THE WOUNDED KNEE MASSACRE
(THE CANKPE OPI WAKPALA MASSACRE)
By: Marc Immanuel
Originally published on: 4 December 2016
Last updated on: 20 May 2018
The “Wounded Knee Massacre”, in which a total of between 200 and 300 (according to most estimates) Indigenous men, women, and children died, was the last major genocidal massacre in a continuous series of hundreds of genocidal massacres by the United States against Indigenous Peoples of the northern subcontinent of the Western Hemisphere [“North America” (European naming)] during the period of the US conquest (1776-1924) of the territory which became the US-occupied territory of the 48-state contiguous United States.
More specifically, the “Wounded Knee Massacre” was a massacre committed by the US Federal Army against the Lakota (a.k.a. Teton) tribe of the Sioux Nation on 29 December 1890, targeting a band of the Miniconjou subtribe at an encampment near a small creek known to the Lakota as “Cankpe Opi Wakpala” (English, “Wounded Knee”), near the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation in US-occupied territory under general jurisdiction of the US state of South Dakota.
The Forced Relocation of Indigenous Peoples to US-Designated “Reservations”
From the beginning of the history of the United States Federal Government (founded 1789) and throughout the period of the US war of conquest (1776-1924) in the collective territory which by 1912 had become the fully US-occupied territory of the 48-state contiguous United States, the US Government pursued the total domination of more and more of that territory.
During the whole of that period, the policy of the US Government toward the Indigenous Peoples in territory under US invasion and occupation aimed at the destruction of the Indigenous Peoples as distinct groups through the use of both physical genocide (extermination) and cultural genocide (assimilation).
In 1871, the US Government enacted the Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 — which ended original US recognition of Indigenous nations and tribes (in what had by then become US-occupied territory) as independent national groups and officially defined their status as, basically, a conquered population subject to the dictation of the US Government.
By the 1880s, the US Government had forced nearly all of the surviving Indigenous Peoples of the US-occupied territory of the 48-state contiguous United States into US-designated “Indian reservations” as refugee peoples ((ICC crime against humanity, criterion d), under “conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part” (UN/ICC genocide, criterion c).
The Banning of Indigenous Religious Dances by the US Government Dictatorship
A US Government dictatorship was imposed on reservations.
As part of cultural genocide, one of the policies of the US Government was to actively suppress all Indigenous religions and require Indigenous Peoples under US occupation to convert to the US national religion. (The US national religion was, in effect, institutional Christianity as generally defined and practiced by the various Christian denominations in association with the US Government and ruling class.)
In 1882, the US Government, through a directive by US Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller, ordered an end to all “heathenish dances and ceremonies” on reservations due to their “great hindrance to civilization”. The following year, in 1883, the US Government, through Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price, codified the practice of officially restricting Indigenous religious freedom by creating the Indian Religious Crimes Code (or the Code of Indian Offenses).
The Code of Indian Offenses officially banned Indigenous religious dances, religious ceremonies, the activity of spiritual leaders [called “medicine men/women”], and polygamy. Those who disobeyed were liable to receive various forms of State punishment — such as food ration withholding (for up to 10 to 15 days), a fee payment and/or a hard labor sentence (for up to 20 days), or a prison sentence (for up to 30 days).
In 1892 (shortly following the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890), the US Government, through Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan, sought to further suppress Indigenous religions by ordering penalties of up to six months in prison for those who repeatedly participated in religious dances or acted as spiritual leaders.
The Spread of the “Ghost Dance Movement”
(source5, pgs 111-114)
During the administration of US President (1889-1993) Benjamin Harrison, an Indigenous religious movement, originating in the teachings of Paiute spiritual teacher Wovoka (a.k.a. Jack Wilson), began to spread throughout several of the Indigenous communities of the time, becoming especially popular among the Sioux tribes. The religious movement involved a circular dance ritual traditionally referred to as the “Circle Dance” (“Dance in a Circle”) and referred to by the Sioux as the Wanaghi Wachipi (the “Spirit Dance“, which was translated into English as the “Ghost Dance“).
In 1890, the US Government further reduced the size of the Great Plains reservations. Life on the reservations was desperate. The land was not good enough to support farming, and the US Government did not provide the food and supplies it had promised. Defeated, hungry, and angry, many Plains Indigenous Peoples found comfort in the “Ghost Dance movement”. (source13, 7th section, “The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee”)
US authorities at the Pine Ridge Reservation feared that the religious movement would inspire Indigenous militant resistance.
