This day in 1890: The massacre at Wounded Knee

Court of Leaves, Painting by GateKeeper

Court of Leaves, Painting by GateKeeper


1890 (29 December): The 7th U.S. Cavalry commanded by Col. James Forsyth massacred 300 unarmed and peaceful Lakhota Sioux Indians, many of them women and children, at Wounded Knee Creek (Chankpe Opi Wakpala), South Dakota – a Lakota encampment on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – after a fruitless search for weapons in their encampment. In other words, the Sioux are completely disarmed. About thirty soldiers also died, many victims of their own crossfire.

The U.S. media hailed the killings as revenge for the defeat of Custer’s and the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn. Some women and children are found as far as two miles away, gunned down by soldiers. The Lakota Indian, “American Horse,” comments on the massacre:

The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there. Of course we all feel very sad about this affair. I stood very loyal to the government all through those troublesome days, and … being so loyal to it, my disappointment was very strong, and I have come to Washington with a very great blame on my heart ….

Heroic U.S. troops posing for a photo beside a mass grave dug for the victims of the massacre at Wounded Knee (Click to enlarge)

Heroic U.S. troops posing for a photo beside a mass grave dug for the victims of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Twenty of the soldiers that day were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Click to enlarge)

1891 (3 January): The Lakota ancestors killed that day were left in brutal frigid wintry plains of the reservation before a burial party came to bury them in one mass grave. The burial party picks up the frozen bodies (see photo below), about 146, still left on the massacre site after a raging blizzard swept through the area. They dig a mass grave and bury the dead without ceremony. At least one Lakot is said to have been buried alive.

U.S. soldier Nelson A. Miles stated to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on March 13, 1917, “The official reports make the number killed 90 warriors and approximately 200 women and children.”

When Indians were killed in large numbers by the military it was usually considered a great victory and an honoured battle. The massacre is actually listed as a battle in the records of the U.S. Army and heroized. Some 20 U.S. Calvary soldiers were given the Medal of Honor – for killing innocent Lakota men, women and children. Richard W. Hill. Sr. writes in a documentary essay:

“It is my premise that the massacre at Wounded Knee was a planned disaster, orchestrated by the military and the Indian agents in order to force the Lakota into a fight. The army wanted a final decisive victory over the Indians and Wounded Knee provided them with the right opportunity. Once the terrible details of the massacre became evident, the U.S. army then acted to turn the massacre into a heroic victory by awarding the Medals of Honor. They wanted any questions about the conduct of the army to be seen as unpatriotic. To this very day, the army and Congress have attempted to cover up the injustice and have refused to rescind the medals. They continue to make the massacre of the Indian prisoners of war a heroic event.”


U.S. soldiers with Hotchkiss machine guns, Wounded Knee, 1890.

The U.S. army displays its flag with over 170 battle streamers at the Pentagon, White House, West Point Military Academy, museums and Army posts throughout the world. The Pine Ridge battle streamer has the highest number of Congressional Medals of (dis)Honor (20) of all the streamers… Citing the massacre of 300 unarmed men, women and children, who were slaughtered at a railroad bridge at No Gun Ri, during a three-day rampage in July 1950 in the Korean War, Richard Hill pointed out that “it is not the first massacre of unarmed civilians committed by the US army, nor is it the first coverup.”

In 1898, General “Hell Roaring” Jake Smith, this veteran of the Wounded Knee massacre and a colleague of General Douglas MacArthur, commanded U.S. soldiers of the Expeditionary Force to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, ordering them to kill all Filipino males over the age of ten. He said: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” The result was genocidal.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress, after extensive hearings on the matter, issued a statement of “deep regret” for the massacre at Wounded Knee, but refused to issue a formal “apology.”

Beginning on Feb. 27, 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 71-day standoff between the American Indian Movement and federal law enforcement officials. (See below)

Context: The U.S. state-organized extermination of the Plains Indians

Click on this map, created by Lousiana State professor Sam B. Hillard, to see the rapid loss of land by the Native Americans – starting from when Columbus “discovered” the America and ending in 1895, when native people retained only 2.3 per cent of their original land.

