Many historical events have been twisted and distorted over the years in order to convince white Americans that we’re the most hostile and violent people on the planet. One such event is the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The supposed perpetrators were the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, and the supposed victims were a small band of Sioux Indians. The popular mythos is that the 7th Cavalry corralled the Indians near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota and then, without provocation, fired on them with all the might of the US Army’s arsenal, killing 300-400, including women and children who were intentionally targeted.
If you read any primary sources on the event, however, it becomes clear that contrary to popular belief, the Plains Indians were anything but peaceful peoples. In fact, in some ways they better match the caricatures often ascribed to the US Army of the time. Here’s one account of what two white men saw when they investigated a massacred white homestead on the Plains in 1864:
About 100 yards from the desolated ranch [we] discovered the body of the murdered woman and her two dead children, one of which was a little girl of four years and the other an infant. The woman had been stabbed in several places and scalped, and the body bore evidences of having been violated. The two children had their throats cut, their heads being nearly severed from their bodies.
Robert Utley’s description of Sioux culture in his book, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, are helpful in understanding a very underappreciated facet of the Sioux identity:
The highest values of the Tetons centered on war. For a young man, success in battle offered the surest and quickest path to prestige, wealth, and high rank. A collection of enemy scalps was his badge of success, and together with the qualities of bravery, daring, and cleverness earned him the esteem of men and the admiration of women.
What is also virtually unmentioned in all popular Wounded Knee mythos is that in the months leading up the event, the Sioux had adopted a new religious belief called the Ghost Dance. It began with a Paiute man named Wovoka from Nevada. His teachings had a nominally peaceful tone, instructing Indians not to fight the white man. But this peaceful stipulation was subservient to the idea that supernatural forces were going to destroy the white man and bring back the Indian’s old ways. A passage from Utley’s book explains that “Wovoka was but one of a long line of aboriginal mystics who sought to rid their people of an alien oppressor and lead them into the promised land.”
Wovoka was an opportunistic charlatan, but exploring that is beyond the aim of this article. The point is that his religious beliefs weren’t unique. Variations of them were popular among many tribes who adopted varying degrees of hostility toward whites. In the case of the Sioux, they believed that giant floods would drown and wash away the white man, or else crush us in a tremendous landslide.
By 1891, spiritual leaders among the Sioux peoples had begun pushing the idea that the tops worn during the Ghost Dance could actually deflect the white man’s bullets. One woman who survived Wounded Knee was told that she had to remove her top so that the whites could treat her injuries. She replied, “Yes, take it off. They told me a bullet would not go through. Now I don’t want it anymore.”
As one American official noted at the time:
It would seem impossible that any person, no matter how ignorant, could be brought to believe such absurd nonsense, but as a matter of fact a great many Indians of this agency actually believe it, and since this new doctrine has been ingrafted here from the more southern Sioux agencies the infection has been wonderful, and so pernicious that it now includes some of the Indians who were formerly numbered with the progressive and more intelligent, and many of our very best Indians appear dazed and undecided when talking of it, their inherent superstition having been thoroughly aroused.
These new religious activities naturally concerned both the US Army and white settlers. The Sioux were pulling their children out of school to, as one teacher put it, “go to church every day.” His classroom went from 60 pupils in September to just three in October. As this was happening, The Sioux were cashing in firewood receipts from the Indian Agencies for a third of their value to buy up ammunition, and many were out slaughtering other peoples’ livestock. They were also abandoning their farms in droves at a point when the government was desperately trying to get them off welfare. Indeed, throughout the entire ordeal the US government continuously gave the Sioux Indians free food, housing, and clothing even as they were literally dancing to their gods to induce white genocide.
Attempts to arrest Sioux bandits were met with armed resistance. In one instance, the Indian police from the local Indian agency went to arrest a Sioux who had been killing settlers’ livestock. They were surrounded by a mob of Ghost Dancers who shouted, “Kill the lawmen, burn the agency, and take control!” One Indian in the crowd spoke up:
Stop! Think! What are you going to do? Kill these men of our own race? Then what? Kill all these helpless white men, women and children? And what then? What will these brave words, brave deeds lead to in the end? How long can you hold out? Your country is surrounded with a network of railroads; thousands of white soldiers will be here within three days. What ammunition have you? What provisions? What will become of your families? Think, think, my brothers! This is a child’s madness.
