The Native American Holocaust 500 years in the making-Wounded Knee Massacre

When it was announced that I would be going to Mission, South Dakota for my spring break I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive. I had envisioned helping elderly in Miami or working a soup kitchen in New Orleans, but instead I was assigned to drive over twenty hours into the most barren and desolate part of the United States. Looking back on my ignorance, I am astounded by the memories that will forever be with me. As soon as I arrived on Rez (local term for reservation) I immediately felt as if I was not in the United States. Trailers were the only hope for a home, hot running water was rare, and there were no hospitals or any sources of recreation. I immediately made a pact with myself that no matter what obstacles I was met with, I would force the people I came in contact with to see past my race and see my true intentions. I put myself in their shoes and quickly realized, I would hate the United States government and any Caucasian that came on Rez to ‘help’. This realization turned into motivation to make a contribution.

Growing up I have always excelled in athletics and I pride myself in my ability to form a bond or connection with any person, anywhere, through the competitive spirit that all sports bring out. Naturally, I volunteered to help teach gym at a middle/high school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the effects of racism, misunderstanding, and genocide were easily visible. The young men and children I spent my time with were very reluctant at opening up to me upon first impression. But as soon as I showed them my passion for basketball and lacrosse, color and race took a back seat and I was accepted as their equal (even though I was still called snowflake by one third grade boy, but he always smiled after he said it).

On our day off we traveled thirty miles to the site where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place over 120 years ago. The Wounded Knee memorial is a massive grave site that pays homage and respect to the Lakota people that were killed at the hands of the United States 7th Cavalry. A picture or brief description can in no way, shape, or form elicit the emotional response I received when I stood on the mass grave site were hundreds of bodies had been thrown into only a century ago. I imagined the United States army soldiers killing the friends I had made during my time as a teacher on the Reservation. It was this emotional response that inspired me to take a deeper look into the long and slow genocide of the American Indian, with an emphasis on the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Wounded Knee background-

The events that led up to the most infamous massacre in American Indian history were spawned by a string of small misunderstandings, which collectively had dire repercussions. The various treaties that were agreed upon by both the United States and The Sioux nation (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota tribes) during the late 1800’s were barely worth the paper they were written on. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 promised peace between the two parties, protection against oppressive and violent eastern settlers, and that the Sioux had the right to hunt in the Bighorn Mountains and any area north of the Platte River (present day Montana, Wyoming, and western South Dakota). The second treaty leading up to Wounded Knee was the Black Hills Act of 1876. This treaty effectively eliminated 9 million acres of Indian land (Montana and Wyoming), and required the United States Government to give the Sioux people all aid necessary for civilization and subsistence rations.

This led to the Sioux people becoming extremely dependent on these government rations due to the extermination of their primary life source, the North American buffalo. While there was no ‘official’ policy to purposefully eradicate the buffalo, there is a significant amount of evidence that indicates the US Government issued statements to Army Generals to remove the American Buffalo from existence. The Army saw this is an opportunity to reduce the Indians ability to fight back. By stripping the Indians of their only sustainable resource, the slaughter of the American Buffalo severely reduced the Indians’ capacity to fight back and preserve their way of life. Without a food source many smaller tribes were forced to settle on Government quarantined reservations. This helped the US Government keep track of the dwindling Native American population and allowed for European settlers to move West without any apprehension.

The third event that would have an impact on Wounded Knee was the new religion formed by a Paiute Indian Known as Wovoka. This new religion was known as ‘Ghost Dancing’ and was prophesied to bring back the North American Buffalo, lost loved ones, and eliminate the white man from native land.

In the months preceding the massacre, Lakota men were seen partaking in their relatively new ceremony hoping to escape the presence of the white man that controlled their lands. During this same time the skittish and inexperienced Daniel F. Royer was named the agent at Pine Ridge and had no experience in dealing with the American Indian people (Lauderdale, 19)[1]. Royer misunderstood the Sioux Indians intention’s and believed that the Ghost Dance was the sure sign of a violent uprising. He put in a request for troops for ‘preventative purposes’. Brigadier General John R. Brooke arrived at Pine Ridge in November of 1890 and was ordered to maintain a presence and put down any hostile Indian. While tensions rose between the Lakota and white men in Pine Ridge, Sitting Bull was also assassinated by tribal police; Sitting Bull was one of the last remaining leaders of the Lakota people and strongly opposed seceding anymore land to the white man. His death was among the latest in a long string of assassinations of prominent Indian leaders; leaders who did not conform to what the government considered ‘progressive’ (Lauderdale, 20)[2].

Sitting Bull’s followers grew scared and went to join Big Foot, a well-known and prominent Lakota Chief. The groups that Big Foot was under control combined to form a group of 370 men, women, and children of which, only 100 men were fighting age. The United States Army stopped Big Foot’s ‘war party’ and ordered that they surrender and give up all their weapons. History is a little fuzzy on who actually fired the first shot, but after the first shot, total carnage ensued. General Whiteside had over 500 armed soldiers at his disposal along with four rapid fire Hotchkiss cannons, not to mention that he and his men surrounded the Lakota and had the advantage of higher ground.

As you can imagine the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army decimated the 370 Lakota men, women, and children. A soldier from the 7th Cavalry shares his first-hand account “Wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee…children powder burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and the clothing with the powder of their guns” (Miles, letter)[3]. As news of the Massacre spread throughout the Reservations the overwhelming response was fear, not anger or revenge.