The U.S. army massacre at Wounded Knee did not happen in a vacuum, and was not an unrelated or exceptional incident:

“By the mid-19th century, US policymakers and military commanders were stating – openly, frequently and in plain English – that their objective was no less than the ‘complete extermination’ of any native people who resisted being dispossessed of their lands, subordinated to federal authority, and assimilated into the colonizing culture. The country was as good as its word on the matter, perpetrating literally hundreds of massacres of Indians by military and paramilitary formations at points all over the West. A bare sampling of some of the worst must include the 1854 massacre of perhaps 150 Lakotas at Blue River (Nebraska), the 1863 Bear River (Idaho) Massacre of some 500 Western Shoshones, the 1864 Sand Creek (Colorado) Massacre of as many as 250 Cheyennes and Arapahoes, the 1868 massacre of another 300 Cheyennes at the Washita River (Oklahoma), the 1875 massacre of about seventy-five Cheyennes along the Sappa Creek (Kansas), the 1878 massacre of still another 100 Cheyennes at Camp Robinson (Nebraska), and the 1890 massacre of more than 300 Lakotas at Wounded Knee (South Dakota). . . .” – Lenore Stiffarm with Phil Lane, “The Demography of Native North America,” in Annette Jaimes, ed., The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, Boston: South End, 1992, pp. 34-36

1825 (5 July): Treaty with Sioune (now Cheyenne River) and Oglala Sioux Tribes: The United States agreed in article 2 to take the Sioux Indians under their protection.

1868 (29 April): Fort Laramie Treaty between the U.S. government and the Sioux: The parties agreed in Article 1 that all war between them would forever cease and pledged their honour to keep the peace; that the United States would reimburse the Indians for wrongs and loss of property T,” committed by persons acting under federal authority and that the Indians would extradite bad men on their reservation to the United States. In article 2, the parties agreed that the Sioux reservation would be held for their absolute and undisturbed use and occupation; in article 12, that no cession of the Sioux reservation would be valid without the signatures of three-fourths of the adult males interested in the reservation; in articles 11 and 16, that the Sioux had the right to hunt in the Bighorn Mountains and area north of the North Platte River.

1871: The U.S. Congress put through an order to stop the signing of treaties with Native Peoples in the United States.

1872: During the first decade after the Civil War, the United States acquired nearly one-fourth of the land within its modern contiguous boundaries entirely free of any legal obligation to pay more than token compensation. In 1872, the U.S. Congress ended government-to-government treaty-making power, i.e., any negotiating power or say for the Aboriginal peoples regarding their treatment. It exercised plenary power to strip away the last formal vestiges of Indian juridical sovereignty by providing that “[n]o Indian nation or tribe shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” (In Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall had interpreted the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution to hold that Congress had “plenary” power over Indian affairs. By adding plenary power to the legal arsenal, Worcester and its progeny ushers in a violent phase of expansion, executed under the rubric “Manifest Destiny.”) No longer compelled as a matter of federal law to treat Indian nations as foreign sovereigns or to regulate Indian affairs by treaty, the government could now acquire Indian land without even the pretence of consent. The Congress, unwilling to allow “(a)n idle and thriftless race of savages … to stand guard at the treasure vaults of the nation[,]” gave the Army free rein to employ genocide to crush the last obstacles to the orderly march of capitalists to the Pacific.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the might of the U.S. Army was directed toward Indian eradication. Military and civilian contractors induced deliberate starvation by destroying primary food sources such as the buffalo, yet Indian tenacity necessitated more direct applications of force. One by one, the Seminole, Nez Perce, Lakota, Shoshone, Comanche, Apache, and other tribes were hunted, pursued, cornered, and murdered. A series of “massacres” are written in Indian blood on the pages of American history: Blue River [1854], Bear River [1863], Sand Creek [1864], Washita River [1868], Sappa Creek [1875], Camp Robinson [1878], Wounded Knee [1890], and about forty others. Gruesome, shocking, deliberate exterminations of defenceless women and children, are understood as perfectly legal exercises of State and federal authority, as the law then stood.

1872: The U.S. Congress ended government-to-government treaty making power, i.e., any negotiating power or say by the Aboriginal peoples about their treatment. From 1776-1907, in a vast theatre of war that extends from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande, California and Washington, the U.S. Army is involved in 1,470 official actions against the Indigenous peoples (Utter, 103), excluding actions by the U.S. Navy and private armies, with 1,065 combat operations between 1866 and 1891. It is a war

“in which many Native leaders leave a legacy of struggle that, like those struggles in South and Mesoamerica, would remain as symbols of European civilization: Crazy Horse, Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull), Ten Bears, Victorio, Geronimo, Quannah Parker, Wovoka, Black Kettle, Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, and so many others.” [“500 Years of Resistance,”

Estimates of the pre-Columbian indigenous population in what later became the United States range from five to ninety four million. By 1880 disease, slaughter, slavery, and aggressive wars reduced their number to as few as 300,000 – and declining, that is 98 per cent.

