While it is a popular theme of books and movies, many of us are quite tired of hearing about the evils of the past. After all “it didn’t happen on my watch” as we used to say in the Navy. Not only did I have nothing to do with these atrocities, there is nothing I can do about it now. Sure the President can issue official apologies and token compensations but these actions fall far short of curing the ills of the past. They are essentially useless if not harmful.
So, that is not the reason for this report. No, there is a far more important reason to take time to note the 110th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre and to once again examine what happened on that very cold 29th day of December, 1890, on Wounded Knee creek in South Dakota. That reason is that the specific activities and causes of that tragedy are not as far removed from some recent events in the U.S. Given that, let us consider once again Santayana’s famous quote:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~ from George Santayana’s The Life of Reason What Actually Happened?
I will not go into a detailed discussion of the events surrounding the massacre of these “Native Americans”, a.k.a. “Indians”,[Note 1] as they are covered extensively elsewhere. The web page of the Library Of Congress introduces the subject this way:
“On December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, some 500 soldiers of the United States Seventh Cavalry opened fire on approximately 350 Lakota (Sioux) Indians of Chief Big Foot’s Miniconjou band. At the end of the confrontation, between 150 and 300 Sioux men, women, and children, including Chief Big Foot, were dead. This event marked the end of Lakota resistance until the 1970s. Apart from the few minor skirmishes that followed, the Wounded Knee massacre ended the Indian Wars.”
Further details will be provided below as necessary to support my major points. However, if you would like to examine the event in further details now, here are some of the better links on the web:
- A brief but informative introduction by PBS is here. The PBS site has a few photographs, including a picture of Soldiers posing with three of the four Hotchkiss Guns used against the Lakota at Wounded Knee.
- Massacre At Wounded Knee, 1890 (includes eye-witness accounts from both sides as well as pictures). A photo of mass burial is here.
- Wounded Knee Home Page (includes several links to related issues).
- THE MEDALS OF WOUNDED KNEE (about the issue of the awarding of the Medals of Honor).
- Doctor Sally Wagner Testifies At Wounded Knee Hearings
- 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee (includes references to books and videos).
Events and Issues Closely Related to Concerns We Have Today
In reading the various documented reports of this incident, some statements are eerily close to events in our modern times. Following is a list of the major ones.
The Cruel Blunders and Inaction of our Government Including Congress
Massive bureaucracy and Congressional inaction was a serious and often disastrous problem then as it is today. By a series of shenanigans and bogus treaties, the Indians had been progressively relieved of their land and pushed into relatively small reservations. This greatly reduced their hunting range while at the same time, the animals to hunt were becoming scarcer and scarcer (the buffalo had been exterminated by the white settlers and government hired hunters). The efforts of the natives at farming in these barren “Badlands” was a total failure. For the winter of ’90, they were facing starvation and death by freezing as they had little food or clothing both of which were promised by Congress and were part of the terms of the treaties.
Congress was not giving the problem much attention. They were taking as long to approve the budget then as they do today — except then thousands of people were suffering and dying. You can imagine how serious it is for the Lakotas to be without food and clothing in the blizzards of the Dakotas while Congress continued to debate the budget in the nicely heated Washington Capitol building. The desperate situation is best described by a message General Miles sent to his superior in Washington on December 19, pleading for action by Congress (from Dr. Sally Wagner’s Testimony).
“The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations which the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing. They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures. The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.” The White Man’s hysteria about the Lakota’s Newly Adopted Religion the Ghost Dance (the press dubbed it the “Messiah Craze”) Then as now, the citizens are fearful of the practice of any new religion and will induce the government to take drastic measures to suppress it, up to and including killing the participants as evidenced by the Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies.
