A Manifest Destiny massacre

On the 121st anniversary of an atrocity committed by the U.S. government, Brian Ward remembers the genocide--and the resistance--of the Indigenous population.

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from the high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch, as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
--Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man

Bodies piled in the snow following the massacre at Wounded KneeBodies piled in the snow following the massacre at Wounded Knee

ONE HUNDRED and twenty-one years ago, a horrific slaughter took place at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The killings of at least 150 and as many as 300 Lakotas by the 7th Cavalry on December 29, 1890, were the last major massacre committed by the U.S. military against the Indians.

In order to put this story in context, we need to start with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, where the Lakota (Sioux) signed a legally binding document with the U.S. government that would create the "Great Sioux Reservation"--which included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The treaty stated that "no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the [territory]; or without the consent of the Indians, first had and obtained, to pass through the same."

The federal government signed the treaty before gold was discovered in the Black Hills (the Lakota's most sacred land) in 1871. In a Wall Street endeavor, mining companies disregarded the 1868 treaty and flooded into the area under U.S. government protection. The U.S. officially seized the Black Hills in 1877.

In 1871, the U.S. government formally ended the treaty process with tribes. This blow to Indian sovereignty rapidly increased the assimilation process for Western Indians.

At this time, Indians were being forced to live on small reservations. For the Lakota, this meant that the U.S. government seized and split up most of the "Great Sioux Reservation." The various bands of the Lakota were consigned to six smaller reservations, where they still live to this day. On December 3, 1875, Edward P. Smith, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, ordered all Lakota and Cheyenne to report to reservations by January 31, 1876 or a "military force would be sent to compel them."

Bands of the Lakota followed the Oglala Lakota Warrior Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa Lakota Medicine Man Sitting Bull, who both refused to give up their land and their way of life. Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull helped unite the Cheyenne and the Arapaho to fight against the U.S. This lead to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, where the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho defeated Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry. The U.S. faced a significant blow to Westward expansion.

At this same time, a new spiritual "Ghost Dance" spread through Indian Country. The ghost dance was developed by Wovoka, a Pauite Indian from Nevada, who received it in a vision. According to the vision, the dance would eliminate the white man, return the dwindling buffalo herds and restore traditional life on the continent.

Out of desperation, people took to the ghost dance and practiced it all over the plains. Alarmed, the U.S. government perceived the ghost dance as a war dance. In turn, it started hunting movement leaders. On December 15, 1890, forty Indian Police besiged the house of Sitting Bull to put him under arrest, and when he tried escaping, they shot and killed him.

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FOLLOWING THE killing of Sitting Bull, 300 Hunkpapa Lakota fled the Standing Rock Reservation out of fear, and joined Spotted Elk (later called "Big Foot") and his band of Miniconjou Lakota on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Spotted Elk's arrest was sought soon after Sitting Bull's death. On December 23, 1890, Spotted Elk led the Miniconjou Lakota, along with 38 Hunkpapa Lakota, from the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation, seeking shelter and food for the winter with Red Cloud and his band of Oglala Lakota.

On December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry intercepted the band of over 350 Lakota at the village of Wounded Knee. The cavalrymen insisted that the Lakota give up all their arms. A deaf man, by the name of Black Coyote, couldn't hear the order and resisted giving up his gun. After a struggle, the gun went off.

The Cavalry was already in position, and its members had been drinking throughout the night. They started shooting at the defenseless Lakota. At the end of the bloodshed, 150 Lakota were killed and 50 wounded, along with 26 Cavalry members killed and 39 wounded. It later came out that the dead and wounded Cavalry members were casualties of friendly fire--since the soldiers surrounded the Lakota, their bullets went astray and hit their own men.

American Horse, an Oglala Lakota chief, described the inhumanity of the 7th Cavalry:

There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce...A mother was shot down with her infant; the child, not knowing that its mother was dead, was still nursing...The women as they were fleeing with their babies were killed together, shot right through...and after most all of them had been killed, a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth, and they would be safe. Little boys...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.

A blizzard blanketed the plains for next three days, leaving the dead and wounded covered in snow. Frozen into horrifying postures, the dead women, children and men laid there until the blizzard cleared. Then the federal government paid white settlers $2 per body to dump the corpses in a mass grave at the top of the Wounded Knee Hill. Among the frozen corpses, Spotted Elk was identified, and in an act of dominance, the settlers scalped him.

Following the massacre, the U.S. government gave 20 Medals of Honor--the highest military award--to members of the 7th Cavalry. Those metals have not been taken back to this day.

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AS AMERICAN Indian Movement (AIM) activist and Oglala Lakota Russell Means said:

Wounded Knee happened because Indian people wanted to survive as Indians, and there wasn't any way to survive, so we made a stand and made a statement, but now Indian people are beginning to rebound--rebound according to their [concept of] beauty. And that's really what's necessary to understand: Indian people have to become free again.

Over 80 years later, in 1973, AIM and the traditional Lakota engaged in a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee and a standoff with the FBI to oppose the treatment of Indians in the U.S. During the standoff, shootouts occurred almost every night, and Pine Ridge Reservation was regarded as a war zone. At this time, Indians were still legally forbidden from practicing their religion, a law that finally changed in 1978.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, ruled that the seizure of the Blacks Hills was indeed illegal, and the U.S. government would have to pay $15.5 million, plus 103 years of interest (an additional $105 million), to the Lakota. The tribe turned down the money, and instead demanded the seized territory back. Obviously, the U.S. government has not given the land back to the Lakota.

On July 28, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder visited and honored the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. He talked with tribal leaders about the Law and Order Act, which Obama signed into law last year to increase "public safety" on reservations. Its effect has been to increase the police presence and number judges on the reservation--but jobs, education and housing still lack funding or significant U.S. government support.

It took from Columbus landing in the West Indies in 1492 to 1890 to fully conquer this land. We often overlook the story of the genocide of Indigenous peoples and their resistance, whether in history class or a discussion about civil rights. All sides of the political spectrum cast the American Indian as a people of the past, hardly existing or mattering.

It is our job as fighters for social justice to remember and realize that the American Indian is still alive today and still fighting back. Today, in our struggle against capitalism, we must stand in solidarity with all those oppressed by its forces, especially the first inhabitants of this land. We must learn from all the oppressed as well. After all, the American Indians were the first victims of Wall Street and the first fighters against Wall Street.

A previous version of this article appeared at the All Power to the People blog.