Imagine a government forcefully removing your family and neighbors from their homes, confiscating their property, inheritance, and claiming they would be financially compensated. Anyone who refuses, would be forcefully detained, arrested, imprisoned, or publicly executed. Additionally, their way of life and ability to earn a living, and the resources they depend on, would be eliminated. Instead, a government agent would distribute food and health rations to designated groups of people living in designated areas. Yet despite agents not providing the rations, people would be prohibited from leaving their designated areas to survive.
By 1890 this is exactly what the U.S. government had perpetrated against Native American Indians throughout the West.
General Nelson A. Miles sent a telegram from Rapid City, South Dakota to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army and former Secretary of War, John Schofield, on December 19, 1890 describing the situation:
“The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.
“They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures.
“The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.”
However, Miles’ concern fell upon deaf ears.
Like the Dakotas killed under President Abraham Lincoln’s orders on December 26, 1862, three days and roughly 30 years later, on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek, S.D., the U.S. Army massacred roughly 300 of the Miniconjou Lakota Indians, another Siouan tribe, after they had been disarmed.
On December 28, 1890, Major Samuel Whitside the 7th Calvary intercepted Spotted Elk (Bigfoot) of the Miniconjou Lakota nation and 350 of his followers. Colonel James Forsyth and the rest of the 7th Cavalry later surrounded the Lakotas with four rapid-fire Hotchkiss-designed M1875 mountain guns.
(Under Miles, the Army expressed a need “for a light and effective replacement for the muzzle loading mountain artillery then in service,” which was “promptly put into service on the Great Plains.” It was a highly portable cannon that fired a two pound, explosive shell.)
At daybreak on December 29, 1890, Forsyth ordered the Lakotas to surrender their guns. Philip Wells, a mixed-blood Sioux interpreter for Col. Forsyth, recounted what he saw:
“The captured Indians had been ordered to give up their arms, but Big Foot replied that his people had no arms.
“Forsyth said to me, ‘Tell Big Foot he says the Indians have no arms, yet yesterday they were well armed when they surrendered. He is deceiving me. Tell him he need have no fear in giving up his arms, as I wish to treat him kindly.’
“Big Foot replied, ‘They have no guns, except such as you have found.’ Forsyth declared, ‘You are lying to me in return for my kindness.'”
Several who testified to the Commissioner with Indian Affairs on February 11, 1891, described what followed.
Via an interpreter, Turning Hawk testified:
“These people were coming toward Pine Ridge agency, and when they were almost on the agency they were met by the soldiers and surrounded and finally taken to the Wounded Knee creek, and there at a given time their guns were demanded. When they had delivered them up, the men were separated from their families, from the tipis, and taken to a certain spot. When the guns were thus taken and the men thus separated … indiscriminate killing followed.
“All the men who were in a bunch were killed right there, and those who escaped that first fire got into the ravine, and as they went along up the ravine for a long distance they were pursued on both sides by the soldiers and shot down, as the dead bodies showed afterwards. The [unarmed] women were standing off at a different place from where the men were stationed, and when the firing began, those of the men who escaped the first onslaught went in one direction up the ravine, and then the women, who were bunched together at another place, went entirely in a different direction through an open field, and the women fared the same fate as the men who went up the deep ravine.”
American Horse said,
“Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. 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 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.”
Hugh McGinnis, an Irish immigrant, of the 7th Calvary, reported:
“helpless children and women with babies in their arms had been chased as far as two miles 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?”
(McGinnis would recount gruesome details 74 years later for the Real West: True Tales of the American Frontier (January 1966)).
Quite literally, the Indians’ only defense– against roughly 500 armed soldiers and rapid firing two pound, 1.65” caliber, 42mm self contained canister or High Explosive nose fused shells fired from a canon– was a knife, or to run.
The government later redrew these boundary lines, ordered the Indians to “relinquish all right to occupy territory outside of [the government’s defined reservation],” restricted their hunting privileges, then forced them to leave their hunting grounds altogether, and further shrunk their tribal lands by 1889.
After Wounded Knee, Colonel James Forsyth neither faced a court-martial nor prosecution for war crimes.
Twenty military men were awarded Medals of Honor.
The hundreds of bodies left on the plains were buried in a mass grave roughly three weeks later still frozen by a winter storm.
Sadly, a young newspaper editor L. Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) editorialized in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891 a sentiment felt by the pioneers:
“THE PIONEER HAS BEFORE DECLARED THAT OUR ONLY SAFETY DEPENDS UPON THE TOTAL EXTERMINATION OF THE INDIANS. HAVING WRONGED THEM FOR CENTURIES, WE HAD BETTER, IN ORDER TO PROTECT OUR CIVILIZATION, FOLLOW IT UP BY ONE MORE WRONG AND WIPE THESE UNTAMED AND UNTAMABLE CREATURES FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH. IN THIS LIES FUTURE SAFETY FOR OUR SETTLERS AND THE SOLDIERS WHO ARE UNDER INCOMPETENT COMMANDS. OTHERWISE, WE MAY EXPECT FUTURE YEARS TO BE AS FULL OF TROUBLE WITH THE REDSKINS AS THOSE HAVE BEEN IN THE PAST.”
The Wounded Knee Battlefield was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965 and was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Today, the Lakota are the very poorest people in America. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, those on the Pine Ridge Reservation live in one of only five counties in America with poverty rates greater than 39 percent.
The Lakota Solidarity Project produced the documentary, “Red Cry,” to communicate their ongoing struggle worldwide:
The more poignant reality is that a federal government will justify using military force to confiscate land and natural resources. The federal government, no matter the political party in power, rarely complies with the very treaties it initiates.
And, government confiscation of land always coincides with confiscation of guns to prevent people from defending their liberties, their home, and the lives of their family and themselves.