1873 (March): Thus, broadly speaking, there existed an absolutely enormous Indian and buffalo territory stretching from the North Platte River of the United States in the south, to the Saskatchewan rivers of Canada in the north. Between the extremes of these two river systems, outposts of U.S. “civilization” appeared as insignificant dots in an ocean-like expanse of prairies, badlands and foothills. By 1873 (except for the brief 1874-75 Red River War, yet to explode over the western extremes of the Indian Territory and Staked Plains of the Texas panhandle), this was the last stronghold of the fabled Plains Indian tribes, and here they still ruled supreme.

Taking the military needs of the situation into careful consideration, General Philip H. Sheridan chose Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry to garrison the new army Fort Abraham Lincoln and spearhead whatever official activities against the non-reservation Indians the federal government might sanction. They were assigned to duty in Dakota Territory in March of 1873 – the same time that General Sherman was making his speech to Congress and President Grant was being sworn into his second term.


Sitting Bull (Thatháŋka Íyotake)

1873 (4, 11 and 16 August): After designating two companies of the Seventh Cavalry under Major Marcus Reno to serve as military escort for the joint Canadian-American border surveying commission, Custer led the remainder of his regiment in protection duty for the Northern Pacific Railroads surveying expedition into Montana during the summer of 1873.

This results in their first armed clashes with the non-reservation tribes of Sitting Bull (Thatháŋka Íyotake) on August 4, 11 and 16 along the Yellowstone River.

The deployment of Custer, who was campaigning for the U.S. presidency, also had to do with tentative U.S. plans – based on the “Manifest Destiny” imperialist spirit – to annex Western Canada away from the expansionist new Dominion of Canada, which itself was suppressing the Métis and Plains Indians in Manitoba.

1876 (25 June): U.S. President Grant deployed the 7th Cavalry into the Great Sioux Reservation in the Black Hills of the Montana Territory in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868. A well-armed Indian fighting force of 1,200 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeat Gen George Custer in a brilliantly-conducted battle at Little Bighorn, Montana, a significant military reversal in the course of the onslaught on Indigenous peoples.

Until 1881, Sitting Bull and his people lived in Canada, the United States having seized 22.8 million acres of the Sioux Reservation. This ends the nomadic existence of the Plains Indians in the USA, who henceforth live on reserves.

The free Apaches, led by the legendary Geronimo (Goyathlay), continued a concerted armed resistance from the remote Sierra Madre range in the Chihuahua region of Mexico until the mid-1880s against the acquisitors of their ancestral lands in Arizona, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. “They are the tigers of the human species,” states Lt-Col George Crook of a 5,000-man force, one quarter of the U.S. army, sent to crush his force. Finally captured in 1886 due to the use of Indian scouts, the U.S. deported them (and the scouts) to a special military prison in Pensacola, Florida, holding them without charge for decades, the precursor to Bush’s military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, 125 years later. (Anthony Hall)

1877 (28 February): The Black Hills Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in the same year as the signing of Treaty 7 in Canada (signed by the Tsuu T’ina, Siksika, Stoney, Peigan and Blood Nations covering the remaining lands in southern Alberta), illustrates how the two states are synchronizing their politics of colonial justice and dispossession. In article 1 Congress confiscated the Black Hills portion of the 1868 Treaty Reservation (7.3 million acres) without the consent of three-fourths of the adult male Indians as required by the 1868 treaty. This is also in violation of the Fifth Amendment, since the Sioux Nation acquired vested title to the land under U.S. law. In article 5 Congress promised that, in consideration for the land and hunting rights confiscated, it would give the Sioux Indians all aid necessary for civilization and subsistence rations (or the equivalent thereof) for as long as necessary for their survival. In article 8, Congress agreed that the Indians will be subject to the laws of the United States, thereby extending the protections of the First Amendment to freely exercise their religion and of the Fifth Amendment rights to the protection of real and personal property. In the same article, Congress promised that each Sioux Indian would be protected in his rights of property, person, and life. (Cited from J.S. Dill, The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty, Appendix E,

1881: Big Bear and Little Pine plan a Grand Council in Montana for all western Indians. The U.S. Government was warned and they prevented most Canadian Cree and Assiniboine from entering Montana. They seized their horses, guns and carts, forcing them back into Canada. Canada responded by closing Fort Walsh and all facilities in Cypress Hills to force the Indigenous people to disperse. They lost all guns, horses and provisions to the Americans and are forced to disperse!

