Wounded Knee Massacre

In 1887, Wovoka, a Paiute medicine man, had a vision where he met God. Wovoka was told that he must teach his people that they must love each other, live in peace with the white people, and must work hard and not lie or steal. Wovoka was given a dance by God that had to be performed for five consecutive days.

Wovoka performed what became known as the Ghost Dance. This involved the men holding hands in a circle and shuffling slowly to the left while singing special songs about how Native American life would be restored to its former order and balance. Wovoka claimed that performing this dance would result in the return of the buffalo.

News about Wovoka's teachings spread to other Native American tribes. The most enthusiastic supporters of this new cult was the Sioux. This alarmed white settlers in the area who thought it was a preparation for further hostilities. They called for help and by 1890 nearly 3,000 members of the 7th Cavalry arrived to protect the settlers.

Some members of the Sioux tribe resented the arrival of the soldiers and decided to leave their Indian Reservation. One group of 350 were led by Chief Big Foot. Colonel James W. Forsyth was ordered to escort Big Foot and his men back to the reservation.

On 29th December, 1890, Forsyth caught up with Big Foot at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. The camp was surrounded by soldiers with Hotchkiss machine-guns. While searching the Sioux for weapons fighting broke out. The soldiers began firing their weapons. Over the next few minutes at least 150 members of the Sioux tribe were killed. This included Big Foot and 60 women and children. Others died of their wounds and some historians have claimed that nearly 300 died as a result of what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. This included the deaths of twenty-five soldiers, most of them victims of machine-gun fire.

Major General Nelson Miles was commander of field operations at this time. He was appalled by what had happened and described it as a "unjustifiable massacre" and instigated a court of inquiry into the affair. Miles relieved Forsyth of his command. The Secretary of War disagreed with this decision and exonerated Forsyth and restored him to his command.

The frozen body of Chief Big Foot (December, 1890)
The frozen body of Chief Big Foot (December, 1890)

Primary Sources

(1) James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at Standing Rock Reservation, letter to Herbert Welsh (19th January, 1891)

This was the status of the Messiah craze here on November 16th, when I made a trip to Sitting Bull's camp, which is forty miles south-west of Agency, to try and get Sitting Bull to see the evils that a continuation of the Ghost dance would lead to, and the misery that it would bring to his people. I remained over night in the settlement and visited him early next morning before they commenced the dance, and had a long and apparently satisfactory talk with him, and made some impression upon a number of his followers who were listeners, but I failed in getting him to come into the Agency, where I hoped to convince him by long argument. Through chiefs Gall, Flying-By and Gray Eagle, I succeeded in getting a few to quit the dance, but the more we got to leave it the more aggressive Sitting Bull became so that the peaceable and well-disposed Indians were obliged to leave the settlement and could not pass through it without being subjected to insult and threats.The "Ghost Dancers" had given up industrial pursuits and abandoned their houses, and all moved into camp in the immediate neighborhood of Sitting Bull's house, where they consumed their whole time in the dance and the purification vapor baths preparing for same, except on every second Saturday, when they came to the Agency for their bi-weekly rations.

(2) Philip Wells was a mixed-blood Sioux who served as an interpreter for the Army. He later recounted what he saw at Wounded Knee (January, 1891)

I was interpreting for Colonel l Forsyth just before the battle of Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890. 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."

During this time a medicine man, gaudily dressed and fantastically painted, executed the maneuvers of the ghost dance, raising and throwing dust into the air. He exclaimed "Ha! Ha!" as he did so, meaning he was about to do something terrible, and said, "I have lived long enough," meaning he would fight until he died. Turning to the young warriors who were squatted together, he said "Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us. The prairie is large, and their bullets will fly over the prairies and will not come toward us. If they do come toward us, they will float away like dust in the air." I turned to Major Whitside and said, "That man is making mischief," and repeated what he had said. Whitside replied, "Go direct to Colonel Forsyth and tell him about it," which I did.

Forsyth and I went to the circle of warriors where he told me to tell the medicine man to sit down and keep quiet, but he paid no attention to the order. Forsyth repeated the order. Big Foot's brother-in-law answered, "He will sit down when he gets around the circle." When the medicine man came to the end of the circle, he squatted down. A cavalry sergeant exclaimed, "There goes an Indian with a gun under his blanket!" Forsyth ordered him to take the gun from the Indian, which he did. Whitside then said to me, "Tell the Indians it is necessary that they be searched one at a time." The young warriors paid no attention to what I told them. I heard someone on my left exclaim, "Look out! Look out!" I saw five or six young warriors cast off their blankets and pull guns out from under them and brandish them in the air. One of the warriors shot into the soldiers, who were ordered to fire into the Indians. I looked in the direction of the medicine man. He or some other medicine man approached to within three or four feet of me with a long cheese knife, ground to a sharp point and raised to stab me He stabbed me during the melee and nearly cut off my nose. I held him off until I could swing my rifle to hit him, which I did. I shot and killed him in self-defense.

