Wounded Knee Creek
In the frozen waste of the Badlands I sigh
under the snow for those who fell here
I remember the red-stained white snow
churned into mud and blood by fear
I hold in my white arms the memory
of frightened people running like deer
Between my banks the water still flows
to honor them, tear by helpless tear
(© Chris Alba)
On Dec. 29, 1890, along Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota, 146 Sioux people were massacred by the U.S. Army. Nearly half of them were women and children. They were retreating as ordered to the Pine Ridge reservation.
Surrounded by a force of more than 350 men armed with cannon and guns, the Sioux had given up what rifles they had and were powwowing with cavalry leaders about the ordered retreat. Their old chief, Big Foot, was bleeding from pneumonia.
The phenomenon known as the Ghost Dance had recently led to a resurgence of resistance by the native tribes to the reservations demanded by the U.S. government. The Ghost Dance vision foresaw the return of the buffalo, and a new freedom for the Indian. Officials feared it would lead to native uprisings against whites.
U.S. government Indian police killed Sioux holy man Sitting Bull on Dec. 15. Chief Big Foot led the surviving members of the tribe toward the Pine Ridge reservation as commanded.
During the powwow, a single gunshot was heard. Immediately the cavalry, including mounted guns, erupted into gunfire at point-blank range. Half of the Sioux people were killed outright, along with 25 soldiers from “friendly fire.” Many of the remaining Sioux were tracked and killed. A few survived to make the trip to Pine Ridge.
The U.S. government awarded 20 Medals of Honor to the Army 7th Cavalry.
The photos here, from top to bottom are: Sioux Chief Big Foot, dead at Wounded Knee (from the National Archives); chief Sitting Bull, killed two weeks earlier in Standing Rock; and burial of the dead at Wounded Knee (from the Library of Congress).
With special thanks to Mark Durfee of The Walking Man (see my blog roll), you’ll find an awesome ballad of the massacre at Wounded Knee here: The Ghost Dance by Robbie Robertson
The saga of Wounded Knee didn’t end in 1890.
By February 1973, corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribal Council was at an all-time high. Tension on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation was building and quickly getting out of control.
Elders of the Lakota Nation (known as the Sioux) asked for assistance from the American Indian Movement (AIM), an activist group of mixed tribes. This brought to a head more than a hundred years of racial tension and appalling treatment by the U.S. government.
On that winter day in 1973, a large group of armed Native Americans reclaimed the village of Wounded Knee in the name of the Lakota Nation. They were quickly surrounded by U.S. Marshals and military troops with automatic weapons, who cut off roads and food supplies to the town.
The siege lasted 71 days. It ended in an armed battle with U.S. forces. Two AIM members died by gunfire. One U.S. Marshal was paralyzed.
I sat in the audience as AIM member Dennis Banks spoke at my university a few years later. I’ve never forgotten the experience.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was the end of the Indians' free reign in this country. The siege of Wounded Knee was the beginning of a new Indian groundswell for freedom from the reins of government control
There’s a very fine book about the westward expansion of the U.S and its destruction of the Native American people, called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. It culminates with the massacre at Wounded Knee, which is generally considered to be the end of the Indian Wars. You can find Wikipedia’s discussion of it HERE.
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