The publication in the United States of Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonour and the subsequent organization of the Indians Rights Association helps to arouse a concern for the status of the Indigenous peoples. However, it is manipulated by the U.S. Congress to adopt the Dawes Act of 1887, dissolving the Indian nations as legal entities and providing for the division of tribal lands among individuals.

1883 (22 August): The Dawes Commission is sent to Dakota Territory to validate the methods used to obtain Sioux signatures on a land-cession treaty. On this day, Sitting Bull addressed the Commission at the Standing Rock Agency with great dignity. The commissioners treated Sitting Bull as any other “savage.” Sitting Bull is offended. He leads the Sioux out of the meeting. Eventually he is convinced to meet the commission a second time. “This time it was the commissioners who were offended. Their efforts were to mould the Indians into white men. Sitting Bull did not accept this attitude.” (Phil Konstantin, This Day in North American Indian History, p. 239)

The United States and Canada pass domestic laws that unconstitutionally criminalize the Indigenous peoples and their supporters for complaining in the courts, or even organizing in order to so complain. The colonial policy of “civilization” develops to include cultural destruction of the thought material of the Indigenous peoples and the Métis at the time of the North West Resistance, 1884-85.

1885: In the United States, the 1883 case of Ex parte Crow Dog, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturns, for lack of jurisdiction, the federal conviction of an Indian charged with the murder of another Indian, induces the U.S. Congress to extend the complete coercive power of federal criminal law to the reservations. Determined to rectify the barbarous, “savage quality” of tribal law and mollify public fervour, the Congress applies “white man’s morality” with the Major Crimes Act of 1885 to expressly establish concurrent federal jurisdiction over major felonies committed by Indians on reservations regardless of the status of their victims. Legal challenges to the Major Crimes Act fail to reestablish tribal legal self-determination but provide the judiciary occasion to further undergird the trust doctrine and plenary power.

1883 (Fall): The last Sioux buffalo hunt takes place in the U.S. northwest.

1887: All two billion acres of the U.S. continental landmass had been discovered, conquered, and expropriated, save for the 138 million acres apportioned to Indian reservations. The General Allotment Act of 1887 (Allotment) also known as the Dawes Act targeted this land for further dismemberment and colonization. The U.S. divided up the communally-owned lands into private plots to divide and break up the Indigenous peoples and bring “whites” in to “civilize” those who do not die out. Allotment, an exercise of plenary power, subdivides large swaths of communally-owned tribal lands into parcels for the private use of individual Indian allottees under a 25-year period of federal guardianship. Upon expiration of the trust period, the U.S. issues an unrestricted fee patent to allottees who prove “competence,” assume U.S. citizenship, and pay real estate taxes. For most tribes, Allotment is devastating: although tribal governments remain in situs on vestiges of reservations still under trust protection, by encouraging Indian individuals to formally withdraw from the tribe in exchange for a per capita share of tribal land and by meeting the failure of unemployed Indian allottees to pay property taxes with foreclosure, reversion of title, and sale to white speculators at prices far below market value. Allotment abolishes Indian reservations as autonomous and integral socio-political entities. Of the 140 million acres under Indigenous control, only 50 million acres now remain.

The massacre at Wounded Knee

An iconic photo from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee of a dead and frozen Big Foot.

An iconic photo from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee of a dead and frozen Big Foot.

1888: Indian-issue beef herds on the Sioux reservation in the Black Hills are decimated by anthrax.

1889 (January): Wovoka, a Paiute Indian in Nevada, arose from the dead (recovered from scarlet fever) after a total eclipse of the sun. Some say he learned of the eclipse through an almanac and planned his resurrection to correspond with that event. Word of his resurrection spread throughout Indian country. His prophecy was that if Indians believed and sang and danced to certain ritual songs, the buffalo and deceased relatives would return and the non-Indians would be covered by a new layer of earth. This event is recorded in history by some who say that an Indian messiah and the Ghost Dance were born.

1889 (2 March): U.S. Act of Congress: Congress agreed in article 28 that the act will not go into effect unless agreed to by three-fourths of the adult male population of Indians as required by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty Treaty but used fraud and coercion to acquire the signatures. Indian males were called to the agencies and not allowed to return home until they signed. Further, underaged Indians and non-Indian males married to Indian women were encouraged to sign in violation of the law. The president proclaimed the act as law although the required signatures are never obtained. The United States thereby acquired an additional nine million acres of the 1868 treaty reservation by this method.

