What really happened at Wounded Knee, the site of a historic massacre

In 1890, U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children in an attempt to suppress a religious movement—and were awarded medals of honor for their acts of violence.

In January 1891, a group of U.S. Army soldiers marched past their general for a final review. Though their setting was a windswept, seemingly empty South Dakota valley, it was a festive occasion. Company after company paraded past, observed only by their general and small clusters of the people they had recently subdued.

Just a few weeks before, 500 of these marching men had massacred at least 300 Lakota men, women, and children. Twenty of the soldiers would soon receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest and most prestigious commendation, for their actions at Wounded Knee.

More than a century later, legislators and activists are calling on President Joe Biden to revoke the medals awarded to the soldiers who participated in the killings. Once touted as a victory against an intractable enemy, Wounded Knee is remembered today as an outright massacre. 

(Subscriber exclusive: In the shadow of Wounded Knee.)

The origins of the Ghost Dance

The massacre at Wounded Knee was a reaction to a religious movement that gave fleeting hope to Plains Indians whose lives had been upended by white settlement. The Ghost Dance movement swept through Native American tribes in the American West beginning in the 1870s. It was based on a series of teachings by Paiute medicine men, who prophesied that an upcoming upheaval would lead to the eradication of white men from the Earth and the resurgence of Native Americans.

The movement quickly took on special significance for the Lakota people of North and South Dakota. Over the course of a few decades they had lost over 58 million acres of their land, and were forced to share what was left among multiple tribes and bands. By 1889, they had been split into five separate reservations in North and South Dakota. (Reckoning with a century of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native American children.)

The movement’s adherents thought that songs and ceremonies could hasten the coming disaster, bring back their dead, and ensure the restoration of their lands. Lakota believers wore special shirts thought to repel bullets, while some experienced a hypnotic state brought on by the repetitive songs and shuffling, circular mass dances shared by followers.

'We need protection.'

But the Ghost Dancers’ hopes were met with fear from white settlers, who worried the rituals would incite violence against them. Federal Indian agent Daniel F. Royer—jokingly nicknamed “Young Man Afraid of Indians” by the Lakota he had been hired to monitor—was one of them. In December 1890, Royer sent a desperate telegraph from Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands region of South Dakota to his bosses at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

“Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” he wrote. “We need protection, and we need it now.”

American authorities on other Lakota reservations were also worried about the Ghost Dance’s most prominent adherent, Chief Sitting Bull. In 1876, he had led the offensive against the U.S. Army and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” in which Custer and all of his soldiers were killed.

Though technically a prisoner of war being held at the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota, Sitting Bull had been given special permission to travel the country as a performer, most famously with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in 1885. But by the time Royer telegraphed his bosses in 1890, Sitting Bull was back at Standing Rock and had indicated he would permit Ghost Dancers to gather in his camp.

The war against the Ghost Dance

Convinced the movement posed a threat to whites, the U.S. Army banned Ghost Dance ceremonies on all reservations in December 1890 and began amassing troops across the region. The federal government had initially planned to have Buffalo Bill Cody try to convince Sitting Bull to make the dancers stand down. But Cody was intercepted enroute by Army officials and ordered to turn back. The U.S. Army now planned to arrest Sitting Bull instead.

On December 15, 1890, about 40 Native American policemen employed by the Indian Agency converged on Sitting Bull and attempted to take him into custody. When he resisted, a skirmish broke out and Bull Head, the police lieutenant, shot and killed Sitting Bull. Some of Sitting Bull’s band fled in the night and headed to join the slain chief’s half-brother, Chief Spotted Elk, at another reservation.

Convinced federal troops would kill more chiefs, Spotted Elk and his allies headed south to Pine Ridge in search of protection. But their pace was slowed by the weather and illnesses. On December 28, they encountered Army troops, who told them to head to Wounded Knee Creek. That night, as the Lakota made camp at Wounded Knee, about 500 soldiers surrounded the 300 or so men, women, and children.

Carnage at Wounded Knee Creek

The next morning, Colonel James W. Forsyth ordered the Lakota to lay down their weapons and told them they would be taken to a new camp. The Lakota assumed this meant they would be moved away from Lakota territory altogether. Some began to sing Ghost Dance songs.

The troops surrounding the Lakota had been taught that the Ghost Dance and its ceremonies were preludes to war. When one of the dancers took dirt from the ground and flung it in the air, the soldiers interpreted it as a signal of some kind and began firing.

The result was carnage. Though they fought back, the Lakota were at a numerical disadvantage and were outgunned, especially by the early machine guns used by some of the troops.

By the time the shooting stopped a few hours later, bodies were everywhere. Most, including babies and women, had been shot at close range. Some of the Lakota dead were found up to three miles away from the camp where the few who fled had been chased down.

The U.S. Army recovered its own dead, but left the Lakota victims to freeze during the three-day blizzard that followed. Before flinging the frozen bodies into a mass grave, many soldiers stripped the Lakota naked, saving their ghost shirts as souvenirs.

Twenty-five Army soldiers were killed during the fighting, many due to friendly fire. Though no reliable record of Lakota victims remains, contemporary historians estimate at least 300 were killed.

Battle or massacre?

As soon as word of the incident got out, people began to tussle over how to define what had happened at Wounded Knee. Forsyth was relieved of his command after the massacre. His conduct was investigated, but he defended his actions and was quickly reinstated. American newspapers that had breathlessly followed the amassing of troops in the Dakotas portrayed it as a necessary battle; local white settlers celebrated it as a victory over a warlike people.

“We had better, in order to protect our civilization…wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the earth,” wrote South Dakota newspaperman L. Frank Baum, the future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in response to the news.

Meanwhile, Native Americans, Lakota and otherwise, interpreted it as a sign that the U.S. government would stop at nothing to eradicate them. “I did not know then how much was ended,” wrote Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man who survived the massacre. “The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

It would be the last large skirmish in a century of armed conflict between Native Americans and American troops.

Should the Medals of Honor be revoked?

In 1891, the Army issued 20 Medals of Honor to soldiers who had participated in the atrocity.

Over the years, public opinion about the incident shifted as historians dug into the events surrounding the incident. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s 1970 history of how white Americans’ actions along the frontier devastated Native Americans, sold millions of copies and turned Wounded Knee into a household name. And as part of the broader fight for Native American sovereignty, participants in the American Indian Movement called attention to the massacre, including during a 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee in which two activists were shot. (Learn more about the Red Power movement's fight for sovereignty.)

Wounded Knee became a rallying cry for activists as they pointed out how centuries of land theft, broken treaties, and forced assimilation affected Native Americans. In 1990 Congress formally apologized for the slaughter.

Calls to rescind the medals have grown louder. In January 2021, the South Dakota State Senate passed a bill that called on the U.S. Congress to open an official inquiry into the medals, and a group of U.S. lawmakers attempted to revive an earlier proposal to revoke the medals. Now, with that bill languishing in committee, they are calling on Biden to do it himself.

 “You have the authority to revoke these medals immediately,” wrote the lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Kansas Congresswoman Sharice L. Davids, in a letter to the president on November 2, 2021. “It is well past time to remove this stain from our nation’s history.”

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