Wounded Knee

views updated May 17 2018


Considered the last battle between the U.S. Army and American Indians, the Wounded Knee Massacre took place on the morning of 29 December 1890 beside Wounded Knee Creek on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. This was the culmination of the Ghost Dance religion that had started with a Paiute prophet from Nevada named Wovoka (1856–1932), who was also known as Jack Wilson. During the previous year, U.S. government officials had reduced Sioux lands and cut back rations so severely that the Sioux people were starving. These conditions encouraged the desperate embrace of the Ghost Dance. This pan-tribal ritual had historical antecedents that go much further back than its actual founder, as both millenarian and messianic traditions had intersections between Christianity and many Native American religions from the time of contact with Europeans.


The anthropologist James Mooney (1861–1921) did an extremely thorough treatment of the tragic events at Wounded Knee in his 1,136-page work originally published by the Government Printing Office in 1896. Originally called "The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890" and published in The Fourteenth Annual Report (Part 2) of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, 1892–93, Mooney's study was reprinted in 1973 with the title The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee.

This detailed history begins with the life of Wovoka. Mooney points out that the Paiute prophet was born around 1857 near Walker Lake, Nevada. At age twelve his father, the Paiute shaman Tavibo, shared a vision with his mentor, Wodziwob, promising a cleansed world involving the restoration of those who had died if believers performed the Dance of Souls Departed, later called the more familiar Ghost Dance. These earlier prophets' visions caught on quickly in the early 1870s, possibly contributing to the brutal Modoc War of 1872–1873, but upon Tavibo's death of disease, early practice of the Ghost Dance ceased. Fourteen years old when his father died, Wovoka was adopted by a ranching family and took on their family name, becoming Jack Wilson and receiving training in Christianity and engaging in daily Bible readings. In time he also learned from Mormon missionaries in search of Paiute converts, leading some to speculate that the famous ghost shirts may derive from the Mormon "garments" worn as underwear. He also learned from Quakers or Shakers while working on farms in the Pacific Northwest. Upon his return to Nevada and his marriage to a Paiute woman, he accepted the life of a ranch hand. In 1886, while chopping wood in the mountains, Wilson had a vision of his death and acceptance into heaven, where the voice of God promised renewal in terms similar to those found in the prophecies of his father. Wovoka preached among the Paiute for a couple of years before performing three "miracles" which caused the Ghost Dance religion to spread.

Mooney reports that the level of despair that the Sioux nation had reached by 1890 made them ready converts to the promises of the Ghost Dance, and many had embraced the sect's practices. Sioux practitioners experienced visions of the return of their ancestors and the buffalo; many wore the ghost shirts, believing this would deflect the bullets of the whites. When an encampment of nearly three thousand Ghost Dance believers gathered in the Badlands of South Dakota, settlers were alarmed, and many left their farms. More than half of the U.S. Army was sent to the reservations, which in turn concerned Sioux leaders hoping for peace. A band led by Big Foot, the Miniconjou Lakota chief, sought supplies at the Indian agency headquarters, but they grew alarmed by approaching U.S. troops. While deliberating how to proceed, they were joined by starving members of Sitting Bull's band, who informed them of the revered leader's murder on the day before, 15 December 1890. Together, the two bands fled to Pine Ridge Agency, surrendering to the Seventh Cavalry on 28 December and camping beside Wounded Knee Creek. There, surrounded by 470 soldiers and with four Hotchkiss cannons trained on them, the 106 warriors were separated from the 250 women and children. The soldiers, who were provided with a barrel of whiskey by a local trader, prevented the Sioux from sleeping. The next morning, Colonel James Forsyth ordered the Native Americans to surrender their weapons and confiscated any and all equipment that could conceivably be treated as a weapon, including sewing awls; in the process, some of the women were treated disrespectfully. Forty rifles were taken from the men, but one warrior who was hearing impaired struggled with soldiers, and a shot was fired. That caused immediate firing from all sides that left half of the warriors dead at once. As the women and children fled they were slaughtered by the soldiers, and bodies were found scattered as much as three miles from the camp. Most of the thirty-one U.S. casualties resulted from friendly fire.