The Messiah Craze grew out the Lakota’s desperate situation. They were dying, they were surrounded by the Army and they were being told that they were going to be killed. The religion grew out of this situation and was a misguided effort to appease them into believing that they would somehow survive (the shirts would deflect the bullets). According to the article, “Massacre At Wounded Knee, 1890”;
In a desperate attempt to return to the days of their glory, many sought salvation in a new mysticism preached by a Paiute shaman called Wovoka. Emissaries from the Sioux in South Dakota traveled to Nevada to hear his words. Wovoka called himself the Messiah and prophesied that the dead would soon join the living in a world in which the Indians could live in the old way surrounded by plentiful game. A desperate Indian Agent at Pine Ridge wired his superiors in Washington, “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy….We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done now.” The order went out to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull was killed in the attempt on December 15. Chief Big Foot was next on the list.”
Both Wovoka and Koresh now know how serious it can be to your welfare to stir up the natives with a new, unapproved, religion!
That not a single white man’s home had been burned or any individual harmed by this desperate religion was of no consequence to the politicians and bureaucrats.
The Press and the Creation of Fear and Hysteria amongst the Indians The press, then as now, will do all it can to stir up the hysteria as it does sell newspapers. Not that it would have made any difference but the fact is that some of the Indians could read too. What they read and passed on to their fellow Native Americans must have been extremely terrifying.
“There were numerous reports “(circulated in newspapers and authorized by the almost universal sentiment of the terrified settlers) that all the Indians were going to be killed, their arms taken away, and men, women, and children slaughtered without discrimination.”
With that background, let us now look at the actual confrontation between the Lakotas temporarily camped on Wounded Knee Creek and the U.S. Calvary who had them surrounded on all four sides. The Indian braves were out-numbered five to one and their rifles were massively outgunned by the fire-power of the army, including four Hotchkiss automatic firing cannons.
The Trigger to the Commencement of Hostilities
A major contribution to the sudden start of hostilities was the actions of the soldiers going through the tents looking for guns. “The Sioux braves became agitated by the cries of their squaws, who attempted to prevent the soldiers from scattering their belongings…”
Does this sound a bit familiar? Does this not sound a bit like the actions of the Swat teams and Federal lawmen who make their infamous “no-knock” entries into private homes where they search for drugs, in the process destroying the furniture, walls, and precious belongings of the inhabitants, and upon leaving often say, “Whoops, I guess we had the wrong house. . .”.
They do not seem to understand that such activities can sometimes drive the victims to a desperate act.
The Seizure of Weapons
The fact that these nearly starved braves would have no means to obtain game without their guns and knives was not an adequate defense to the Army. They insisted that all guns had to be relinquished. They surely knew that the braves would not give up their guns without a fight. Nevertheless, the soldiers after ordering the Indians to bring the guns out to them without success, proceeded to send a detail of 20 or so soldiers into the compound and into the tents to retrieve the weapons, by force, if necessary. It is part of what they call the “Darwin Award” that these 20 soldiers probably did not survive.
In these modern times, governments have again had the occasion to fear the ownership of weapons by citizens and have acted to take the weapons from them. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were successful in this endeavor, with the U. S. and England attempting to follow. No doubt, as it was at Wounded Knee, there will probably be some blood shed before this mission is completely accomplished.
Soldiers Killed by “Friendly Fire” The effort to have so much firepower on hand as to assure total annihilation of the enemy with little risk to the adversaries, sometimes backfires and causes “friendly fire” casualties. This was in much evidence in the Gulf War. It is likely that nearly all of the casualties of the Army at Wounded Knee were also the result of “friendly fire”.
One of the soldiers later testified,
“…fantastic as it sounds, the surrounding troopers were firing wildly into this seething mass of humanity, subjecting us as well as the Indians to a deadly crossfire while the first volley from the Hotchkiss guns mowed down scores of women and children who had been watching the proceedings.”
Soldiers had been placed in a hollow square surrounding the Lakota in the council circle. The large number of casualties in companies A, B, I, and K who faced one another across the council circle has lead to the conclusion then and now that a great many soldier casualties were the result of cross fire. Unlimited Funds for Troops but None for Food and Clothing
While the Indians were starving and freezing to death, U.S. troops were deployed at great cost ($2,000,000) instead of food and clothing being sent. Does this not sound like a familiar tactic? The whole “War on Drugs” survives because of this kind of approach by the government.
The Danger of Boredom within Police/Military units
The Army troops were bored and spoiling for a fight. Not only were they bored, but revenge for Custer’s debacle was most heavily on their minds.
