Posing in “victory” at the mass graves. Front photo: Chief Big Foot dead and frozen in the snow.
On this date 130 winters ago, U.S. soldiers with the 7th Cavalry Regiment murdered nearly 400 cold, hungry, frightened, unarmed Lakota, mostly women and children, on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – a final slaughter in America’s long, brutal “Indian Wars,” a “bloodthirsty and wanton massacre,” that became an enduring symbol of genocide and historical trauma for Native Americans. History accounts cite the snow and cold the morning of December 29, 1890, when soldiers surrounded a peaceful encampment of Lakota. Their Chief Spotted Elk – Big Foot, or Sitanka – desperately ill with pneumonia, told the white men they were on their way to seek shelter with another Lakota chief, Red Cloud; he convinced his exhausted people to surrender to the soldiers, who accompanied them to an overnight camp at Wounded Knee. That night, more soldiers arrived, celebrating a righteous but bloodless victory of white over color. Starting on their journey the next morning, several soldiers tried to wrest a hunting rifle from a young Lakota, it went off, and the troops opened fire. Uninjured Lakota men attacked soldiers with what they had – knives, fists, snatched guns – as women and children tried to flee soldiers on horseback through the deep snow. Most were cut down; accounts say they were shot at such close range you could see powder burn marks on them. When shooting stopped, close to 400 Lakota lay dead. Soldiers proudly posed for photos with the corpses, which only later were thrown into mass graves. Some of the injured were carried to a nearby church, where a horrified native doctor described women and children “shot to pieces.” In the church on the fourth day after Christmas, writes Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Those who were conscious could see (strung) a crudely lettered banner: ‘Peace On Earth, Good Will to Men.'”
Press reports praised the defeat of thousands of “murderous redskins” and “howling savages” by “brave soldiers (in) the storm of battle,” with “squaws fleeing in all directions.” Decades later,Hitler was reportedly so inspired by “the efficiency of America’s extermination of the red savages” he came to believe in “the practicality of genocide.” Faring no better, the U.S. Army at the time gave 20 of the murderers Medals of Honor for “gallantry and intrepidity.” Since then, Congress has apologized for the massacre, America has moved to acknowledge a historic atrocity that remains “a stain and a sin on our souls,” there have been multiple efforts to rescind the medals, including a House Remove the Stain Act sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland and several others, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has created a commemoration site for Native peoples seeking to pay tribute to their ancestors. “There was no honor in these murders,” says Manny Iron Hawk, whose grandmother survived the massacre at age 12 by hiding in a ravine. “The Lakota live with these traumas to this day.” And, many native people stress, going forward. Historian Heather Cox Richardson says she remains haunted by the night before the massacre, when it was avoidable; the curse of history is “we cannot go back,” she notes, “but it is never too late to change the future.” Native writer Ruth Hopkins echoes her, summoning a future that will heal the past and its “historical trauma”: “The sacred hoop of humanity was broken that day. Black Elk said the dream died. We will not let it. We fight to mend the hoop & revive the dream.” She offeres a Lakota song: “I have said A thunder being nation that I am/I have said You shall live/You shall live/You shall live/You shall live.”
For many natives, the image of Big Foot’s frozen, contorted body in the snow “is a symbol for all American Indians of what happened to our ancestors.”
This post was originally published on Radio Free.