The first Native American literary reaction to the events at Wounded Knee was published soon after the event. Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), a novel written by the Muskogee Creek author S. Alice Callahan (1868–1894), appeared less than six months after the massacre. The first known novel by an American Indian woman, this work concerns Wovoka's messianic movement and its consequences in the massacre of December 1890. Although it is not a particularly well-written book and its references to the Wounded Knee Massacre are factually inaccurate, it is significant as the first treatment of the subject by a Native American writer.

The novel was already nearly finished before the events of December 1890, and the material concerned with Wounded Knee seems hastily tacked onto what is primarily a romance. While historically the massacre is considered a mythic end of Native American cultures, Callahan's book demonstrates continuance, if in a stilted and forced fashion. While one elderly female character claims to be the only remnant of her tribe to survive the massacre, there are children who survive, one of whom is adopted by the character Wynema. The book also depicts nearly twenty years of the Native American protagonist's life, portraying her assimilation under the influence of the real central character, the white Methodist teacher Genevieve Weir. The Ghost Dance enters the novel through media reports concerning the new belief system.

Despite the inaccuracies in the book's account of Wounded Knee, it is significant insofar as the women become central to the outcome; where most written accounts focus on the actions of men, here almost forty women join their husbands with hostile intentions toward the soldiers. Additionally, the Creek author misunderstands traditional Lakota culture and engages in stereotyping as well, with depictions of "savage" warriors and women with papooses. The author's outrage concerning the massacre is clear, however, and again, is significant inasmuch as it is the first Native American treatment of the issue.


The Lakota writer Charles A. Eastman (also known by his family's Sioux name, Ohiyesa; 1858–1939) was the attending physician to the survivors of the event at Wounded Knee. The second volume of his autobiography, titled From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian, records his observations of the tragic event. First published in 1916, Eastman's work shows that the events at Wounded Knee deeply shook the author's hope in reconciling his Native American sensibilities with his accommodation of Euro-American culture.

In a chapter called "The Ghost Dance War," Eastman refers to the Ghost Dance belief as a "religious craze" (p. 92) that is inconsistent with Native American culture. This chapter details the grievances of the people at Pine Ridge, and he calls the government treaties and other documents "worthless scraps of paper" (p. 99). In the midst of his description of the days leading up to the fateful event, Eastman refers to preparations for Christmas. Four days after the holiday, Eastman notes hearing the sound of the Hotchkiss guns and seeing the arrival of the soldier delivering a report to local cavalry officers. Eastman joined those who traveled to Wounded Knee after the event and acted as surgeon to the wounded, using the chapel as a hospital, and he was among those searching for victims and survivors for miles around the site. Despite the blizzard that followed the massacre, Eastman and his companions found survivors two days afterward. The writer concludes that "this was a severe ordeal for one who had so lately put all his faith in the Christian love and lofty ideals of the white man" (p. 114).


In 1928 Luther Standing Bear (also known as Ota Kte or Plenty Kill, c. 1868–c. 1939) published My People, the Sioux. The author begins his treatment of the Wounded Knee tragedy by discussing treaties made with the white people in a chapter called "The Ghost Dance Troubles." Like Eastman, Standing Bear refers to the new religion as a "craze" that brought great excitement to his people, and again like his predecessor, he sees the Ghost Dance beliefs as superstition.

Standing Bear objects to the official designation of the event as a "battle," claiming it was rather a "slaughter, a massacre" (p. 224). He learns of the event on the day it occurred, and he finds he is prepared to fight the whites as a result, asking how he could convince his people to "follow in the white man's road—even trying to get them to believe in their religion" (p. 224). The writer concludes that the perpetrators lacked "civilized training" (p. 224). He reports that after this event rumors circulated among the Native Americans that the white people intended to kill them all, even those with the white people's education. Upon viewing the site of the tragedy, he notes that some of the pools of water were red with blood, and he observes that he cannot blame the many survivors who fled into the Badlands.