The 1889 act also divided the 1868 treaty reservation into six smaller reservations. Indians living on each reservation could not leave their reservations without a pass from the Indian agent.

  • (Remainder of 1889) The United States agreed not to cut the subsistence rations obligated under article 5 of the 1877 Black Hills Act if the Indians agree to the 1889 act but go back on their word and cut the rations by 50 per cent as soon as they secure the purported signatures. This creates famine and death on the Sioux reservations. There are also grasshopper plagues and a terrible drought, resulting in the loss of gardens.
  • (Mid-summer) Spoonhunter, an Oglala married into and residing on the Wind River Reservation, sent a letter to his nephew Kicking Bear, living on the Cheyenne River Reservation, telling him about Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. Kicking Bear, an Oglala, was married to Woodpecker Woman, niece of Chief Big Foot.
  • (Fall of 1889 and spring of 1890) A Sioux delegation consisting of Kicking Bear, Short Bull, and others traveled to Nevada to see Wovoka and returned to teach the Ghost Dance to the Sioux. The earth’s rejuvenation was promised for the spring of 1891, with the coming of the green grass.
  • (29 May) Federal Indian agents are not too concerned about the Ghost Dance until Charles L. Hyde, a citizen of Pierre, South Dakota, writes a letter to the secretary of the interior stating that he has reliable information from a Pine Ridge Sioux at the Pierre Indian School that the Sioux are planning an outbreak.
  • (Summer) The Ghost Dance caught on with the Sioux because of the extreme conditions they were living under. White people living south and west of the Sioux reservations became alarmed and believed an Indian uprising would occur. Black Elk invented the Ghost Shirt. Indians gathered at the Strong Hold, a natural fortification on the northern part of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
  • (20 October) Federal agent Royer of Pine Ridge Agency requests six to seven hundred U.S. troops at Pine Ridge to restore order.
  • (13 November) U.S. President William Harrison directs the secretary of war to assume military responsibility on the Sioux reservations to prevent an outbreak. Indian leaders are ordered arrested until the Ghost Dance passes.
  • (20 November) The Rapid City Journal reported that the Sioux are on the warpath. Yellow journalism everywhere adds to the hysteria.
  • (22 November) Governor Mellette, the first governor of South Dakota, created the “Home Guard,” a cowboy militia to guard homesteaders along the west edge of the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations. They are armed with hundreds of guns and a great deal of ammunition.
  • (December) The South Dakota home guard engaged in two of their own massacres. The guard sent its best riders to the Pine Ridge Reservation to shoot into the Ghost Dancers at the Strong Hold. They led the Ghost Dancers into a trap and killed and scalped seventy-five of them. They also massacred several wagons full of Sioux on French Creek, who were visiting non-Indian friends at Buffalo Gap.
  • Sitting Bull (c. 1831 – December 15, 1890)

    Sitting Bull (c. 1831 – December 15, 1890)

    (15 December) Toward the end of his life, Sitting Bull was drawn to the Ghost Dance Movement as a way of repelling the  invaders from his people’s land. Although he himself was not a follower, this was perceived as a threat by the American government. A group of federal Indian police was sent by Major James McLaughlin, Superintendent of the Standing Rock Reservation, to arrest him at his cabin near present day Bullhead, SD. Agent McLaughlin supplied them with a barrel of whiskey to give them enough courage to make the arrest. Sitting Bull’s followers fled to seek refuge with his half-brother, Chief Big Foot.

  • The Indian police murdered Chief Sitting Bull when they attempted to arrest him at his home. His son Crow Foot was also killed. Sitting Bull’s body was taken by the Indian police to Fort Yates (North Dakota) and buried in the military cemetery.
  • Sitting Bull’s murder was a political assassination by the United States government, insisted the head of the Nebraska National Guard, General Leonard Colby, who wrote that there was an

    “understanding between the officers of the Indian and military departments that it would be impossible to bring Sitting Bull to Standing Rock alive, and even if successfully captured, it would be difficult to tell what to do with him. It is therefore believed that there was a tacit arrangement between the commanding officers and the Indian police, that the death of the famous old Medicine man was much preferred to his capture, and that the slightest attempt to rescue him should be the signal for his destruction.” (To have him killed by Indian police allowed the government to avoid responsibility in the matter.)

