By Tim Giago
December 28, 2011
Most white South Dakotans forget that in December of 1890 there were still violent hostilities that existed between the Lakota and the United States. To this day an all-inclusive peace treaty has never been signed between the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation and the United States government.
On December 15, 1890 Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) was shot to death by tribal police officers Red Tomahawk and Bull Head. Many of his followers fled to seek refuge with his half-brother, Si Tanka (Big Foot). Because Big Foot had been affiliated with the new religious formation known as the Ghost Dance, and fearing arrest and reprisals, Big Foot set out for Pine Ridge after an invitation from Chief Red Cloud to join him there and assist him in finding a path to peace.
Big Foot’s followers numbered around 300 and fled to Pine Ridge under a white flag of peace. They had no intention of fighting and in fact their intentions were just the opposite; all they wanted was to find a place of peace.
On December 28 they were intercepted by the 7th Cavalry, the same branch of the U. S. Army that was headed by George Armstrong Custer in 1876 at the Little Bighorn. Big Foot’s band was pushed to make an encampment at Wounded Knee creek. They were stripped of their weapons.
The next morning, December 29, while forced to line up for further searches a weapon discharged and the massacre at Wounded Knee began. Without weapons, the Lakota warriors shouted to the women and children to flee and they fought the soldiers with their bare hands.
Big Foot was shot to death while lying in his tent suffering from pneumonia.
Two weeks before the massacre after hearing of the death of Sitting Bull, a newspaperman named L. Frank Baum, the same man who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz a few years later, editorialized in the Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Review, “Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead. He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit of hatred and revenge for those who wronged him and his. With this fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlers will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”
My grandmother Sophie was an employee at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission, just a few miles from Wounded Knee, and told of the soldiers that rode on to the mission grounds on that freezing day in December, some with blood still on their gloves, and about how she and several of the students had to feed and water their horses.
American Horse, a prominent Lakota leader said, “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 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.”
More than 20 Medals of Honor were given to the soldiers involved in this pitiless massacre. To the Lakota people, even to this day, December 29, 1890 is a “Day that will live in infamy.”
To the Lakota it will never be ancient history, but a day they will tell their children about and their children will tell it to their children. My grandmother was there and remembered that day and as a Lakota woman, she and all of our relatives were marked for annihilation by the newspaper man L. Frank Baum. He called for the genocide of the Lakota people and no one, except the Lakota people, saw any wrong in this.
I heard a television newsman say just last week that the shooting at Virginia Tech where 33 students were killed, was the largest mass shooting in American history. Numbers vary on the Massacre at Wounded Knee, but nearly 300 would not be far from reality. And then there were the massacres at Sand Creek and Washita, to name a few more where American Indian men, women and children were shot to death.
America has never made reparations nor apologized for this Day of Infamy.