The 1932 text Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt (1881–1973) reflects the impressions of the Lakota holy man Hehaka Sapa, known to most readers as Black Elk, who rode his horse to see the aftermath of the massacre and participated in subsequent skirmishes. Twenty-seven years of age at the time, Black Elk claims to have wanted revenge for what he witnessed. Readers should keep in mind that while the Lakota named Black Elk did indeed share his story with the poet John Neihardt, the written text that results is that of Neihardt, as Black Elk did not speak, read, or write English.

Significantly, then, the two chapters concerned with the Ghost Dance and the massacre appear near the end of the book. Neihardt's usage of this material is the standard portrayal of the mythic end of Native American culture. Even so, it is clear that Black Elk wanted his story to be told. In a chapter called "Bad Trouble Coming" he relates the buildup to the tragic event at Wounded Knee. Black Elk describes visiting the various dances taking place all around the region. In the following chapter, called "The Butchering at Wounded Knee," Black Elk says that the night before the massacre he could hardly sleep, and when he went for his horses in the morning he heard the sound of the cannons firing on the lodges of Big Foot's people. He put on a sacred shirt he had made from images in his vision, saddled his buckskin, and headed for Wounded Knee, still hearing the guns. Black Elk and two companions rescued some women and children who were targeted by the soldiers, then he wrapped up a baby he found and hid her so as to rescue her later. He relates the sight of dead and wounded women, children, and babies, many torn to pieces by the shells of the Hotchkiss guns. He ends this chapter with the eyewitness account of one of his friends. The next chapter in Black Elk Speaks is the final one in the book, which ends, significantly, with a despairing paragraph that expresses the views of Neihardt rather than those of Black Elk.

See alsoAnnexation and Expansion; Indians; Indian Wars; Violence


Primary Works

Callahan, S. Alice. Wynema: A Child of the Forest. 1891. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Eastman, Charles A. (Ohiyesa). From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian. 1916. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee. New York: Dover Publications, 1973.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. 1932. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Standing Bear, Luther. My People, the Sioux. 1928. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

Rick Waters

Wounded Knee

views updated Jun 11 2018

Wounded Knee

The Wounded Knee massacre took place December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The massacre was precipitated when the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army tried to disarm a group of about 500 Lakota Sioux under the leadership of Chief Big Foot. During the contentious process of disarming, a shot was fired. After this, the army began a merciless slaughter. Within hours, the Seventh Cavalry killed between 270 and 300 of Big Foot's people. Of these, 170 to 200 were women and children. The army killed a few men who were fighting back, but the large majority of Lakotas were destroyed while trying to flee or hide. In a few instances, soldiers shot Lakotas at point blank range, three or more miles from the place the firing began.

The chain of events that led to Wounded Knee began six weeks earlier, when the United States government decided to use massive military force to suppress the Ghost Dance on Lakota reservations. The Ghost Dance originated in the teachings of Paiute prophet Wovoka, living on the Walker River Indian Reservation in Nevada. In 1889, Wovoka began to forecast the coming of a new world in which non-Indians would be destroyed or removed, game restored, and tribal ancestors returned to life. Portions of several tribes in the western United States adopted Wovoka's teachings, including several Lakota communities.

Although many scholars have argued that the Lakotas fundamentally altered Wovoka's originally "peaceful" teaching into one of hostility toward European Americans, thus justifying military action, recent scholarship has called this view into question. It is doubtful that the Lakotas changed Wovoka's teachings. Rather, the government's decision to suppress the Ghost Dance among the Lakotas, but not among other tribes, resulted from long-standing American perceptions of the Lakota Sioux as particularly treacherous, as well as army officers' perceptions that the situation on the Lakota reservations afforded an opportunity to demonstrate the continued importance of the army's mission in the West.

The army's invasion of Lakota country, the single largest military operation since the Civil War, was designed to overawe the Lakota ghost dancers into giving up the dance. At first, this strategy had some success. In late November and early December several groups of ghost dancers surrendered. On December 15, however, military officials began to lose control of the situation when reservation Indian police killed Sitting Bull at his home on the Standing Rock Reservation. Fearing for their lives, most of Sitting Bull's people fled south, with some joining Big Foot's village on the Cheyenne River. Army officers responded to these events by adopting a punitive attitude toward Big Foot and the ghost dancers among his people. Big Foot was characterized as "defiant and hostile" and the army positioned troops near his village to secure his arrest.

