On December 28, 1890, a 7th Cavalry detachment under Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted Chief Spotted Elk and approximately 350 of his followers just southwest of the badlands in South Dakota near Porcupine Butte. Major Whitside was advised by his half Sioux scout and interpreter, John Shangreau, that it would be better to postpone disarming the group. He indicated that such a move might lead to violence. The cavalry escorted the Lakota group westward approximately five miles to an area along Wounded Knee Creek. It was along the banks of this creek that the group made camp. The detachment was joined later in the evening by the remainder of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Colonel James W. Forsyth.
Looking at comparison numbers, the Cavalry now was 500 men strong, while the Lakota in the encampment numbers only 350. Of that number, 230 of the Lakota were women and children. When they awoke in the morning, the Lakota found that the troopers had surrounded Spotted Elk’s encampment. They had set up four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns. Colonel Forsyth, with the increased force, issued the order for the Lakota to surrender their weapons. He also ordered the removal of the Native Americans from the “zone of military operations” to trains awaiting. They were to be transported to reserved lands.
Though accounts differ, one explanation of the fight that broke out tells a gruesome tale of misunderstanding. In that account, Yellow Bird, a medicine man, began to perform the Ghost Dance. They danced and called upon the spirits of their ancestors to come and help them. They danced to bring back the buffalo to restore their way of life. Yellow Bird told the people that wearing a ghost shirt would protect them from the bullets of the white man. He convinced them that the Ghost Shirts were bulletproof.
Doubtless, the Lakota were disturbed and unnerved by the events taking place. After all, the soldiers and lawmakers of the United States had not proven their trustworthiness in the past. Giving up their arms was not exactly what they wanted to be forced to do. Tension in the camp escalated. The account says that Black Coyote, who was deaf, failed to understand the order. Even though at least two Native Americans tried to reason with the soldiers, explaining Black Coyote’s situation, the situation did not improve. Soldiers seized Black Coyote from behind. In the chaos of the struggle, Black Coyote’s rifle discharged. The account continues saying that Yellow Bird reacted by throwing dust into the air. Approximately five of the Lakota males revealed weapons they had been concealing beneath their blankets. They fired their arms at Troop K of the 7th.
The powder keg situation ignited into unbridled, indiscriminate firing.
The military account by General Nelson A. Miles sheds a different light on the matter. His account says that a “scuffle occurred between one warrior who had (a) rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Spotted Elk, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed.”
With the struggle being fought at close range, the death toll among the Native American men was devastating. Half were killed or wounded before they even had an opportunity to fire off a shot. Though some Indians had been hiding guns and used them to return fire, they still lacked cover. And remember, most were unarmed. It did not take long for the military to wreak havoc. The Hotchkiss guns were leveled against the tipi camp killing women and children.
Military control gave way to the darker side of humans. As the Native American women and children fled to a nearby ravine. Soldiers on horseback chased them. Other soldiers swept across the battlefield finishing off the wounded.
When the fighting ceased, 150 of the Lakota had been killed. Fifty had been wounded. Twenty-five of the soldiers lay dead, and 39 were wounded. Many of these are believed to have been killed by friendly fire in the chaos. And all this carnage took less than an hour.
The United States, on this day, was at our worst.
Photo 1: Bodies on the grounds after Wounded Knee.
Photo 2: Bigoot, a Miniconjou chief shown dead moments after the massacre of Wounded Knee.
Photo 3: Wovoka, creator of the Ghost Dance.
Photo 4: A Mass Grave after the Wounded Knee Massacre.