Wounded Knee Massacre Photo

Unlike many of the other genocides that have taken place throughout the world, the genocide against the American Indian has very few actual photographs of the events as they took place or the aftermath. The photograph I chose to focus on was the best photograph captured of the Wounded Knee Massacre. The first interesting fact about this picture is that it was taken three months after the actual massacre had taken place. Wounded Knee massacre occurred in late December but due to the harsh South Dakota winter, the ground was impossible to dig into. Instead of digging the mass grave themselves the 7th Cavalry hired civilians to collect the corpses and make the grave. All the Army did was come back in March to pose for a picture. The word ‘pose’ is an important clarification because in this era the camera man had to take his time in order to be ready to capture a still photograph. All of the soldiers seem eager and proud of their “victory” over the band a Native Americans that had surrendered peacefully. Some of the men on the right side of the photograph are even looking down at the corpses with a haughty demeanor, indicating that these Natives deserved their fate.

Wounded Knee memorial

The present day memorial was erected in 1903 by what is now known as the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, today the association is independent and works to protect and preserve the memorial site. The reason for the lone tombstone is because all of the bodies were buried in a mass grave. Over the years relatives of the original victims were buried alongside their ancestors. The irony behind this was that many of the grave markers I personally saw were of veterans, these men fought and died for the same Army that killed their ancestors. This shows how desperate the men of the Pine Ridge Reservation are for a stable job with some benefits. There was little to no hope in finding a job anywhere near the reservation so they are forced to sign their allegiance to the United States military. In fact Native Americans have the greatest record of military service compared to any other minority (Ward Churchill)[4].

Lakota people-Present day

Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota is the poorest and has the worst living conditions of any county in the United States.

  • Ø The unemployment rate is 83-85%, even higher during the harsh winter.
  • Ø 97% of the population lives below the Federal poverty levels
  • Ø Average life expectancy is 45 years old
  • Ø The school dropout rate is over 70%
  • Ø 80% of adult males are affected by alcoholism at least once in their lifetime.
  • Ø Extreme weather and winds make growing any kind of sustainable food source impossible.

Any decent person has to wonder how a group of people has fallen so far below the rest of the country in every single category. That answer seems to lie in 500 years of misunderstandings, cruel misfortune, and government policy aimed at eradicating the Native American from this continent. The tension between Native Americans and White Europeans was spawned centuries ago during the time that the ‘first settlers’ came to North America. Natives often welcomed the newcomers until the cavalier and colonizing attitudes of the immigrants stretched Indian patience thin (Bird, 16). This tension was born out of a common misunderstanding for one another. This misunderstanding led to hatred and one of the most forgotten and ignored genocides in the history of mankind. One of the many reasons this genocide is so overlooked is due to the length of time the United States has taken to slowly but surely deteriorate Native American culture and way of life. The genocide against the indigenous people of North America began over five centuries ago and continues to wreak havoc in today’s society. The ideological viewpoints that gave the British justification in carrying out their conquest of the indigenous people of North America are known as legal utilitarianism and racial eliminationist theory. Under the legal utilitarianism doctrine native peoples have no right to territories they inhabit, owing to their failure to exploit them in the ‘correct’ way (Jones, 107)[5]. Under the racial eliminationist theory the eradication of native people from their land is an eventual product of ‘civilized’ populations expanding their territory.”Genocide began to be regarded as the inevitable byproduct of progress” (Jones, 107)[6]. Both of these ideological viewpoints have evolved over the centuries but still hold true, this is why denial of this genocide persists in today’s culture.

Jones mentions that the genocide of the Native American population in North America is a debated issue which is the final stage of genocide. Many scholars who contest to this fact of genocide are ignorant of the facts. In fact the UN Convention defines genocide under Article II. As “Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in the whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (Jones, 12)[7]” The first three traits of the definition of Genocide are easily distinguishable in many genocides. People are well aware of the infamous Trail of Tears and various massacres that have been committed against the Native American people. Proving that a group orchestrated a program for preventing births in a population and forcibly transferring children are often harder traits to prove.

However, many scholars and people around the world are unaware of the massive boarding school program enacted in the 1880’s to effectively “kill the Indian and save the man” Children as young as five were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated across the country into poorly managed schools. I happened to get the chance to speak to a man in his seventies that went through the American boarding school system. What he described was unbelievable; 25% of his classmates died during their time at the school, beatings for speaking a native language were commonplace, and the Christian religion was thrust upon every child like a plague. The worst part about the reform schools was that they were effective, it took the man I spoke with over ten years to become recognized as part of the Lakota people once he returned to his reservation.

During the 1970’s President Herbert Walker Bush enacted a program to make Native American women infertile. This Act was known as the Family Planning Act, the act appropriated federal funds in order to sterilize members of ethnic minorities, particularly the American Indian (The Canary Effect). In various reports it was found that 30% of women able to conceive a child were sterilized by medical professionals in the span of ten years. Armed with these facts I am confused at how any sane person could come to the conclusion that a genocide has not taken place against the Native American population.

Hopefully this post has shed some light on the most forgotten and unrecognized genocide in the world.

[1] [1] Lauderdale, J. V., & Green, J. (1996). After Wounded Knee. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

[2] [2] Lauderdale, J. V., & Green, J. (1996). After Wounded Knee. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

[3] Lauderdale, J. V., & Green, J. (1996). After Wounded Knee. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

[5] Jones, A. (2006). Genocide: A comprehensive introduction. London: Routledge.

[6] Jones, A. (2006). Genocide: A comprehensive introduction. London: Routledge.

[7] Jones, A. (2006). Genocide: A comprehensive introduction. London: Routledge.