For their part, Big Foot and the other leaders of his community were deeply fearful of the army's intentions. Having received an invitation from Lakota leaders at Pine Ridge to help with their ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure a peaceful conclusion to the army's invasion of their country, Big Foot decided on December 24 to leave Cheyenne River and travel through the rough country of the Badlands to Pine Ridge. Big Foot's evasion of military surveillance increased army officers' frustration. More than ever they desired to punish Big Foot and his people. Hence, officers in charge of the campaign issued orders to all units to try to find Big Foot, and should they succeed, to disarm him, adding: "If he fights, destroy him." On December 28, the Seventh Cavalry intercepted Big Foot and his people about twenty-five miles from Pine Ridge and escorted them to nearby Wounded Knee Creek. The next morning the Seventh Cavalry began to carry out its orders.

Much of the analysis of Wounded Knee has focused on who fired the first shot. One theory is that army officers planned in advance to open fire, perhaps to avenge the Seventh Cavalry's defeat under George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn fourteen years before. Another theory is that the first shot was fired when a single Indian refused to give up his gun and it discharged accidentally when soldiers tried to take it from him. A third theory, advanced by the army after the massacre, is that a few Lakotas, acting in concert, opened fire.

Wounded Knee qualifies as an instance of genocide most obviously under the first of these theories, as it holds that the destruction of Big Foot's people was intentional. In all likelihood, however, army officers probably did not plan the massacre and instead intended to use the threat of force to secure a bloodless disarmament of Big Foot's people. Nonetheless, even under the second (very likely) theory or the third (very doubtful) theory, the events after the first shot reveal widespread genocidal impulses. Although army officers testified before a court of inquiry that they and their men took great pains to prevent the killing of women and children, their testimony collapses under the weight of the sheer number of casualties and the circumstances of their deaths.

Regardless of who fired the first shot, the killing fields of Wounded Knee must be placed within a long tradition of racist Indian-hating in American culture, reflected in widely held axioms like "nits breed lice" and "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," and manifested in numerous instances in which the army, volunteers, and civilians engaged in acts of indiscriminate slaughter with the intent to kill as many Indians as possible. Neither the army's campaign to suppress the Lakota Ghost Dance nor nineteenth-century U.S. Indian policy explicitly called for the extermination of all Indians. Yet, both were premised on the view that Indian opposition to U.S. authority was illegitimate and deserving of punishment, and that it was therefore legitimate to use the threat of extermination to secure policy objectives. In many instances, as at Wounded Knee, the threat of genocide became reality.

SEE ALSO Indigenous Peoples; Massacres; Native Americans; Racism


Brown, Dee (1971). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Mooney, James (1896). The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1892–1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Ostler, Jeffrey (2004). The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Utley, Robert (1963). The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Jeffrey Ostler

Wounded Knee (1973)

views updated May 08 2018


WOUNDED KNEE (1973). American Indian activism in the 1960s and 1970s culminated with the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota by American Indian Movement (AIM) members. In early 1973 AIM leaders responded to requests from members of the Lakota community to enter Wounded Knee and establish an alternative political community within the Lakota Nation. Residents opposed the tribal government of Chairman Richard "Dick" Wilson, charging that Wilson abused and overextended his power by placing the tribal police force under his direct command and using violence and terror on community members who opposed his goals.

AIM had gained notoriety for its pan-Indian vision of community activism, self-awareness, and empowerment—bringing attention to the enduring economic and political struggles of Indian peoples. AIM members had occupied several reservation border towns, such as Gordon, Nebraska, to protest white racism and discrimination against Indians, and when invited to Pine Ridge, hundreds of Indian activists mobilized for an armed struggle. Under the leadership of Russell Means and Dennis Banks, AIM members declared themselves representatives of the legitimate leaders of the Oglala Nation, issued a series of demands, including the recognition of outstanding Lakota treaty rights, and seized the town of Wounded Knee in February 1973.