Benjamin Harrison banned the Spirit Dance throughout the US-occupied territory of the 48-state contiguous United States. And in December 1890, he ordered US forces to go into the Pine Ride Reservation to suppress the “Ghost Dance movement”.
US Genocidal Massacres of Lakota People In the Days Preceding the Wounded Knee Massacre
(Under the Authority of 1st Governor of South Dakota, Arthur C. Mellette):
● BUFFALO GAP MASSACRE
10 December 1890
Location: Near French Creek
Territory under present-day jurisdiction of US state of South Dakota
Massacre death toll: Over 50 (young men and women)
Description: “Several wagonloads of Sioux [young men and women from the Pine Ridge Reservation] were killed by South Dakota Home Guard militiamen [under the authority of, and organized by, 1st Governor of South Dakota (1889-1993), Arthur C. Mellette] near French Creek, South Dakota, while visiting a white friend in Buffalo Gap.” (“…Massacres“)
“The band had gone to Buffalo Gap to hunt at the ranch of a friendly white man they knew. They were greeted with a gun. They were unaware of the events that were transpiring around them. They sensed something wrong and attempted to leave. Because their horses were tired, they had to make camp between French Creek and Battle Creek. They were massacred in a surprise attack the next morning, December 10.” (source )
● STRONGHOLD MASSACRE
16 December 1890
Location: “Cuny Table” [US naming; area known to the Lakota as “Oonakizin” (English, “The Stronghold“)],
Pine Ridge Reservation, enclosed within territory under present-day jurisdiction of US state of South Dakota
Massacre death toll: Approx. 75 (men, women, children)
Description: South Dakota Home Guard militiamen [under the authority of, and organized by, 1st Governor of South Dakota (1889-1993), Arthur C. Mellette] initiated an attack on a Lakota Sioux encampment in the northern portion of Pine Ridge Reservation. The Lakota were lured into a well-planned militia ambush and massacred. Approximately 75 Lakota were murdered. The South Dakota Home Guard then scalped the bodies of the massacred and plundered the belongings left behind.
Two of the South Dakota militiamen at that massacre, Captain Riley Miller (the leader) and Frank Lockhart, went back to the crime scene with horse transport carriages and transported seven loads of plunder. Following the December 1890 massacres and plunders at Pine Ridge Reservation, Riley Miller toured many US cities with several hundred exhibits from the massacres/plunders and made a lot of money by displaying or selling the exhibits. (Stronghold source 2)
In partnership with Charles Bristol, many of those exhibits were displayed in a 500-piece museum exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage). A top attraction in that exhibition was the dried corpse of an Indigenous infant who had died in infancy, with a billboard on top with the words, “Mummified Indian Papoose, the Greatest Curiosity Ever on Exhibition”. Was the infant, perhaps, one of those who died in the Wounded Knee Massacre?
The US Government had a legal obligation under Article 8 of the Act of February 28, 1877 (a.k.a. the Agreement of 1877) to protect the lives and property of the Indigenous residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation. [sources: (1) source10, (2) Act of 1877, (3) Wikipedia article (“‘Sell or Starve” and the Act of 1877″)]
“…They shall be subject to the laws of the United States, and each individual shall be protected in his rights of property, person, and life.”
— US Federal Government,
Article 8, Act of February 28, 1877
The Day Before the Massacre:
US Forces Surround Chief Spotted Elk’s Encampment and Position Four Hotchkiss Canon Machine Guns
(sources 1-5, 8)
On 28 December 1890, a detachment of nearly 500 soldiers of the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel (1886-1894) James W. Forsyth, surrounded the encampment of the band of Chief Spotted Elk at Wounded Knee Creek. A band of approximately 370 (possibly up to 400) Indigenous persons were present inside the encampment. According to US Army Major Samuel Whitside, the population of the encampment was counted before the massacre as approximately 120 men and 250 women and children (source14, Whitside to Brooke, sent 1:30 pm, received 3:45 p.m., 28 Dec. 1890)
The US Army force positioned four 42-mm (1.65-inch) Hotchkiss canon machine guns on a hill overlooking the camp. The specific type of Hotchkiss gun was a small canon containing a revolving-barrel machine gun capable of firing 43 rounds per minute with good accuracy from up to two kilometers (about one mile) away.
