Monday, November 6, 2017

The Massacre of Wounded Knee

Lakota Ghost Dance, Public Domain,

It’s November--National Native American Heritage Month! Efforts to set aside a time each year to honor the First Nations of this country began with some Native activists early in the 20th century. However, November was first designated as this official month of observation in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. 

There is much to celebrate during this month from the rich cultural heritage of the multitude of Indigenous peoples within North America. But sadly, many significant events from Native American history are more worthy of lament than celebration, at least when it comes to interactions with European immigrants to this land. One I often think of this time of year, since its anniversary comes up next month, is the Battle—more correctly termed the Massacre—of Wounded Knee.
Soldiers with Hotchkisss Guns used at Wounded Knee, by John C. H. Grabill - Library of Congress, Public Domain

In 1890, tensions at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota were rising. Over the past fifteen years, the Lakota, or Sioux, people had been rapidly robbed of their traditional lifestyle, as well as the buffalo that sustained it, by the encroachment of white settlers and the federal army. Now they were mostly confined to reservations, something they had long resisted but finally surrendered to rather than starve. The Lakota were a people largely stripped of hope—until Wovoka, a young Paiute medicine man, arose with his message of the Ghost Dance. This almost Messianic movement soon spread to the Lakota reservation.

While white authorities feared the Ghost Dance movement would lead to an uprising, in reality its focus was spiritual, not martial. The Lakota were so disheartened, their lives completely turned upside down, their cultural identity and pride largely taken away. They were looking for answers, somewhere—and the Ghost Dance gave them hope. If they would perform it faithfully, leaders said, they would not have to fight—the spirits would come and themselves rescue the Native peoples from white oppression. All non-believers would be eliminated by heavenly power. All they had to do was believe, and dance.

But the United States government and army—along with settlers—saw threat in any gathering of Native peoples that they didn’t understand, especially dancing. Soldiers were sent to arrest Sitting Bull, former chief of the Sioux and the last Native American leader to surrender, though now he had become a celebrity. Somehow, Sitting Bull was killed in the process. 

Wounded Knee Aftermath, Public Domain, retouched by Trager & Kuhn, Chadron, Nebr.

Then on December 29, 1890, the cavalry surrounded a camp of about 350 Lakota under Chief Spotted Elk, or Big Foot. They ordered the men to surrender their guns, and as the Lakota were doing so, a shot was fired—we still don’t know for sure by which side. Confused ensued, and the U.S. soldiers began firing indiscriminately into the camp, which was full of women and children as well as men. They even used early Hotchkiss machine guns from a nearby hill to strafe the tipis. In the end, somewhere between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women, and children lay or crawled, dead or dying, in the snow.

Chief Big Foot, Wounded Knee, Public Domain {PD-1923}
Chicago photographer J.C.H. Grabill visited the massacre site a few days later to photograph the frozen bodies still in the positions where they fell. These photographs became the most iconic of his career, and are still often used today in teaching about what happened at Wounded Knee, like this one, of the elderly Chief Spotted Elk or Big Foot.

Response to Wounded Knee at the time varied; most newspapers reported it as a “battle” or a heroic squelching by American soldiers of a dangerous Indian uprising. Twenty of the soldiers who fired at Wounded Knee were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor. General Nelson Miles, however, while he spent much of his career forcing Native Americans onto reservations and had ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull and Big Foot’s band, initiated a court inquiry into the massacre and condemned it. Two days after Wounded Knee, Miles wrote to his wife and called it a “most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.” He even fought for compensation for the survivors. Today, however, the Massacre at Wounded Knee remains a painful memory for many Native peoples.

If you would like to learn more about the story of Wounded Knee and the history that led up to it, check out this docudrama by PBS—it is excellent, and free on Amazon Prime.

Have you heard of the Battle or Massacre of Wounded Knee before? What stands out to you about this story? Do you have any special ways of commemorating Native American Heritage Month? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. She recently finished her third novel manuscript, a Civil War story set at Fort Tejon in frontier California. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony. 


  1. It's a sad thing that happened at Wounded Knee. I imagine there was some fear among the soldiers because of the Indians unfamiliar traditions and the fact they were armed again, and that fear led to the sudden shooting without reason.

    1. A lot of hatred and injustice throughout history has definitely been precipitated by fear--and even today. Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Vickie!

  2. A sad time in history. People have always been afraid of what they don't know. My 3 brothers and my sister and I are all 1/32 Cherokee. My sister and I have done a lot of studying of the American Indians. They were an amazing people. They really deserved a lot of respect.
    quilting dash lady at Comcast dot net

    1. That's so neat, Lori--I don't have any Native heritage, but my husband does. The First Nations of our country are indeed worthy of respect, in the past and today, though they have often received little of it. And yes, fear of the unknown has caused so much heartache throughout history. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. It's very sad if that shot that precipitated the soldiers to shoot was an accident. It's sad anyways, that women and children were involved.

    1. I agree, tragic all round. Thanks for reading and sharing, Connie!