In other words, the only thing that restrained them from murdering white women and children was the realization that there would be consequences for doing so. While you’re digesting that, consider that a rancher in the area, James Philip, reported that a band of Sioux had camped on his property on November 18, 1890. One of the braves “boasted of the day when he had smashed open the heads of white children and drunk the blood of white women. The time was coming, he vowed, when he would do it again.”
On December 19, 1890 a band of Sioux Indians, numbering somewhere around 400 individuals, camped outside the store of a local man named James Cavanaugh and began doing Ghost Dances. Eventually, they went into Cavanaugh’s store and intimidated him into giving them free provisions. The band’s leader, Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot, had fought in the Sioux Wars against the US Army a few years prior, so it’s hardly surprising that his name was already on a government watch list.
Lt. Col. Edwin Sumner of the 8th Cavalry had been ordered to find and keep watch on Big Foot’s band until further notice. Sumner was eventually ordered to escort Big Foot’s band to Camp Cheyenne and hold them there. Big Foot told Sumner that this might cause unrest among his people, and that Sumner should allow Big Foot’s band to return to their home at Cherry Creek: “The colonel therefore told Big Foot that his people could go to their homes, and that he himself could remain with them if he promised to come to Camp Cheyenne the next day for a council and to bring all the Standing Rock people with him. Big Foot gave his promise.” The next day came and went with no word from Big Foot, who had simply moved on without informing Sumner.
After Big Foot’s escape from Cherry Creek, the high command issued an order to arrest him. His band continued to roam the countryside for a time, but eventually he contracted pneumonia and was intercepted by Major Samuel Whitside of the 7th Cavalry on December 28. Whitside told John Shangreau, his scout and interpreter, that he wanted Big Foot’s people to hand over their weapons. Shangreau advised Whitside against making this demand then and there, and suggested that they head to Wounded Knee Creek, make camp, and then disarm the band the next morning. Whitside heeded Shangreau’s advice, and they set out for Wounded Knee Creek.
To highlight the absurdity of the idea that there was any hostile intent on the part of the 7th Cavalry, Whitside saw how sick Big Foot was and had him transferred to an Army ambulance wagon and attended to by one of his physicians. Once camp had been made, the Sioux Chief was also given a wood stove and a special tent, along with round-the-clock care. The next day word was given for everyone to assemble in the center of camp. They were told to hand over their weapons, and the Indians were allowed to deliberate privately. Big Foot told his people to only hand over their broken weapons.
It had been noted by everyone in the 7th Cavalry the day before that the Indians were well-armed with Winchester lever-action repeating rifles. Some of the weapons were no doubt relics from Custer’s famous last stand in 1876 wherein some of these same Indians had massacred Custer and his entire outfit.
Thus, when the Indians at Wounded Knee handed over a few broken rifles, Whitside told his interpreter, “You tell Big Foot that he tells me that his Indians have no arms when yesterday at the time of surrender they were well armed. I am sure he is deceiving me.” Big Foot replied, “They have no guns only such as you have found. I gathered up all my guns at the Cheyenne River Agency and turned them in, and they were all burned up.”
The order was then given for the officers to search the camp. As piles of weapons began to turn up, it became apparent that the women were active participants in the attempted deception. They tried to hide the rifles by placing them under their skirts and sitting on top of them. During all this Yellow Bird, the group’s medicine man, was wandering about the camp and telling his fellow Sioux in their native language:
Do not be afraid and let your hearts be strong to meet what is before you. We are all well aware that there are lots of soldiers about us and they have lots of bullets, but I have received assurance that their bullets cannot penetrate us; the prairie is large and the bullets will not go towards you; they will not penetrate you.
