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the massacre of wounded Knee, the official end of the Indian wars

DECEMBER 29, 1890




The Wounded Knee Massacre was a military operation that took place in the United States of America in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. Between 300 and 350 Amerindians of the Lakota Miniconjou tribe (including several dozen women and children) were killed by the United States Army.


Five hundred soldiers of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment, backed by four Hotchkiss machine guns, surrounded a camp of Lakota Indians with orders to transport them by train to Omaha, Nebraska. The commander of the 7th had been ordered to proceed with the disarmament.

There are different versions of the massacre but historians agree that the shooting started during the disarmament of the Indians.



Ghost dance at pine ridge

In 1890, Jack Wilson, a Native American religious leader known as Wovoka, states that during the total solar eclipse of January 1, 1889, he received the revelation that he is the Messiah of his people. The spiritual movement he creates becomes known as Ghost Dance , a syncretic blend of spiritual spiritualism and Christian shakerism. Although Wilson predicted the disappearance of white men, he also teaches that until the Day of Judgment, Amerindians must live in peace and not refuse to work for whites.

Among the Sioux, the first two converts to this new religion are Kicking Bear and Short Bull, from Pine Ridge Reserve. Both assure that Wilson has levitated before them, but they interpret his words differently. They reject Wilson's claim to be the Messiah and believe that the Messiah will not arrive until 1891. They also reject Wilson's pacifism and believe that special clothing, the " ghost shirts" , will protect them from balls.

The Spirit Dance spreads quickly among the Sioux, demoralized and hungry. Frightened, the Indian agents ask the help of the army. Although it appears that a majority of the Indians on the Pine Ridge Reserve have been converted, Chief Sitting Bull is not one of them. However, it guarantees religious freedom; but federal officials interpret this tolerance as total support, and General Nelson Miles orders his arrest. Forty-three Indian policemen try to stop him on Dec. 15, 1890 at the Standing Rock agency. For unclear reasons, a shooting fires and Sitting Bull is among the twelve killed.

Four hundred Hunkpapa Lakota flee to the Cheyenne River Indian Reserve of Lakota Miniconjou. 38 Hunkpapa Lakota from the village of Sitting Bull find refuge in the Big Foot Miniconjou camp in the Cheyenne River Reserve. Miles immediately orders the arrest of Big Foot but the army delays, hoping that his reputation as a pacifist will prevent hostilities. When the Hunkpapa arrive, frightened by the arrival of many soldiers on the reserve, the 300 Miniconjou decide to leave their village and join the leader Red Cloud (which is not part of the movement of the Dance of the spirits) to the agency from Pine Ridge.

Ignoring the intentions of the Indians, and fearing that the destination of Big Foot is the bastion of followers of the Spirit Dance in the Bad Lands, General Miles deploys the 6th and 9th cavalry regiments to block the Minniconjou.

The Big Foot clan is intercepted by Major Samuel Whitside and about 200 men of the 7th Cavalry (decimated at Little Big Horn by the Sioux 14 years ago). Whitside transfers Big Foot who suffers from severe pneumonia to a field ambulance and escorts the Lakota to their camp for the night at Wounded Knee Creek. The army provides the Lakota with tents and rations. The Indians are numbered: there are in the village 120 men and 230 women and children.

The next morning, the Lakota face the rest of the regiment, with its commander, Colonel James W. Forsyth, arriving during the night, as well as a battery of Hotchkiss guns from the 1st Artillery Regiment. The weapons are arranged on a small hill overlooking the camp. Forsyth informs Whitside that the Lakota must be transferred to a military camp in Omaha, Nebraska.


The 7th Cavalry was ordered by platoon commander, General John Brooke, to disarm the Big Foot clan prior to the transfer to Nebraska. The night before, after being escorted to the camp and surrounded on all sides, the Lakota are considered virtual prisoners. Forsyth chooses not to try to disarm them in the evening.

In the morning, the Lakota men are gathered and informed that they must surrender all their firearms. The soldiers, fearing that weapons will remain hidden, begin to search the tents, provoking the wrath of the Lakota who, according to the army, are under the influence of a Miniconjou shaman, Yellow Bird.

When soldiers try to disarm a Lakota named Black Coyote, a shot goes away. A general shootout ensues. Most Lakota men, surrounded by soldiers, are shot dead. The survivors emerge. It was then that the guns bombarded the village with women and children.


It has long been claimed that 146 Lakota were killed along with 25 US cavalry soldiers who also had 35 wounded, with Big Foot among the dead. 
In fact, the US military today recognizes that 300 to 350 Amerindians perished during this "massacre", a term used by General Nelson A. Miles in a letter of March 13, 1917 to the Commissioner for Indian Affairs. Soldiers firing from all sides, it is thought that some of them were killed by their own regiment but no investigation has made it possible to know the truth. 
Lt. James D. Mann, one of the main shooters, died of his wounds seventeen days later, on January 15, 1891, in Fort Riley, Kansas.



Wounded knee 1

Colonel Forsyth, disavowed by General Nelson Miles, is immediately relieved of his command. A thorough military investigation led by Miles criticizes Forsyth's tactical arrangements while absolving him of his responsibility. The Secretary of War restored Forsyth to his command of the 7th Cavalry Regiment.

The court ruled that, for the most part, the cavalry soldiers tried to avoid harm to non-combatants. 
Nevertheless Miles continues to criticize Forsyth who, according to him, has deliberately disobeyed orders. It is from General Miles that comes the opinion that Wounded Knee is a deliberate massacre rather than a tragedy caused by unfortunate decisions (American public opinion then generally being favorable to Forsyth).




Wounded Knee Massacre

Wounded Knee is generally considered the event that ends 400 years of Indian wars. Strictly speaking, however, the massacre is not the last conflict between the Amerindians and the United States Army. 
A skirmish took place at the Drexel Mission the day after the Wounded Knee massacre, which resulted in the death of a cavalry soldier and injured six others belonging to the 7th Cavalry. This event at Mission Drexel was almost totally eclipsed by the drama of the day before. Lakota dancers who have been persuaded to surrender prefer to flee by learning about what happened at Wounded Knee. They burn several buildings of the mission then attract a squadron of the 7th cavalry in a trap and harass him until the arrival of the reinforcements of the 9th cavalry regiment.