The Massacre at Wounded Knee

After Sitting Bull's death, Big Foot feared for the safety of his band, which consisted in large part of widows of the Plains wars and their children. Big Foot himself had been placed on the list of "fomenters of disturbances," and his arrest had been ordered. He led his band toward Pine Ridge, hoping for the protection of Red Cloud. However, he fell ill from pneumonia on the trip and was forced to travel in the back of a wagon. As they neared Porcupine Creek on December 28, the band saw 4 troops of cavalry approaching. A white flag was immediately run up over Big Foot's wagon. When the two groups met, Big Foot raised up from his bed of blankets to greet Major Samuel Whitside of the Seventh Cavalry. His blankets were stained with blood and blood dripped from his nose as he spoke.

Whitside informed him of his orders to take the band to their camp on Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot replied that they were going that way, to Pine Ridge. The major wanted to disarm the Indians right then but was dissuaded by his scout John Shangreau, in order to avoid a fight on the spot. They agreed to wait to undertake this until they reached camp. Then, in a moment of sympathy, the major ordered his army ambulance brought forward to accept the ill Minneconjou chief, providing a warmer and more comfortable ride. They then proceeded toward the camp at Wounded Knee Creek, led by two cavalry troops with the other two troops bringing up the rear with their Hotchkiss guns. They reached the camp at twilight.

At the camp, the Indians were carefully counted; there were 120 men and 230 women and children. Major Whitside decided to wait until morning to disarm the band. They were assigned a camp site just to the south of the cavalry camp, given rations, and provided with several tents as there was a shortage of tepee covers. A stove was provided for Big Foot's tent and the doctor was sent to give aid to the chief. To guarantee against escape from the camp, two troops of cavalry were posted around the Indian tents and the Hotchkiss guns were placed on the top of a rise overlooking the camp. The guns were aimed directly at the lodges.

During the night the rest of the Seventh Cavalry marched in and set up north of Major Whitside's troops. Two more Hotchkiss guns were placed beside the two already aimed at the lodges. Colonel John Forsyth took over command of the operation and informed Major Whitside that he had orders to take the band to the railroad to be shipped to a military prison in Omaha.

In the morning a bugle call awakened the camp and the men were told to come to the center of the camp for a talk. After the talk they would move to Pine Ridge. Big Foot was brought out and seated before his tent. The older men of the band gathered around him. Hardtack was issued for breakfast. Then the Indians were informed that they would be disarmed. They stacked their guns in the center, but the soldiers were not satisfied. The soldiers went through the tents, bringing out bundles and tearing them open, throwing knives, axes, and tent stakes into the pile. Then they ordered searches of the individual warriors. The Indians became very angry but only one spoke out, the medicine man, Yellow Bird. He danced a few steps of the Ghost Dance and chanted in Sioux, telling the Indians that the bullets would not hurt them, they would go right by.

The search found only two rifles, one brand new, belonging to a young man named Black Coyote. He raised it over his head and cried out that he had spent much money for the rifle and that it belonged to him. Black Coyote was deaf and therefore did not respond promptly to the demands of the soldiers. He would have been convinced to put it down by the Sioux, but that option was not possible. He was grabbed by the soldiers and spun around. Then a shot was heard; its source is not clear but it began the killing. The only arms the Indians had were what they could grab from the pile. When the Hotchkiss guns opened up, shrapnel shredded the lodges, killing men, women and children, indiscriminately. They tried to run but were shot down "like buffalo," women and children alike.

When the mass insanity of the soldiers ended, 153 dead were counted, including Big Foot; but many of the wounded had crawled off to die alone. One estimate place the final death toll at 350 Indian men, women and children. Twenty-five soldiers died and 39 were wounded, most by their own shrapnel and bullets. The wounded soldiers were started back to the Pine Ridge agency. Then a detail of soldiers went over the battlefield, gathering up any Indians that were still alive and placing them in wagons. As a blizzard was approaching, the dead were left where they had fallen. The wagons with the wounded arrived at Pine Ridge after dark. They contained only 4 Sioux men and 47 women and children. These people were left outside in wagons in the bitter cold while a search was made for housing for them. Finally the Episcopal mission was opened, the benches removed and hay scattered over the floor as bedding for the wounded Sioux. As they were brought in, those who were conscious could see the Christmas decorations hanging from the rafters.

After the blizzard a burial party returned to the battlefield, they found the bodies including that of Big Foot, frozen into contorted shapes.

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . . the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
---- Black Elk

The book To Have This Land by Philip S. Hall, from the University of South Dakota Press, clearly shows the effect of white settlement in the Dakotas on calls for opening up the Great Sioux Reservation to white settlement. This pressure was a great factor leading to the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Lakota Accounts of Wounded Knee (1890) are available from the PBS web site for the series The West
The Wounded Knee site played another significant role in the history of the Sioux nation, in 1973 in the second siege of Wounded Knee. The siege began as an occupation of the church at Wounded Knee in protest of the government of Dickie Wilson, the officially sanctioned government of the reservation. This government was so corrupt that several groups had sprung up to provide alternate paths to accomplish their ends by cooperative efforts. These groups supported the young people who occupied the church. There had been almost open warfare on the reservation for some time before the occupation. Now the tribal government called in the troops to lay seige to the church. Many accounts of this period are available. The books that I recommend can be found in the acknowledgements and essential reading lists.

There are also tributes to those who fell in the "battles" in both sieges at Wounded Knee in the lyrics of modern Native American musicians. Among these are Bury my heart at Wounded Knee by Buffy Sainte-Marie and For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash by Joy Harjo & Poetic Justice.

There is a movement now to make a national monument of the Wounded Knee site. At first glance it would appear to provide a small amount of historical balance, a recognition that many of our fellow human beings, our Indian brothers and sisters, were massacred here by a troop of ignorant and scared men paid by the United States government to make sure that no trouble was caused for the white men seeking their fortunes in this "new territory." But this is not our monument, our sacred place. It belongs to the Sioux. It must be honored in their way; not with paved parking lots and souvenirs, rangers to give a sanitized version of what happened here to tourists who will stop for a few hours and spend a few dollars. There is active opposition to this park proposal from within the Pine Ridge community. The park opponents have a detailed list of reasons for their opposition.

A collection of documents and statements concerning Wounded Knee is available online. There is also information on the American Indian Movement (AIM).

And from the National Archives Photograph Collection:
[This image collection is temporarily offline. If should become available again in 1999.]

Officers in tent by fire during the Pine Ridge campaign, 1890-91
Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, captured at the battle of Wounded Knee, S.D
"Return of Casey's scouts from the fight at Wounded Knee, 1890-91." Soldiers on horseback plod through the snow.
"Brig. Gen Nelson A. Miles and Buffalo Bill viewing hostile Indian camp near Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota." from the National Archives Photograph Collection.

"Villa of Brule. The great hostile Indian camp on River Brule near Pine Ridge, S.D."

Devil's Lake, Dakota, agency and school

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© 1995 Karen M. Strom