We have the same dangerous situation with our modern Swat teams and the massive Federal police operations. They are way oversized, over-trained, and live in a state of idleness and mind-numbing boredom. A situation like Waco and the school shootings can really “make their day”.
The sniper that killed Mrs. Weaver on Ruby Ridge reportedly had never had a chance to shoot at a real person before. With several years in the FBI as a highly trained sniper, the only thing he had ever shot was paper targets. Maybe you can imagine how excited he was that day in August of 1992. And how dull his life has been since then.
As is customary in American politics, a person’s qualification has no bearing on their selection to critically important posts such as the agent for the Lakota reservation. According to Doctor Sally Wagner,
the hysterical new agent at Pine Ridge, Dr. Daniel Royer, who reportedly later lost his license to practice medicine in California because of his severe drug addiction. A man with “no previous experience with the Indians,” whose appointment was “purely a political one,” according to his wife, Dr. Royer repeatedly and frantically called for the army, and reluctantly, for the first time in the twelve year history of the reservation, troops came in to Pine Ridge.
This is something to ponder when we realize that the heads of all of our government agencies are political appointees where the color of the skin or the gender is more important than experience and knowledge.
“Follow the money”, we are always told. It seems that in every action of government, there’s money involved somewhere. This, of course, was also true of this tragedy. Having troops around meant income for citizens that were themselves nearly as poor as the Indians. I quote again from Doctor Wagner:
This unrest among the Indians and the Indian Agent’s [Royer] request for soldiers fit well into the slow economy of the area and the business men in Rapid City and other towns in the West saw an opportunity to improve it. They joined with the Indian Agents in sending telegrams to Washington urging that troops be sent west. This was also welcome news to the Army that had been inactive for so long. They responded promptly and within a short time there was a cordon of regular army completely surrounding southwestern South Dakota. According to one newspaper report, this was the greatest peacetime concentration of U.S. Troops that had ever been staged. The soldiers were stationed from the Rosebud to Hot Springs, North to Slim Buttes and East to the Missouri River. The newspapers sent out great numbers of reporters and photographers. Business in the frontier towns was never better. Brutality and Cruelty
Women and children were indiscriminately slaughtered in the ravines where they sought to hide. Victims had many bullet holes in their bodies, most in the back. While the army took care of its own, the victims were left lying in the snow in a fierce blizzard for two days before anyone bothered to find out if some might still be alive. Eye witness accounts report that “Children as well as women with babes in their arms were brought down as far as two miles from the Wounded Knee Crossing.”
While the wounded and dead of the Army had been immediately evacuated to Pine Ridge, it was not until two days later that an effort was made to gather up the dead and wounded Lakotas. During this time, a blizzard had raged through the area. Yet it was found that some of the women and children were still alive in spite of being exposed to the extreme cold. Still most of them ultimately perished due to frostbite coupled with their wounds and the lack of adequate medical care.
The Medal of Honor Awards
While the kind of activities discussed here may be revolting to the average citizen, the government of course has a different view and will do all it can to reward the perpetrators, in secret, if necessary. Larry Potts, a chief honcho for the FBI in the Ruby Ridge fiasco, was promoted to “Deputy Director of the FBI” by Louis Freeh. Here is his statement:
“Larry Potts was one of the twelve FBI employees included in my disciplinary decisions this past January. . . At the time I disciplined Larry Potts, he was the Acting Deputy Director. Shortly thereafter, I sought to promote him to be Deputy Director of the FBI.”
(You don’t get to such posts as the Director of the FBI unless you are skilled in such logic!). Due to public and congressional uproar, that promotion was subsequently rescinded. It is reported that the agents and sharp shooters for the FBI, BATF, etc. were subsequently presented with awards in secret ceremonies. In any case, it is common to promote or reassign government employees that have been exposed to harsh public view after the ruckus has died down.