Forsyth’s orders were to camp for the night by the reservation store and post office at Wounded Knee Creek before disarming the encampment and forcing the approximately 370 already-exhausted Indigenous men, women, and children (including elderly people and infants) to leave the “zone of military operations” and travel in the middle of the freezing winter to the Union Pacific railroad station at Gordon approximately 40 km (25 miles) away, in territory under jurisdiction of the US state of Nebraska. (source14, Brook-Miles, 3:45 pm, 28 Dec. 1890)
From Gordon, the people would be sent by train south to a military prison at Omaha, Nebraska (to be temporarily relocated until the end of the US military operation). The orders of US Army General (1867-1903) Nelson A. Miles to Forsyth were that he should “use force enough” to accomplish this. (source14, Brook-Miles, 3:45 pm, 28 Dec. 1890; and source5, page 116)
Indiscriminate Canon Machine Gun Fire
at Men, Women, Children, Infants
(sources 1-5, 8)
On the morning of 29 December 1890, Colonel Forsyth ordered the surrender of the weapons inside the camp and the immediate removal and transportation of the Indigenous residents to awaiting trains at the Union Pacific railroad station at Gordon.
The chief of the specific Miniconjou Lakota band was Unpan Gleska [English translation, Spotted Elk] (chief 1877-1890). (He was referred to as Big Foot by the US Army — after a US soldier, at Fort Bennet, coined it as a derogatory nickname.)
Chief Unpan Gleska (Spotted Elk) — who had already agreed to his and his band’s surrender to the US Army the previous day and was being held as a captive by the US Army — ordered his band to comply with US Army authorities and surrender all weapons.
Many of the US soldiers were intoxicated on alcohol. Many spoke or acted abusively toward the band members during the disarming.
An argument arose between two or three US soldiers and a young Lakota man, Black Coyote (sometimes called Black Fox), who refused to hand over his rifle without reimbursement. The argument turned into a struggle for the rifle, which resulted in a discharge of the rifle into the air. (It is unknown whether Black Coyote fired the rifle intentionally or whether the discharge was accidental.)
That first shot, in turn, immediately sparked up a battle between US soldiers and Lakota men inside the camp. Outnumbered and greatly outgunned, arming themselves with a small amount of old rifles and with knives, hatchets, and war clubs, Lakota warriors initially attempted to defend the camp against the heavily-armed US Army force.
The US Army force, using the four Hotchkiss canon machine guns (positioned on the hill overlooking the camp) and using the soldiers’ rifles, began firing indiscriminately at the Lakota men, women, children, and infants.
About 30 US soldiers were killed and about 30 US soldiers wounded (many, perhaps most, as a result of “friendly fire” — shots by other soldiers, as the camp was being fired into from all around). All of the camp’s armed Lakota men were killed (along with the majority of the people of the camp).
US soldiers hunted down escaping women and children as far as three kilometers (two miles) and mercilessly shot them dead.
Some women who managed to escape ended up dying in the blizzard which followed. It was later reported that four infants were found alive beneath the snow, wrapped in shawls and lying beside the dead bodies of their mothers (whose last thought had been of them). One of those infants, a female infant, was named “Zintkala Nuni” (“Lost Bird”) by the band’s survivors. An article about her life story is here.
The majority of that Lakota band’s approximately 370 members died in this massacre, and the survivors sufferred bodily and/or mental harm.
Most of this people consisted of non-combatant persons (women, children, elderly men, and unarmed men). And those men who took up whatever weapons were before them and fought to their death, died fighting defensively against a heavily-armed occupying army force which had initiated an act of aggression and which proceeded to commit an act of genocide.
The Burial of the Bodies of the Dead
(sources 1-5, 8)
The bodies of the dead US soldiers were buried soon after the massacre. Due to a three-day blizzard, the US mass burial of bodies of the dead Lakota people did not take place until five days after the massacre, on 3 January 1891.
The US Government contracted a US civilian burial party to recover and bury the bodies of the massacred. Local US settlers were paid $2 per body to recover and drag dead bodies from the snow and throw the bodies into a mass grave. Approximately 150 frozen bodies (possibly more) of the passed away members of the Lakota camp were buried unceremoniously in that mass grave. (A portion of that mass grave is shown in the first included photo.)
