sword) to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1891.

EyeWitness to History provides the account of Philip Wells, a mixed-blood Sioux who worked as an interpreter.

Americans’ Reactions to Wounded Knee

Related Events

The soldiers at Wounded Knee were treated as heroes by the government and the media. Eighteen soldiers, most of them in the Seventh Cavalry, were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest decoration in the U.S. military.

News reports praised the soldiers for defeating hostile and dangerous Indians. The New York Times, citing “Big Foot’s treachery” as the cause of the conflict, wrote that the Seventh Cavalrymen “have once more shown themselves to be heroes in deeds of daring.”

Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Pioneer editor L. Frank Baum, who later authored “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” criticized Miles for being too weak toward the Indians and argued that more “decisive measures … would have prevented this disaster.”

“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians,” he wrote. “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.”

Clashes After Wounded Knee

After the massacre, other Sioux bands, including those of Red Cloud, Kicking Bear, Short Bull and Two Strike, united north of Wounded Knee. The next day, many of these young Sioux men attacked the Drexel Mission near White Clay Creek, and routed a Seventh Cavalry squadron. They were then driven away by the Ninth Cavalry, a black regiment that provided reinforcement.

Small skirmishes continued for another two weeks. Miles, hoping to end the conflict without bloodshed, brought in reinforcements and encouraged the Sioux to surrender. On Jan. 15, the severely outnumbered Sioux warriors surrendered and were taken to Pine Ridge. It marked the end of the Indian Wars.

Key Players: Wovoka, Sitting Bull, Big Foot, Miles

Sources in this Story

  • PBS: Lakota Accounts of the Massacre at Wounded Knee
  • Bowling Green State University: The Wounded Knee Massacre
  • HistoryNet (American History): Wounded Knee Massacre: United States versus the Plain Indians
  • American Heritage: The Ordeal of Plenty Horses
  • The New York Times: A Fight With The Hostiles
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Wovoka
  • PBS: Sitting Bull
  • Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center: Big Foot
  • Arlington National Cemetery: Nelson Appleton Miles

Wovoka (ca. 1856–1932)
Encyclopedia Britannica provides a brief bio of the Paiute shaman whose apocalyptic Ghost Dance religion struck such fear into white hearts.

Chief Sitting Bull (1831–1890)

PBS summarizes Hunkpapa Sioux Chief and proud warrior Sitting Bull’s eventful career and violent death.

Chief Big Foot (ca. 1825–1890)
The Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center chronicles the life of the unfortunate Chief Big Foot (known to his people as Si Tanka, or “Spotted Elk”), whose abortive attempt to seek peace with the whites ended in a spray of bullets.

Lt. Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles (1839–1925)

The unofficial Arlington National Cemetery Web site offers this primarily adulatory biography of the career of Lt. Gen. Nelson A. Miles while noting that “his reputation was permanently tarnished” by the Wounded Knee Massacre, which was perpetrated by soldiers under the command of one of his subordinates.

1973 Standoff at Wounded Knee

In February 1973, members of the American Indian Movement seized the town of Wounded Knee in protest of living conditions on tribal reservations. U.S. marshals surrounded the town, resulting in a 71-day standoff during which two AIM members were killed.

Read the U.S. Marshals Service’s account of the incident.

Read the American Indian Cultural Support’s timeline of the incident and its archive of documents related to the incident.

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