But the government went a bit overboard with regard to the soldiers at the Wounded Knee Massacre (maybe out of shame?). It awarded them with 20 Medals of Honor! Some reports say 30, but 20 is most likely correct for the actual participants. This issue is discussed in many books and essays but the best summary is again Doctor Wagner’s testimony:
. . . they gave out congressional medals of Honor to the participants in the Wounded Knee affair (eighteen) and 12 more to the people who did next to nothing at the Mission and White River fracas later of which were of minor importance. They built a great monument at Ft. Riley eulogizing the dead soldiers in this lamentable affair. When one considers that in World War II, sixty four thousand South Dakotans were engaged for the better part of four years and that they received only three congressional medals the incongruity of the Army’s attitudes toward Wounded Knee is emphasized.
Another report, this one by Jerry Green, is even more telling:
In spite of or maybe because of the general turmoil and debate surrounding the Wounded Knee operation, thirty-two men were cited for their actions in the fight. This figure does not include those officers recommended for brevet promotion. A total of twenty-five men were recommended for the Medal of Honor. Of these recommendations twenty were approved, and medals were issued. At that time neither of us had ever heard of Wounded Knee. He was speaking of the upcoming Court-Martial of then Lt. William Calley for his role in the massacre of civilians at Mi Lia, South Viet Nam. He said of Calley. “Hell they ought to give him the Congressional Medal of Honor, after all it takes a lot of guts to kill women and children.”
In spite of many attempts to get these medals rescinded, these awards still stand right up there with the recipients of awards for bravery at Iwo Jima, Normandy Landing, and the Battle of the Bulge.
None of the officers involved in this massacre ever spent a day in jail, of course. And neither did Lieutenant Calley.
What has been the American citizen’s feelings toward all this. After all these soldiers were only slaughtering a bunch of “savages”, right?[Note 1] No further clarification seems to be needed with that!
Unrestrained police powers are very dangerous. After all, World War II, which exhibited the greatest savagery in the history of mankind is not that distant in time. Whatever it is in the human makeup that allowed those brutal actions is still with us today. At the time, we were spared the problem of having to face this disturbing characteristic of humans because we were told that the Japanese and Germans were unlike the rest of us and were in fact mindless monsters.[Note 2] Very quickly after the war, we were told to forget that. They really are nice folks just like you and me. Logically then, that must mean that you and I also have the capacity for such cruelty.
In recent times we have lots of examples of powerful bombs being guided to their target remotely, bombs being launched from planes from 15,000 feet, and innocent lives being taken by snipers at hundreds of yards. What happens when the bombs hit? The soldiers do not know and apparently do not care. Yet logic tells both us and them that innocent civilians will likely be killed, that men, women, and children may be horribly maimed and burnt and may suffer for days without medical care.
My point is that while our soldiers may today be more reluctant to kill or commit atrocities when they are face to face with their victims, they have no qualms about it when they don’t see the blood and gore or hear the suffering. I quote from the closing paragraph of a fascinating book on this subject, On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman:
“… that force for life, Freud’s Eros, is balanced by the Thanatos, the death force… We have learned how to enable the Thanatos. We know how to take the psychological safety catch off of human beings almost as easily as you would switch a weapon form “safe” to “fire”. We must understand where and what that psychological safety catch is, how it works, and how to put it back on.”
Surely it must be disturbing to the thinking citizen that shortly after the Civil War and while the Federal Government was still basking in its release of the slaves in the South, that the American Indians were subjected to brutalities and slaughter far greater than anything that the Negro slaves had ever experienced.
The difference was that this brutality was conducted by the U.S. government not the citizens.
Note 1: In this essay, the terms “Indians” and “Native Americans” are both used and no disrespect is meant in using the term “Indian”. We may use the PC term “Native Americans” or the not so PC term, “Indians”, but at the time they were simply referred to as “Savages”.
Note 2: One of the soldiers that participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre is quoted as saying, “Men, women and children were piled up on that little flat in one confused mass. Blood ran like water…Big Foot’s band was converted into good Indians.” “Good Indians” is a reference to the popular saying of that time, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.
December 28, 2000
Leon Felkins is a retired Engineer, Army officer and former teacher of Computer Systems. He now maintains a web page on Political Philosophy, "A Rational Life", and another on the history of politics, "Political Almanac."