Troop 'K' was drawn up between the tents of the women and children and the main body of the Indians, who had been summoned to deliver their arms. The Indians began firing into 'Troop K' to gain the canyon of Wounded Knee creek. In doing so they exposed their women and children to their own fire. Captain Wallace was killed at this time while standing in front of his troops. A bullet, striking him in the forehead, plowed away the top of his head. I started to pull off my nose, which was hung by the skin, but Lieutenant Guy Preston shouted, "My God Man! Don't do that! That can be saved." He then led me away from the scene of the trouble.

(3) Turning Hawk, testimony to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (11th February, 1891)

Mr. Commissioner, my purpose today is to tell you what I know of the condition of affairs at the agency where I live. A certain falsehood came to our agency from the west which had the effect of a fire upon the Indians, and when this certain fire came upon our people those who had farsightedness and could see into the matter made up their minds to stand up against it and fight it. The reason we took this hostile attitude to this fire was because we believed that you yourself would not be in favor of this particular mischief-making thing; but just as we expected, the people in authority did not like this thing and we were quietly told that we must give up or have nothing to do with this certain movement. Though this is the advice form our good friends in the east, there were, of course, many silly young men who were longing to become identified with the movement, although they knew that there was nothing absolutely bad, nor did they know there was anything absolutely good, in connection with the movement.

In the course of time we heard that the soldiers were moving toward the scene of trouble. After awhile some of the soldiers finally reached our place and we heard that a number of them also reached our friends at Rosebud. Of course, when a large body of soldiers is moving toward a certain direction they inspire a more or less amount of awe, and it is natural that the women and children who see this large moving mass are made afraid of it and be put in a condition to make them run away. At first we thought the Pine Ridge and Rosebud were the only two agencies where soldiers were sent, but finally we heard that the other agencies fared likewise. We heard and saw that about half our friends at Rosebud agency, from fear at seeing the soldiers, began the move of running away from their agency toward ours (Pine Ridge), and when they had gotten inside of our reservation they there learned that right ahead of them at our agency was another large crowd of soldiers, and while the soldiers were there, there was constantly a great deal of false rumor flying back and forth. The special rumor I have in mind is the threat that the soldiers had come there to disarm the Indians entirely and to take away all their horses from them. That was the oft-repeated story.

So constantly repeated was this story that our friends from Rosebud, instead of going to Pine Ridge, the place of their destination, veered off and went to some other direction toward the "Bad Lands." We did not know definitely how many, but understood there were 300 lodges of them, about 1,700 people. Eagle Pipe, Turning Bear, High Hawk, Short Bull, Lance, No Flesh, Pine Bird, Crow Dog, Two Strike, and White Horse were the leaders.

Well, the people after veering off in this way, many of them who believe in peace and order at our agency, were very anxious that some influence should be brought upon these people. In addition to our love of peace we remembered that many of these people were related to us by blood. So we sent out peace commissioners to the people who were thus running away from their agency.

I understood at the time that they were simply going away from fear because of so many soldiers. So constant was the word of these good men from Pine Ridge agency that finally they succeeded in getting away half of the party from Rosebud, from the place where they took refuge, and finally were brought to the agency at Pine Ridge. Young-Man-Afraid-of-his-Horses, Little Wound, Fast Thunder, Louis Shangreau, John Grass, Jack Red Cloud, and myself were some of these peace-makers.

(4) Spotted Horse, testimony to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (11th February, 1891)

This man shot an officer in the army; the first shot killed this officer. I was a voluntary scout at that encounter and I saw exactly what was done, and that was what I noticed; that the first shot killed an officer. As soon as this shot was fired the Indians immediately began drawing their knives, and they were exhorted from all sides to desist, but this was not obeyed. Consequently the firing began immediately on the part of the soldiers.

(5) American Horse, testimony to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (11th February, 1891)

The men were separated, as has already been said, from the women, and they were surrounded by the soldiers. Then came next the village of the Indians and that 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 turned their guns, Hotchkill 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, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. 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.

Of course we all feel very sad about this affair. I stood very loyal to the government all through those troublesome days, and believing so much in the government and being so loyal to it, my disappointment was very strong, and I have come to Washington with a very great blame on my heart. Of course it would have been all right if only the men were killed; we would feel almost grateful for it. But the fact of the killing of the women, and more especially the killing of the young boys and girls who are to go to make up the future strength of the Indian people, is the saddest part of the whole affair and we feel it very sorely.