US soldiers posed for photographs and jumped on the piles of bodies to pack them down into the mass grave. It was reported that at least one Lakota person was buried alive, with the knowledge of the overseers of the burial party.
The encampment and the Lakota band’s belongings were plundered by members of the civilian burial party. Many of the belongings were eventually sold to US and European museums.
The body of Chief Spotted Elk was scalped by members of the civilian burial party. A hairlock of the scalp was sold to the Barre Museum, in Barre, Massachusetts, where it had been on display for more than a century. There it remained despite the protests of Spotted Elk’s family until the year 2000. The last remains of the body of Spotted Elk were returned to the place of his birth, 109 years after his murder. (source12, 4th article)
US General Nelson Miles — the superior commanding officer commanding the US Army operation which resulted in the Wounded Knee Massacre — was accountable for unjust acts which, under contemporary international criminal (ICC) law definitions, are defined as crimes against humanity (by sending occupation forces with orders to suppress the tribe’s religious practices, arrest tribal leaders without just cause, forcibly disarm the tribe without the tribe having initiated any act of aggression, and forcibly transport about 350 men, women, children in the middle of the freezing winter to a military prison).
However, Miles, himself, was not accountable for genocide or for the act of genocidal massacre (UN/ICC genocide criteria a-b), nor for the political and military cover-up which followed. He had long advocated negotiation and diplomacy rather than massacre to resolve conflicts with Indigenous Peoples. He would later openly refer to what the US Military called a “battle” as a “cruel and unjustifiable massacre” (as it indeed was).
Miles regarded his subordinates in command, Colonel James Forsyth and officers under Forsyth’s command, as accountable for the massacre. On 4 January 1891, without authorization from top US political and military authorities, Miles relieved Forsyth from his position and ordered a military court of inquiry to investigate the actions under Forsyth’s command and to “ascertain whether any non-combatants were unnecessarily injured or destroyed”.
The official investigation ordered by General Miles did not have the approval of and was discouraged by President Benjamin Harrison and top military officials through Secretary of War (1889-1891) Redfield Proctor and the military chain of command. However, General Miles proceeded with it.
Despite the evidence of the official investigation ordered by General Miles, the top US political and military authorities suppressed an honest judgment, denied the crime, and restored Forsyth to his command (and promoted him to Brigadier General in 1894 and Major General in 1897).
The top US political and military authorities also awarded approximately twenty Medals of Honor (the USA’s highest military honor) to soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre. (source)
In the whole of US history to the present time, this is the most Medals of Honor awarded for a single “battle”. Despite protests and demands since then, those medals have not been rescinded.
This cruel and unjustified massacre was not an isolated aberration in US military history, but one in a series of many such massacres resulting from a US Government policy involving genocide toward Indigenous Peoples since the foundation of the United States. That is why General Miles, despite his efforts following the Wounded Knee Massacre, died without seeing justice for the massacre perpetrated under his command.
100th Anniversary of Wounded Knee Massacre:
US Government Recognizes Massacre While Preparing to Commit New Massacres
One hundred years after the massacre, on 25 October 1990, the US Congress, passing Concurrent Resolution 153, officially recognized the Wounded Knee Massacre as a massacre and issued a statement expressing “deep regret”. (Meanwhile, the US Government, under the George H. W. Bush, Sr., Administration, was in the process of preparing new massacres — not with rifles and Hotchkiss canons as 100 years prior, but with modern bomber jets to bomb the nation of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, which began three months afterwards.)
The Wounded Knee Massacre continues to be listed in the US Army record as the “Battle of Wounded Knee“.
A battle streamer honoring the US Army’s acts of genocide at the Pine Ridge Reservation — listed as “Pine Ridge 1890-1891″ — is attached to US Army flags on display at the US White House (Presidential Building), Capitol (Congressional Building), Pentagon (Military Headquarters), Westpoint Military Academy, museums, and Army bases around the world.
As of 2017, the US Army flag was adorned with 189 campaign streamers in honor of the multiple US Army war campaigns throughout the Planet since the foundation of the US Army in 1775 — (which are mostly, under contemporary international criminal law definitions, multiple US Army crimes).
