I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from the 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...the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead. -Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Medicine Man looking back at the Wounded Knee Massacre
On this day 121 years ago the European colonizers of this continent caused a nightmare for the original inhabitants of this land. Under the instruction of Manifest Destiny, a tragic event marked the end of "Indian Wars" and became known as the last conflict between the white man and the Indians. The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 goes down in history as a day when hundreds of Lakota were slaughtered by the 7th Cavalry of the United States.
In order to put this story in context we need to start with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, where the Lakota (Sioux) signed a legally binding document with the United States government that would create the "Great Sioux Reservation", which included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The treaty stated, "No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the territory, or without the consent of the Indians to pass through the same.".
The U.S. government signed the treaty before they found gold found in the Black Hills (the Lakota's most sacred land) in 1871. In a Wall Street endeavor, mining companies totally disregarded the 1868 treaty and flooded the area under U.S. government protection, and then the U.S. officially seized the Black Hills in 1877.
In 1871 the U.S. government formally ended the treaty process with tribes. A huge blow to Indian sovereignty rapidly increased the assimilation process to western Indians.
At this time Indians were being forced to live on small reservations. For the Lakota this meant that the U.S. government split and seized most of the "Great Sioux Reservation". The various bands of the Lakota were split up into 6 smaller reservations where they still live to this day. On December 3, 1875 Edward P Smith, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, ordered all Lakota and Cheyenne to report to reservations by January 31, 1876 or a "military force would be sent to compel them."
Bands of the Lakota followed the Oglala Lakota Warrior, Crazy Horse, and the Hunkpapa Lakota Medicine Man, Sitting Bull, who both refused to give up their land and their way of life. Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull helped unite the Cheyenne and the Arapaho to fight against the U.S. This lead to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 where the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry . The U.S. faced a significant blow to westward expansion and the craze of Custer's exploits.
At this same time a new spiritual "Ghost Dance" spread throughout Indian Country. The ghost dance was developed by Wovoka, a Pauite Indian from Nevada, who received it in a vision. His vision stated that the dance would eliminate the white man, return the buffalo herds, and restore traditional life on the continent. Out of desperation, people took to the ghost dance and practiced it all over the plains. Alarmed, the U.S. Government perceived the ghost dance as a war dance. In turn, the U.S. government hunted movement leaders. On December 15, 1890, forty Indian Police seiged the house of Sitting Bull for his arrest, and when he tried escaping, they shot and killed him.
Following the killing of Sitting Bull, out of fear, 300 Hunkpapa Lakota fled the Standing Rock Reservation and joined Spotted Elk (later called "Big Foot") and his band of Miniconjou Lakota on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
A call for Spotted Elk's arrest followed Sitting Bull's death. On December 23, 1890 Spotted Elk lead his band of Miniconjou Lakota along with 38 Hunkpapa Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation, seeking shelter and food for the winter with Red Cloud and his band of Oglala Lakota. On December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry intercepted the band of over 350 Lakota at the Wounded Knee Village. The Cavalry insisted that they give up all their arms. A deaf man, by the name of Black Coyote, couldn't hear the orders and resisted giving up his gun. After a struggle, the gun went off. The Cavalry that was already in position and drinking throughout the night started shooting at the defenseless Lakota, in response. At the end of the bloodshed, 150 Lakota were killed with 50 wounded with 26 Cavalry members killed and 39 wounded. It later came out that the killed and wounded Cavalry members resulted from friendly fire. Since they surrounded the Lakota, bullets went astray and hit their own men.
American Horse, an Oglala Lakota Chief, reflecting on the inhumanity of the 7th Cavalry said:
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.
A blizzard covered the plains for three days, leaving the dead and wounded covered in snow. Frozen into horrifying postures, dead women, children, and men laid for three whole days until the blizzard cleared. Then the government gave white settlers two dollars per body they dumped in the mass grave at the top of the Wounded Knee hill. Of the frozen corpses, they found Spotted Elk, and in an act of dominance, showing no mercy, they scalped him.
Following the atrocious massacre, the U.S. government gave 20 Medals of Honor to members of the 7th Cavalry . This is the highest military award and the U.S. government has never taken back those metals to this very day.
American Indian Movement (AIM) activist and Oglala Lakota, Russell Means said:
Wounded Knee happened because Indian people wanted to survive as Indians and there wasn't any way to survive, so we made a stand and made a statement, but now Indian people are beginning to rebound, rebound according to their concept of Beauty. And that's really what's necessary. to understand Indian people have to become free again.
Over 80 years later, in 1973, AIM and the traditional Lakota engaged in a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee and stand off with the FBI, opposing the treatment of Indians in the U.S.. During the stand off, shoot outs occurred almost every night, and Pine Ridge Reservation was regarded as a war zone. At this time, Indians were still legally forbidden from practicing their religion, a law that finally changed in 1978.
In 1980, the Supreme Court, in United States vs. Sioux Nation Indians, ruled that the seizure of the Blacks Hills was indeed illegal and the U.S. government would have to pay $15.5 million, plus 103 years of interest (an additional $105 million), to the Lakota. The tribe turned down the money and instead demand the seized territory back. Obviously, the U.S. government has not given the land back to the Lakota.
On July 28, 2011 Attorney General Eric Holder visited and honored the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. He then talked with tribal leaders about the Law and Order Act, an act Obama signed into law last year to increase the "public safety" on reservations. In effect, police presence and judges on the reservation have increased, and jobs, education and housing still lack funding or significant U.S. government support.
It took from Columbus landing in the West Indies in 1492 to 1890 to fully conquer this land. We often overlook the story of the Indigenous people's genocide and resistance, whether in your history class or a discussion about civil rights. All sides of the political spectrum cast aside the American Indian as a people of the past, hardly existing or mattering. It is our job as fighters for social justice to remember and realize that the American Indian is still alive today and still fighting back.
Today, in our struggle against capitalism, we must stand in solidarity with all those oppressed by its forces, especially the first inhabitants of this land. We must learn from all those oppressed, as well. After all, the American Indians were the first victims of Wall Street and the first fighters against Wall Street.