On this day in 1890, soldiers of the US Army’s 7th cavalry open fire on a band of the Lakota tribe at Wounded Knee Creek, indiscriminately killing between 150 to 300 men, women and children. Two weeks previous, soldiers and reservation police had killed Sitting Bull during his arrest, and the day prior to the massacre, leader Spotted Elk’s band were “escorted” to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp.
Continuing abhorrent practices on this continent dating back to the 16th century, white settlers would migrate inward, claiming swaths of land occupied and cultivated by indigenous peoples for centuries previous. This would often meet with fierce and sometimes violent resistance from said peoples, and these clashes would intensify in the latter half of the 19th century, as the US government repeatedly drafted, signed and then violated treaties with various Plains tribal leaders.
Most Prominent among these Plains Indians were the Sioux, of which the Lakota were a subgroup. The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 established the 60-million-acre Great Sioux Reservation and created agencies to represent the federal government among each tribe. If the Lakota stayed on the reservation and refrained from attacking white settlers, they would be provided with food rations, education, and other state-funded benefits.
Notwithstanding treaty terms, rich natural resources would inevitably be found on reservation land, causing the white men to blithely violate their own treaty and shrink down the allotted area to get at the spoils; by 1887 the General Allotment Act further reduced the 60-million acres to a mere 12.7 million, barely 20 percent of the original allotment.The unbroken tract of land now consisted of six separate reservations centered on existing federal agencies.
Simultaneous with this geographic strangulation, the entirely unsustainable isolation on reservations forced the indigenous peoples away from their natural hunting, gathering and fisheries practices, rendering them dependent upon food rationing from the US. Then in 1889 the Congress slashed the annual Lakota rations budget; combined with the harsh winter and drought of 1889–90, the tribe was pushed to the brink of starvation.
Against this desperate backdrop, news spread among the reservations of a Paiute prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance religion. He had a vision that the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to Earth in the form of a Native American, and the Ghost Dance Movement began to alarm settlers and the army alike.
In 1890 the fearful and intolerant Daniel F. Royer became head of the Pine Ridge Agency, and as many of the Oglala Lakota on his reservation had become “Ghost Dancers,” he sought an end to the movement. At the “request” of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Royer prepared a list of “troublemakers” for relocation.
Amid much movement among various Indian groups still seeking peace, Lakota Chief Spotted Elk (Sintanka), known by the white man as Bigfoot, was essentially forced to lead a band of Miniconjou into the area known as Wounded Knee. Shortly after an encirclement of the tribes-people, the remainder of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by Col. James W. Forsyth, arrived and surrounded the encampment, supported by a battery of four Hotchkiss repeating mountain guns.
The following morning, Forsyth demanded they surrender their weapons; a scuffle broke out between a deaf tribesman and soldier, a single shot was fired, and the brutal massacre followed. Scholars estimate up to half the number of dead were women and children.
In the words of Lakota medicine man Black Elk, “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 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.”