Because of Wounded Knee's infamous history as the site of the 1890 massacre and the attention it garnered in the best-selling book by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, AIM's occupation attracted immediate press coverage and evoked deep sentiments throughout the United States. The image of armed Indian militants occupying historic monuments in protest of racism, injustice, and continued economic and political oppression resonated with many minority and activist communities, and AIM found sympathizers and supporters throughout the country.

As the standoff intensified, Wilson called in the National Guard. Heavily armed national guardsmen with advanced weaponry and assault vehicles laid siege to the AIM encampment. During the ensuing seventy-day siege, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired. Two AIM members were killed, and one federal marshal was seriously injured. Facing daily terror and supply shortages, AIM members surrendered on 8 May 1973 and were quickly arrested. The ensuing trials, particularly those of Banks and Means, attracted national attention.

Violence continued to plague Pine Ridge, and in 1975 a shootout involving AIM leaders left two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and one Native American man dead. The FBI charged Leonard Peltier, a member of AIM, with killing the agents. Following his extradition from Canada, Peltier was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. His controversial trial and sentence attracted condemnation from international legal observers, and many people consider Peltier the leading political prisoner of the United States.


Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.


See alsoAlcatraz ; American Indian Movement ; Bureau of Indian Affairs .

Wounded Knee Massacre

views updated May 21 2018


WOUNDED KNEE MASSACRE marked the climax of United States efforts to subjugate Lakota-speaking Sioux Indians at the end of the nineteenth century. During 1890 a new religious movement called the Ghost Dance captured the loyalty of many western Indians. On the Sioux reservations, this movement attracted men and women who resented the government's heavy-handed tactics and were drawn to new rituals that promised an era of peace and future union with dead relatives. Unfortunately, just as tensions began to rise over the Ghost Dance, an inexperienced political appointee, Daniel Royer, took control of the agency at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. On 15 November, fearing that the ghost dancers might become violent, Royer called for military assistance. Tensions rose again on 15 December, when the Indians at Pine Ridge learned that Sitting Bull had been killed while being arrested on a nearby Standing Rock reservation. The agent there had believed arresting the old warrior would quell the Ghost Dance at his agency. Fearing similar action at the neighboring Cheyenne River reservation, the Miniconjou leader Big Foot gathered his followers and departed overland to join allies at Pine Ridge. Big Foot and his band were apprehended by elements of the Seventh Cavalry near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation on the evening of 28 December.

On the morning of 29 December, with troops deployed in a hollow square around the Indians, regimental commander Colonel George A. Forsyth ordered everyone in Big Foot's band to surrender their weapons. One warrior fired a concealed gun while being disarmed; the surrounding troops responded by opening fire. Hotchkiss guns on a nearby hillside fired indiscriminately into the Indian encampment gunning down those fleeing to safety. When the shooting stopped Big Foot, along with 145 others, including 45 women and 18 children, lay dead. The official death toll rose to 153 when seven of the fifty-one band members known to be wounded that day later died. In addition, an unknown number either were killed and carried from the scene by relatives or escaped and later died from their wounds. The army reported twenty-five soldiers dead and thirty-nine wounded; Forsyth's superiors asserted that some of the army casualties were victims of crossfire from their own comrades. His commander relieved him of his command and charged him with incompetence, but he was exonerated. Later, twenty

soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service in the massacre. Sioux leaders continue to protest these awards and to advocate the creation of a memorial park at the site.


Utley, Robert. The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.

Frederick E.Hoxie

Wounded Knee, Massacre at

views updated Jun 27 2018

Wounded Knee, Massacre at (December 29, 1890) Last stage in the conflict between Native Americans and US forces. Fearing a rising by the Sioux, US troops arrested several leaders. Sitting Bull was killed resisting arrest. Another group was arrested a few days later and brought to Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A shot was fired and the troops opened fire. About 300 people, including women and children, were killed.