The Wounded Knee Massacre, also known as the Battle of Wounded Knee, was a massacre of nearly three hundred Lakota people by soldiers of the United States Army. It occurred on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek (Lakota: Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, following a botched attempt to disarm the Lakota camp.
After being called to the Pine Ridge Agency, Spotted Elk of the Miniconjou Lakota nation and 350 of his followers were making the slow trip to the agency on December 28, 1890, when they were met by a 7th Cavalry detachment under Major Samuel M. Whitside southwest of Porcupine Butte. John Shangreau, a scout and interpreter who was half Lakota, advised the troopers not to disarm the Indians immediately, as it would lead to violence. The troopers escorted the Native Americans about five miles (eight kilometers) westward to Wounded Knee Creek where they told them to make camp. Later that evening, Colonel James W. Forsyth and the remainder of the 7th Cavalry arrived, bringing the number of troopers at Wounded Knee to 500. In contrast, there were 350 Lakota: 230 men and 120 women and children. The troopers surrounded Spotted Elk’s encampment and set up four rapid-fire Hotchkiss-designed M1875 mountain guns.
December 29, 1890
At daybreak on December 29, 1890, Forsyth ordered the surrender of weapons and the immediate removal of the Lakota from the “zone of military operations” to awaiting trains. A search of the camp confiscated 38 rifles, and more rifles were taken as the soldiers searched the Indians. None of the old men were found to be armed. A medicine man named Yellow Bird allegedly harangued the young men who were becoming agitated by the search, and the tension spread to the soldiers.
Specific details of what triggered the massacre are debated. According to some accounts, Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance, telling the Lakota the falsehood that their “ghost shirts” were “bulletproof”. As tensions mounted, Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle; he spoke no English and was deaf, and had not understood the order. Another Indian said: “Black Coyote is deaf,” and when the soldier persisted, he said, “Stop. He cannot hear your orders.” At that moment, two soldiers seized Black Coyote from behind, and (allegedly) in the struggle, his rifle discharged. At the same moment, Yellow Bird threw some dust into the air, and approximately five young Lakota men with concealed weapons threw aside their blankets and fired their rifles at Troop K of the 7th. After this initial exchange, the firing became indiscriminate.
Eyewitness accounts state that Black Coyote’s gun went off when he was seized from behind by soldiers. Survivor Wasumaza, one of Big Foot’s warriors who later changed his name to Dewey Beard, recalled Black Coyote was unable to hear. “If they had left him alone he was going to put his gun down where he should. They grabbed him and spinned him in the east direction. He was still unconcerned even then. He hadn’t his gun pointed at anyone. His intention was to put that gun down. They came on and grabbed the gun that he was going to put down. Right after they spun him around there was the report of a gun, was quite loud. I couldn’t say that anyone was shot, but following that was a crash”. Theodor Ragnar of the 7th Cavalry also stated that Black Coyote was deaf. The account of Turning Hawk, an American Indian who was present at the massacre and was sympathetic to the U.S. government, made no mention of Black Coyote’s supposed deafness, instead calling him “a crazy man, a young man of very bad influence, and in fact a nobody.”
The previous day, a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside approached Spotted Elk‘s band of Miniconjou Lakota and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them five miles (eight kilometers) westward to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp. The remainder of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel James W. Forsyth, arrived and surrounded the encampment. The regiment was supported by a battery of four Hotchkiss mountain guns. They were responding to concerns of the settlers who were worried the Ghost Dance might be a prelude to an armed attack.
Suddenly, I heard a single shot from the direction of the troops. Then three or four. A few more. And immediately, a volley. At once came a general rattle of rifle firing then the Hotchkiss guns.
— Thomas Tibbles (1840–1928), journalist
[T]hen many Indians broke into the ravine; some ran up the ravine and to favorable positions for defense.
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. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce … A mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing … The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through … 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 … 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.
— American Horse (1840–1908), chief, Oglala Lakota
I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don’t believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs … went down before that unaimed fire.
General Nelson A. Miles who visited the scene of carnage, following a three-day blizzard, estimated that around 300 snow shrouded forms were strewn over the countryside. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babies in their arms had been chased as far as two miles [3 km] from the original scene of encounter and cut down without mercy by the troopers. … Judging by the slaughter on the battlefield it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life? … As I see it the battle was more or less a matter of spontaneous combustion, sparked by mutual distrust.
— Hugh McGinnis, First Battalion, Co. K, 7th Cavalry
The whole trouble originated through interested whites, who had gone about most industriously and misrepresented the army and its movements upon all the agencies. The Indians, were in consequence alarmed and suspicious. They had been led to believe that the true aim of the military was their extermination. The troops acted with the greatest kindness and prudence. In the Wounded Knee fight the Indians fired first. The troops fired only when compelled to. I was between both, saw all, and know from an absolute knowledge of the whole affair whereof I say.
— The Reverend Father Francis M.J. Craft, Catholic missionary
Medals of Honor
For this 1890 campaign, the US Army awarded 20 Medals of Honor, its highest commendation.
In the Nebraska State Historical Society‘s summer 1994 quarterly journal, Jerry Green construes that pre-1916 Medals of Honor were awarded more liberally; however, “the number of medals does seem disproportionate when compared to those awarded for other battles.” Quantifying, he compares the three awarded for the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain’s five-day siege, to the twenty awarded for this short and one-sided action.
Historian Will G. Robinson notes that, in contrast, only three Medals of Honor were awarded among the 64,000 South Dakotans who fought for four years of World War II.
Native American activists have urged the medals be withdrawn, calling them “medals of dishonor”. According to Lakota tribesman William Thunder Hawk, “The Medal of Honor is meant to reward soldiers who act heroically. But at Wounded Knee, they didn’t show heroism; they showed cruelty.” In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the Medals of Honor awards and called on the U.S. government to rescind them.
A small number of the citations on the medals awarded to the troopers at Wounded Knee state that they went in pursuit of Lakota who were trying to escape or hide. Another citation was for “conspicuous bravery in rounding up and bringing to the skirmish line a stampeded pack mule.”
In February 2021, the South Dakota Senate unanimously called upon the United States Congress to investigate the 20 medals of honor awarded to members of the 7th Cavalry for their participation in the massacre. Lawmakers argued that the medals given to the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment tarnished Medals of Honor given to soldiers for genuine acts of courage. Previous efforts to rescind the medals have failed. In March 2021, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Congressman Kaiali’i Kahele (D-HI) answered the South Dakota Senate’s call and reintroduced a bill to revoke the Medals of Honor awarded to the soldiers who perpetrated the Wounded Knee massacre.