  • (19 December): From a telegram from General Nelson A. Miles, Rapid City, SD:

    “…While the Indians were urged and almost forced to sign a treaty presented to them by the commission authorized by Congress, in which they gave up a valuable portion of their reservation which is now occupied by white people, the government has failed to fulfill its part of the compact, and instead of an increase or even a reasonable supply for their support, they have been compelled to live on half and two-thirds rations, and received nothing for the surrender of their lands, neither has the government given any positive assurance that they intend to do any differently with them in the future…”

  • (28 December) Chief Big Foot, fearing arrest and the risk to his band, headed south to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Chief Red Cloud had already invited him to come to Pine Ridge and help make peace. Major Whiteside and his Seventh Cavalry intercepted Chief Big Foot and about 356 of his followers at Porcupine Butte and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek. The campsite was already settled, with Mousseaux’s store and several log houses located there. That evening Colonel Forsyth arrived to assume command and ordered his guards to place four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns in position under cover of darkness around the camp. The Indians were surrounded and harassed all night. The soldiers then came into the camp and began disarming the Lakota at gunpoint. A trader from Pine Ridge brought a barrel of whiskey and the officers and troopers got drunk celebrating Big Foot’s capture. Some drunken troopers attempted to drag Big Foot out of his tent. Indians who could understand English heard talk of getting revenge for Custer’s defeat. Some officers attempted to see if guns possessed by the Indians were taken from the Little Bighorn battle and even if they are old enough to have been at the battle.
  • (29 December) Colonel Forsyth attempted to disarm Chief Big Foot’s band. The women and children are separated from the men. The soldiers are very abusive. Big Foot was ill with pneumonia and flying a white flag of truce next to his tent. The Indians were almost completely disarmed and surrounded by the soldiers. When the soldiers attempted to take the rifle of a deaf mute, it discharged and the soldiers opened up on the Indians. About three hundred of Big Foot’s band are killed. About thirty soldiers also die, many in their own crossfire. The families with their children tried to run for cover, but were cut down by the rapid crossfire of the Hotchkiss guns and rifles. Most of the few who did manage to escape were methodically hunted down and killed, or died of exposure. Some women and children were found as far as two miles away, gunned down by soldiers. The press hailed the massacre as revenge for Custer’s and the 7th Cavalry’s defeat at Little Bighorn. The Lakota Indian, “American Horse,” commented on the massacre:

”The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. All the Indians fled in these three directions, and after most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there. Of course we all feel very sad about this affair. I stood very loyal to the government all through those troublesome days, and … being so loyal to it, my disappointment was very strong, and I have come to Washington with a very great blame on my heart ….”

1891 (3 January): A burial party picked up the bodies of the dead Sioux, about 146, still left on the massacre site after a raging blizzard swept through the area. They dug a mass grave and buried the dead without ceremony. At least one Sioux was said to have been buried alive.

Postcard photograph of Dewy Beard and his brother, survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre |

Postcard photograph of Dewy Beard and his brother, survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre |


The cover-up

“There is nothing to conceal or apologize for in the Wounded Knee Battle – beyond the killing of a wounded buck by a hysterical recruit. The firing was begun by the Indians and continued until they stopped – with the one exception noted above.

“That women and children were casualties was unfortunate but unavoidable, and most must have been [killed] from Indian bullets…The Indians at Wounded Knee brought their own destruction as surely as any people ever did. Their attack on the troops was as treacherous as any in the history of Indian warfare, and that they were under a strange religious hallucination is only an explanation not an excuse.”

– excerpts from an official investigation of Wounded Knee initiated at the behest of the U.S. Congress, written by General E. D. Scott.

The Hollywood Sioux

Stereotypical representations in American media of Indigenous peoples and their cultures have been comprehensive and systematic since the 1880s. The aim of this stereotyping has been to dehumanize the peoples depicted to, amongst other things, justify the genocidal expropriation of their land and resource base. Buffalo Bill’s film Reenactment of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1906 was banned as being too sympathetic to Native Americans. D.W. Griffiths’s The Massacre (1913) was the first of what would eventually be 42 different renditions of General Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Ted Palys of Simon Fraser University observes:

“[Griffiths] was certainly not the last to emphasize the alleged sneakiness of the Indians, and the valour of the American settlers, thus providing rationales as to why it was appropriate to slaughter Indians by the village full. The Massacre contained all the elements that would come to define Aboriginal images in mainstream media for decades to come, including: an emphasis on Plains Indians, and especially the Sioux; living in tipis; wearing feathered headdresses; riding on horseback; always either stoic or stealthful; and locked into the 1850-1890 period.”

