Tragedy of the Plains Indians
|Wounded Knee II||Previous||Next|
|Digital History ID 3504|
It was the final incident in the Indian Wars that took place in the two decades
after the Civil War. On December 29, 1890, near Pine Ridge, South Dakota at
least 146 Indians and 31 U.S. soldiers were killed. Some historians believe
the actual number of Indians killed was closer to 300.
Around 1870, in Nevada, a Paiute named Tavibo declared he had a vision of Christ's
Second Coming. He said he was told to teach the Indians to prepare by doing
good works and engaging in a ritual dance. With this dance, his people would
be reunited with their ancestors in the spirit world.
This "ghost religion" was revived by another Paiute who had lived
with and been educated by pious whites. They named him Jack Wilson, but he went
back to his people and was known as Wovoka. He too foresaw Christ's Second Coming
and urged a special dance.
A special shirt, decorated with Indian symbols, was worn at the dance. The
Ghost Religion caught on. It spread to the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux.
Whites were getting nervous. The 6,000 Sioux at the Pine Ridge Reservation had seen their beef rations severely reduced. They had once subsisted on buffalo; now fewer than 2,000 of these animals populated the Plains.
The army ordered the arrest of 38 Indian leaders, among them Sitting Bull,
the Hunkpapa Sioux spiritual leader. In arresting Sitting Bull, he, his 14 year
old son, and six of his followers were killed, along with six of the arresting
officers. The reservation police claimed that Sitting Bull had resisted arrest.
Alarmed by Sitting Bull's death, many Sioux fled to Pine Ridge in southwestern
South Dakota. They were pursued by U.S. forces including units of the 7th Cavalry,
the regiment that Sitting Bull and Crazy horse had defeated at the battle of
the Little Big Horn, and the Indian leader Big Foot, suffering from pneumonia
and internal bleeding, ran up a white flag. The cavalrymen escorted the party,
120 men and 230 women and children, to Wounded Knee Creek.
The next morning, Dec. 29, the Indians were told to give up their arms. A gun
went off. The soldiers opened fire with Hotchkiss guns, which could fire 50
rounds a minute, and other weapons. The shooting lasted about ten minutes. The
dead Indians' bodies were taken from the snow and buried in mass graves. U.S.
forces received 22 Congressional Medals of Honor for their actions at Wounded
Four men and 47 women and children, many of whom were wounded, were taken away alive, including a Lakota infant lying beneath her mother's body, named Zintkala Nuni or Lost Bird. Just four months old, she had been protected from the soldiers' bullets by her mother's body. The child was raised by Brigadier General Leonard Colby and his wife Clara, who renamed her Marguerite. For a time she worked in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and died at the age of 29.
General Nelson Miles, who commanded military forces in the area, sought a court
martial for the office in charge of the troops at Wounded Knee. Miles described
what happened as a "cruel and unjustifiable massacre."
While serving as the editor and publisher of the Aberdeen, South Dakota Saturday
Pioneer, L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote an editorial
following the death of Sitting Bull. "The Whites, by law of conquest, by
justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent," he wrote,
"and the best safety of the frontier settlers will be secured by the total
annihilation of the few remaining Indians."