. An Act of Genocide
Under contemporary international criminal law definitions and based in a truthful investigation of United States policy toward the Indigenous Peoples of the region during the two-century period 1776-1978 , this massacre may be classified as an act of genocide (one act in a systematic pattern of acts involving genocide against Indigenous Peoples of the region, under a policy for which the US Federal Government bears primary accountability).
Testimony by American Horse
(one of four Sioux men involved in the event) —
Testimony to the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 11 February 1891
“The men were separated, as has already been said, from the women, and they were surrounded by the soldiers. …The village of the ‘Indians’ [Indigenous (Lakota Sioux) people]… was entirely surrounded by the soldiers also.
When the firing began, of course the people who were standing immediately around the young man who fired the first shot were killed right together. And then they [the US soldiers] turned their guns — Hotchkiss guns, etc. — upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce. And of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled — the men fleeing in one direction and the women running in two different directions. So that there were three general directions in which they took flight.
There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce [a white flag, symbolizing surrender and request for negotiation]. And the women and children of course were strewn [scattered] all along the circular village until they were dispatched [killed].
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 babies were killed together, shot right through; and the women who were very heavy with child [pregnant in late stage of pregnancy] were also killed.
All the ‘Indians’ [Indigenous (Lakota Sioux) people] fled in these three directions. And after most all of them had been killed, a cry [calling out] was made that all those who were not killed or 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…“
_____ _____ _____
Testimony by Hugh McGinnis
(who had been a 20-year old US soldier at the massacre) —
his testimony to historian/writer Olive Glasgow, in 1964-65,
when he was age 94, shortly before he died on 22 March 1965
“The pitiful wailing cries of babies and children mixed with the dull explosions of the old fashioned Hotchkiss machine guns rent [pierced through] the cold air. The sickening thuds as these big lead bullets smashed into the body of a baby or a child, arms and head all flying in different directions.
The screams of mothers as machine gun bullets tore their bodies apart. The curses of the ‘Indian’ [Indigenous (Lakota Sioux)] warriors, fighting machine guns and cannons with old muskets, knives, and tomahawks, being cut down in rows by demon-crazed white soldiers.”
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
1. “Wounded Knee Massacre”,
Wikipedia, volunteer-written encyclopedia, article (historical)
2. “Wounded Knee Massacre“,
Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, article (historical)
by John E. Carter, Nebraska State Historical Society, 2011
3. “Wounded Knee Massacre“,
Spartacus Educational, article (historical)
by John Simkin (history teacher/author)
4. “Wild West History: Massacre at Wounded Knee“,
blog, by Darla Sue Dollman (researcher/blogger), 22 November 2013
5. “Plains Indian Wars, Updated Edition“,
book (historical), by Sherry Marker, InfoBase Publishing, 1 January 2009, pgs 111-118
6. “Wounded Knee Investigation“,
Army at Wounded Knee (Sumter, SC: Russell Martial Research, 2013-2015, http://wp.me/P3NoJy-vD),
article (historical), by Samuel L. Russell, updated 27 September 2015 (accessed date)
7. “The Wounded Knee Interviews Of Eli S. Ricker“,
the report of an extensive research by Eli S. Ricker (lawyer/newspaper editor),
Nebraska State Historical Society
8. “I Took Part in the Wounded Knee Massacre”,
by Hugh McGinnis and Olive Glasgow, published 1966,
a testimony by Hugh McGinnis (who had been a US soldier at the massacre)
9. “The Deeper Meaning of An Apology“,
article (historical), by Bob Smith, April 2001
10. Written Testimony of Mario Gonzales (Attorney),
from the 25 September 1990 US Senate Hearing
11. “American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994“,
the Singing Stone, article (historical), 11 April 2015
12. “Chief (Spotted Elk’s) Hair-Lock Returned to Descendants…“,
4th article (news), News From Indian Country, V. XIV; N.16, p. 1A,
by Jim Kent, 31 August 2000
13. “Native North Americans of the Great Plains“,
US History in Context, article (historical), 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning
14. “Hunting for Big Foot“, Part 6: 28 December 1890,
Army at Wounded Knee, transcript of US Army communications
A LIST OF OVER 100 GENOCIDAL MASSACRES BY THE UNITED STATES
AGAINST INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF THE WESTERN CONTINENT:
From the Gnadenhutten Massacre to the Wounded Knee Massacre
CRIMES OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT:
From the Trail of Tears
to the Invasion of Iraq
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