“Second Battle of Wounded Knee”

It has been variously estimated that western reservations in the U.S. currently contain about one-third of all western low-sulfur coal, one-fifth of the country’s oil and nature gas reserves, and over half of the uranium deposits. (Calloway, 1999:481.) As evidenced in the Pine Ridge battles of the 1970s, many Indigenous nations increasingly come under pressure from both the U.S. government and energy monopolies to either sell their land, or to develop and market their resources for a song.

Pine Ridge Locator map1973 (27 February): Traditionalists invited leaders of the new American Indian Movement (AIM) to the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota, the site where hundreds of Great Sioux Nation of Chief Big Foot were massacred by the U.S. army in 1890. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)-supported council, led by president Richard Wilson, was advocating BIA plans to lease vast tracts of land and mineral rights involving coal, oil and uranium in the western states, and utilizing repressive rule against a traditionist Oglala opposition. A 71-day “occupation” of Wounded Knee was launched in protest. 

From the end of February until early May, the world press reported on the “occupation” of Wounded Knee by the Sioux who wanted serious changes in their lives and the institutions that affect them. While the press reported the event as an “occupation,” they completely missed the fact that it was a classical military cordon operation. It involved a large military and paramilitary force consisting of FBI agents, BIA police, local and state police, and military personnel. The Director of the U.S. Marshals Service frankly called it “the world’s largest outdoor jail.”

One of several armoured personnel carriers deployed by the US Army at Wounded Knee in 1973

One of several armoured personnel carriers deployed by the U.S .Army at Wounded Knee in 1973

“Wounded Knee was simply a field test where the military was allowed to clandestinely control a rather large army composed of specially trained U.S. Marshals and FBI agents. The Justice Department army was given high powered equipment available only to the military: their tactics in the negotiations as well as their tactics on the Reservation were advised by the military in the same manner as the Military Assistance Advisory Groups operating in Vietnam during the early years of US involvement; even their needs for maps and intelligence were provided by military reconnaissance flights conducted with jets that had once flown the same type of missions against the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.” – Tim Butz, “Wounded Knee: Counter-Insurgency Comes Home,” Counter Spy Magazine, 1974

1973 (11 March): Three weeks into the liberation of Wounded Knee, elders of the Oglala and AIM met and proclaimed the revival of the Independent Oglala Nation which proposed to discuss its treaty with the United States on equal terms, as equal nations.

“The Independent Oglala Nation was more than just a brave gesture by a band of besieged Indians. It represented the gravest threat in more than a century to the plans of the US government to subdue the Native people of the US and to deprive them of their lands for the exploitation and profit of white interests” (“On the Road to Wounded Knee”, Indian Nation, Vol. 3, No. 1, April 1976, pg. 15.)

1973 (5 May): As supplies dwindled and the military prepared for a final assault, the defenders decided to withdraw. On May 7, about half the people filtered through the enemy lines, and the following day about 150 who remained laid down their arms. 

1973 (9 May): The Oglala traditionals and AIM finally surrendered. Federal authorities then began to arrest, imprison, and eventually try many local Indians and AIM activists who participated in the Wounded Knee takeover. Many claimed that “Indian goon squads,” local police officers and FBI agents continue to harass traditional Indians in the years after Wounded Knee, resulting in the execution and disappearance of over 300 Indian men and women (Peter Matthiessen, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: The Viking Press, 1983).

Between 1973 and 1976 as many as 250 people in and around Pine Ridge were dead, including 60 members and supporters of AIM. Shootings, firebombings, assaults, and assassinations were carried out by Wilson’s goons and in conjunction with the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). (500 Years of Resistance)

1975 (26 June): An FBI raid on an AIM encampment resulted in a fire-fight in which two FBI agents and an Oglala, Joseph Stuntz, were shot dead. Although Stuntz’ death is never investigated – nor are the many other killings of Oglala traditionalists and AIM members during this period – the FBI launches a campaign to imprison AIM members for the two dead agents. Eventually LEONARD PELTIER will be convicted of the killings in a trial that shows nothing more than that the FBI had fabricated evidence and testimony.

