Today was a sad day in history. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Cavalry ended the seemingly neverending Indian wars when they slaughtered 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee. The massacre, which occurred on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, is still remembered to this day.
Before the slaughter, the American government was nervous about the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which claimed that native people had been militarily defeated by white colonists and trapped on reservations due to their abandonment of their traditional religious commitments. The movement was popular at Pine Ridge. The Sioux there believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance, they would be freed from white oppression.
The white police who oversaw the reservation attempted to arrest Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief whom they incorrectly believed to be a Ghost Dancer, on December 15th, 1890. During their attempt, they killed him. Tensions on the reservation mounted to a boiling point.
Ghost Dancers gathered near Wounded Knee Creek, with Chief Big Foot, on December 29th. The U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry intervened, surrounding them and demanding they lay down their arms. The Sioux complied, but when a scuffle broke out between a soldier and a Ghost Dancer, the standoff erupted into violence. A shot was fired (it remains unclear from which side it came) and the cavalry responded with brutal aggression.
Estimates vary as to exactly how many Sioux were killed in the melee. The number ranges between 150 and 300, over half of whom were women and children. The U.S. force, in comparison, only lost 25 soldiers.
History textbooks euphemistically referred to the incident as a “battle” for many years, though the reality doesn’t really live up to the title. Considering how uneven the balance of force was, many historians believe it was unlikely that the Sioux provoked the massacre. It appears much more likely that it was a result of punitive attitudes from the American side, possibly originating from a simple revenge drive over the regiment’s loss at Little Bighorn in 1876.
The Ghost Dance movement was crushed. The massacre marked the end of the United States’ extremely violent and lingering war with the Plains Indians.
History echoed in 1973, when a radical native group called the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee for seventy-one days in protest of government mistreatment. Two protesters lost their lives in the occupation and one federal marshal was wounded.
Native rights continues to be a hot-button political issue in America.