The Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890)

The Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890)

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On December 29, 1890, the US military massacred approximately 350 Sioux in Wounded Knee. This tragic episode is considered the end of the Indian wars, but it has also become the symbol of the atrocities that marked the conflicts between white settlers and indigenous peoples. In the memory of Native Americans today, this date is essential for the assertion of their identity, while for the United States it is much more obscured. There are still many debates on the circumstances and the results of this tragedy ...

The context: the end of the Indian wars

A great Indian victory, the battle of Little Big Horn (1876) paradoxically sounded the end of Indian resistance, like a swan song. Custer’s debacle makes him a martyr to American public opinion, and the government orders the hunt for the Sioux. Sitting Bull fled to Canada, Crazy Horse was eventually shot, and in the early 1880s the Indians were defeated, despite some resistance, as in Oregon.

It was then that the reserve system was put in place, where Indians were parked to be dependent on the whites' goodwill. Regarding the Sioux, a large reserve had been created, but it was quickly divided into six small parts, mainly to divide the Lakota peoples and stir up dissension between chiefs; among them, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud.

The Ghost Dance, spiritual revolt

At the end of the 1880s, a rite with a messianic tendency, the Ghost Dance, appeared in Nevada. Its “prophet” is a Paiute Indian, Wovoka, who was thirty-five years old in 1888; he advocates a syncretic religion, partly inspired by Christianity, and the advent of an Indian world without whites, with the arrival on earth of the Great Spirit. According to him, the only way to communicate with spirits is through dance, hence the name of this rite. He also defends a return to traditions, old customs, and a pacifist attitude.

This spiritual movement quickly spreads oil on Indian reservations, where residents are confined and desperate, witnessing the disappearance of their culture as a result of American "civilization" programs. Obviously, it reaches as far as the Sioux, and its popularity begins to worry the American authorities and the colonists.

The Sitting Bull assassination

The great Sioux chief, one of the heroes of Little Big Horn, was in 1890 the chief of the Standing Rock reserve, where he continued to defend the traditional way of life, severely attacked and threatened by American policy which decided to "Civilize" the Indians by trying to eradicate their culture. His history and his actions, even peaceful ones, always make him a nuisance to the American authorities.

General Miles and Agent McLaughlin, who manages the Standing Rock reserve, then manage to accuse Sitting Bull of supporting a protest movement around the Ghost Dance phenomenon. They send Indian reserve police to arrest him: a scuffle breaks out, gunshots, and Sitting Bull collapses. It is December 15, 1890, two weeks later it is the Wounded Knee massacre ...

The Wounded Knee Massacre

All the elements are in place. The death of Sitting Bull caused riots, and especially the specific problems of the Sioux in their reserves led them to practice a more "radical" Ghost Dance, whose peaceful appeal turns in some of his priests into a call to arms. There is also a belief, linked to the Ghost Dance, of the existence for the Sioux of "sacred shirts": the warrior wearing an "Indian" shirt would be invulnerable to bullets.

After Sitting Bull was assassinated, members of his tribe joined Minneconjous leader Big Foot. The latter, although peaceful and no longer practicing the Ghost Dance, worries the authorities of the reserves, in particular General Miles. Tensions have grown across the region over the popularity of the Ghost Dance, and he wants to prevent this part from being affected as well. The Minneconjous are on the move as they are joined by Sitting Bull's Hunkpapas; Big Foot's goal is probably to reach Pine Ridge to more easily withstand the hardships of winter.

The migration of the Indian tribe was stopped by the US military on the 7the Colonel Forsyth's Cavalry Regiment, near Wounded Knee Creek. The order was to disarm the Indians, and everything fell into place on the morning of December 29, 1890. The Indians were grouped together in a valley, overlooked by hills, where a Hotchkiss battery was installed. It is when the American soldiers begin to take the rifles from the Sioux that the versions diverge. It seems that a shaman has started a Ghost Dance, encouraging the warriors protected by the famous "sacred shirts"; the tension would then rise a notch, some Sioux resisting, and a gunshot would have sounded. However, what follows leaves no doubt: a deluge of fire descends on the Indian camp, in particular from the Hotchkiss. Indians grab their guns, American soldiers are killed, but the rest is massacre: Sioux men, women and children are shot down, Big Foot being one of the first killed.

The carnage lasts about fifteen minutes. The toll is debated, but it is around three hundred dead on the Indian side, a good number of them women and children, against twenty on the American side. Officially, the Wounded Knee massacre marks the end of the Indian wars.

An always open wound

Debates abound in the weeks, months and even years after December 29, 1890, until today. Who are responsible? What final assessment? What is certain is that Wounded Knee is a fundamental, symbolic date for Native Americans, and the Sioux in particular.

The best example of this importance in Indian history, in their collective memory, is the occupation of Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973 by Sioux Oglala activists, to claim their rights in the context of the growing power of the American Indian Movement (AIM) since the late 1960s. Activists were besieged for over seventy days by the FBI, and an agreement was finally reached; there were still two deaths. During this period, the Sioux lived in a united community, drawing inspiration from their ancestors, which made this "second" Wounded Knee another important date in their history.

Finally, in 1990, a ride took place to commemorate the centenary of the massacre. Even today, the Sioux are demanding official recognition of the killing, and continue to fight to keep their culture alive.


- R.M. Utley, W.E. Washburn, Indian Wars, from the Mayflower to Wounded Knee, Albin Michel (Indian land), 1993.

- E. Marientas, Wounded Knee or America at the end of the century, Complex editions, 1992.

- P. Jacquin, The Land of the Redskins, Gallimard, 1987.

- E. Marientas (dir), Indian resistance in the United States from the 16th to the 20th century, Archives collection (Gallimard), 1980.

- J. Pictet, The epic of the Redskins, Editions du Rocher, 1999.

For further

- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - An American History (1860-1890) by Dee Brown. Albin Michel, 2009.

- Indian Lands - Four centuries of American history as told by the Indians. DVD documentary, Arte Editions, 2010.

Video: Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee History Tour


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