Anna Mae Aquash1975 (December): Murder by shooting of ANNA MAE AQUASH, 31, a Mi’kmaq from Indian Brook, Shubenacadie and Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia, Canada and a well-known activist in the American Indian Movement since 1970 (Anna had moved to Boston with her husband when she was 17), on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The mother of two girls, she was involved in the Wounded Knee and many other actions, a friend of Leonard Peltier and Dennis Banks, and a fugitive from the FBI since November 1975. Her death was officially attributed to frostbite. The frozen body of this much beloved pillar of AIM’s sovereigntist stand was mutilated by the official medical examiner (federal agents decided to cut off her hands to send them for fingerprint identification at the FBI Lab in Washington D.C.) and illegally and hastily buried in a welfare plot at the order of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the presence of two FBI agents without a complete autopsy. A second autopsy requested by the family revealed she had been shot. Evidence is manufactured and withheld by the FBI (Warren Allmand, Solicitor-General in the Trudeau Liberal government, 1972-76).

The case of Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier shackled1976 (6 February): At the order of the U.S. government, the Canadian government of Pierre Trudeau dutifully arrested LEONARD PELTIER, a leader of the American Indian Movement and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, in Alberta. On the basis of fabricated documents, it extradited him to the U.S. for allegedly shooting the two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in June 1975. This becomes justified by the liberal government on the basis of the amoral and pragmatic principle of “being seen to be doing the right thing” and “the rule of law.” Peltier had sought asylum in Canada on the grounds that the charges against him were political, stemming from his position in AIM and the FBI’s targeting of that organization. The FBI intentionally manufactured evidence (false affidavits) and withheld evidence.

Citing FBI reports, the Trudeau Liberal government treated him as a dangerous criminal. The federal appeals court denied his appeal of extradition. The affidavit was tainted by what would eventually be proven as fraudulent testimony from a woman claiming to be Peltier’s girlfriend – Myrtle Poor Bear, a Native American woman known to have serious mental health problems. Peltier’s attorneys affirm the affidavit was never produced during the extradition hearings and was concealed from them. He was extradited from Canada in December of the same year.

Canada justified its refusal to take a just stand by seeking assurances Peltier would not face the death penalty in the United States since that would not fit the terms of its Extradition Treaty with the United States. The assurances were given and Peltier was sent back to the U.S., where he was convicted in May 1977 on trumped up evidence of the murders of two FBI agents and sentenced to life in prison. His extradition, convictions and imprisonment remain one of the crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries for which both Canada and the United States have yet to be held to account.

Even Warren Allmand, Liberal Attorney General under whose watch this travesty of justice was carried out, rued the day he signed that extradition order. Who will hold Canada to account for condemning an innocent man to life in prison on fabricated evidence?

Leonard Peltier at Leavenworth, June 1992 | Jeffry Scott

Leonard Peltier at Leavenworth, June 1992 | Jeffry Scott

A persistent international movement develops demanding Leonard Peltier be freed from U.S. prison or at the very least be granted a new trial due to FBI misconduct. It included the intervention on his behalf by 55 Canadian MPs in 1992.

“Thanksgiving” day in Plymouth, Mass. is dedicated exclusively to Leonard Peltier by the United American Indians of New England. Amnesty International placed his case under the “Unfair Trials” category of its Annual Report: USA 2010. 

Courtesy of Two Row Times

Courtesy of Two Row Times

Mr. Peltier, now 70, is being held in inhuman conditions in a supermax prison in Coleman, Florida where he is dying a slow, isolated death, 2,000 miles from his home: “The FBI has exerted tremendous political pressure, year after year, to make sure that Peltier stays in prison as a symbol of its victory over the American Indian Movement.” He is one of many political prisoners held behind bars in the USA. Peltier’s next scheduled parole hearing will be in July 2024. Barring appeals, parole or presidential pardon, his projected release date is October 11, 2040.

2006: Pine Ridge is the poorest county in the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, the life expectancy of people living on Pine Ridge Reservation is the shortest in the Western Hemisphere, outside of Haiti.

Tony Seed and the editors of Shunpiking Magazine, “People of the Dawn: Mi’kmaq and First Nations Timeline, Part II: Second Phase of Indian Policy 1867–1952,” Shunpiking Magazine, Halifax, October, 2000.

Originally published on this blog on December 29, 2014.

Sources are various, but principally J.S. Dill, The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty, Appendix E

Visit his website on Wounded Knee at

Related reading on this website

This day in 1885: Anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel


Filed under Canada, History, Indigenous Peoples, United States

3 responses to “This day in 1890: The massacre at Wounded Knee

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


  2. One nation under aka, “God”. Hmmm


  3. Pingback: This day in 1885: Anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel | Tony Seed's Weblog

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