Here’s part of James Mooney’s official report that was compiled a year after the incident explaining what happened next:
While the soldiers had been looking for the guns Yellow Bird, a medicine-man, bad been walking about among the warriors, blowing on an eagle-bone whistle, and urging them to resistance, telling them that the soldiers would become weak and powerless, and that the bullets would be unavailing against the sacred “ghost shirts,” which nearly every one of the Indians wore. As he spoke in the Sioux language, the officers did not at once realize the dangerous drift of his talk, and the climax came too quickly for them to interfere. It is said one of the searchers now attempted to raise the blanket of a warrior. Suddenly Yellow Bird stooped down and threw a handful of dust into the air, when, as if this were the signal, a young Indian, said to have been Black Fox from Cheyenne river, drew a rifle from under his blanket and fired at the soldiers, who instantly replied with a volley directly into the crowd of warriors and so near that their guns were almost touching. From the number of sticks set up by the Indians to mark where the dead fell, as seen by the author a year later, this one volley must have killed nearly half the warriors. The survivors sprang to their feet, throwing their blankets from their shoulders as they rose, and for a few minutes there was a terrible hand to hand struggle, where every man’s thought was to kill. Although many of the warriors had no guns, nearly all had revolvers and knives in their belts under their blankets, together with some of the murderous warclubs still carried by the Sioux. The very lack of guns made the fight more bloody, as it brought the combatants to closer quarters.
After this initial exchange, the fighting became very intense. Utley’s description is quite detailed and draws from multiple sources, many more so than Mooney’s. The end result was that some 39 US soldiers were killed along with somewhere between 146 and 300 Indians, depending on the source. William Peano, a member of the burial party who was half Sioux himself, recorded the bodies of 102 men and women of adult age, 24 old men, 7 old women, six boys between five and eight, and seven babies under two. That’s far fewer than the more than 300 that some people claim.
There were indeed women and children killed, but not intentionally. Many were hit by crossfire from both sides. The Indians were firing at US soldiers who had disbursed throughout the camp while searching for weapons. Moreover, there are accounts of women engaging in the fighting as well. One old woman shot at the soldiers on horseback, and was even allowed to continue firing without retaliation as she fled the battle. Another crawled out of her tepee with a knife and stabbed a wounded American in the chest as he lay incapacitated on the ground. To illustrate how vicious the fighting was, a priest who had been friendly with the Indians was stabbed in the back, while a reporter, William F. Kennedy, who had come to document the event was forced to fire on Indians who tried to kill him. Kennedy emptied all six rounds of his revolver into his attacker and then picked up a rifle and continued fighting. He was credited with having killed at least two others. As for the infamous use of Hotchkiss light artillery on the tepees, this was due to Indians who were firing from inside. This includes Yellow Bird, who had helped instigate the entire mess.
The fact is that had the Sioux simply handed over their weapons, none of this would have happened, and what’s more, they probably wouldn’t even have been asked to hand over their weapons had they not been robbing white settlers. While I retain some sympathy for the Plains Indians during Westward Expansion, the idea that they never brought hostility upon themselves is absurd. These were not reasonable, peaceful peoples; they were hunter-gatherers whose entire identity centered on warfare and conflict.
A further and final source of frustration I will share with you is that the Sioux population was somewhere around 8,500 in 1805 when the Treaty of Saint Peters (Pike’s Purchase) was signed. Any Internet search should show that this isn’t a widely contested figure. Yet, the population of Sioux Indians has continued to rise unimpeded to the present day, reaching 170,000 as of 2010, according to the US census. The reality is that the Sioux Indians have never suffered a genocide at the hands of the US government at any point.
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 Thomas Goodrich, Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879 (Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 2002), 2.
 Robert M. Utley, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, 2nd ed. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), 10-11.
 Ibid., 70.
 J. W. Powell, Fourteenth Annual Report to the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1892-1893, Part 2 (Washington Government Printing Office, 1896), 788.
 Ibid., 788.
 Ibid., 787.
 Utley, 98.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 94.
 Powell, 46-47.
 Utley, 108.
 Ibid., 107.
 Ibid., 177.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 182-183.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 207-208.
 Ibid., 208.
 Ibid., 210.
 Powell, 868-869.
 Eli S. Ricker, The Indian Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919 (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 236.
 Utley, 217.
 Ibid., 219.
 Ibid., 215.
 Ibid., 219.
 US Census, The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010, 17, Table 7.
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