By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News
Posted 12/30/14 (Tue)
To most people Dec. 29 doesn’t really mean much but just another cold, windswept day on the prairie.
To others, American Indians, it marks a significant day in history that ended one era and began another.
On Dec. 29, 1890, just two weeks after Sioux tribal chief Sitting Bull was slain near Fort Yates, the 7th Cavalry opened fire on the hamlet of Wounded Knee, killing 90 of 120 men, 200 women and seven children. Twenty-five of the 460 troops were also killed.
If Wounded Knee is even mentioned in history books, the U.S. government calls it an “incident.” Some have called it a “battle,” and actual historical accounts portray it as a “massacre.”
Yes, a massacre in South Dakota, one year and one month after it became the 40th state.
George Utley, like many Americans after the fact, was outraged and wrote a book about Sitting Bull’s death and the events leading up to the Wounded Knee Massacre.
His book, released in 1963, is titled “The Last Days of the Sioux Nation,” and arguably provides the most accurate account of what happened that day on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
On the morning of Dec. 29, the Cavalry went into the camp to disarm the Lakota Sioux. A tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, a scuffle escalated and a shot was fired.
At the sound of that weapon being fired, the Cavalry indiscrimintly opened fire from all sides, killing nearly 300 as well as hitting some of their own men in the cross fire.
It is said that when unarmed surviving Lakota fled the scene, cavalrymen chased them down and killed them too.
One reference in “Last Days of the Sioux Nation,” is that of a Lieutenant Reynolds who shot and killed Lakota tribesman Big Foot. And when Big Foot’s daughter ran to him, the officer shot her in the back.
When Utley did his research for the book, he discovered there was no Lieutenant Reynolds at Wounded Knee and the name was concocted to keep another officer’s name confidential.
There is also an account of a priest named Father Craft who was traveling with the cavalry. Apparently he was stabbed in one of his lungs, but kept moving through the combat zone, administering first aid and providing last rites until he died.
What makes this black day in U.S. history even more unbelievable, is that 20 of the Soldiers who survived were given the Medal of Honor. In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions condemning the awards and called on Congress to rescind them.
Congress has officially apologized to the Sioux nation for the cavalry’s attack, but the Medals of Honor have not yet been rescinded.
The massacre, and what followed, ended an era in which most Indians were governed by a chief or a group of tribal leaders.
Just a month after the massacre, the Brule Sioux tribe surrendered at Pine Ridge, ending the sorrow of decades of fighting the white man.
The new era ushered in by the U.S. government, put the Indian agent in charge of the tribes who was disliked by all on the reservation.
The Indian agent, through the government, also took steps to have the Ghost Dance outlawed, something the Sioux considered sacred, but something the Indian agent called “dangerous” because it centered around the belief that Jesus Christ had returned to earth in the form of an Indian.
The surrender at Wounded Knee also created a vulnerability in Indian tribes that the U.S. government took full advantage of and shrank certain reservations including the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
There were other famous battles among Indian and the U.S. Army during the course of history, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and the Battle of Whitestone Hill in 1863 near present-day Kulm, in LaMoure County.
None of them, however, would have the lasting impact the Wounded Knee Massacre had. It was that narrow point in time not only when the American Indian surrendered to the U.S. government, but also the time when American Indians, Native Americans, as the name implies today, lost their psyche.
Historically nomads who traveled in search of food, Indians were now restricted to a reservation.
Dec. 29, 1890 truly began what became the last days of the Sioux Nation.