|Battle of Wounded Knee
December 12, 1890 – Grand River, South Dakota
Sitting Bull awoken at first light by 43 Indian police. While getting dressed his gets mad that he isn’t resisting and incites Sitting Bull to fight back. Sitting Bull orders his people to kill Lieutenant Bull Head. “This man is the leader, kill him and the others will flee!” The police are trying to hold back the angry Sioux that are in between them and their horses. The previous few days had been their Ghost Dance ritual and they were camped close to their leader. The Ghost Dance was a ritual to reunite the living and the dead and eliminate evil, including the white man, from the earth. Bull Head was part of the Indian police and reported to the Indian agent in charge of the reservation. He was seen as a traitor, but also thought the Sioux needed to change their ways to fit the new reality. Bull Head is shot and as he falls takes a shot a Sitting Bull. The attempted arrest resulted in the death of Sitting Bull and his two sons, one just twelve years old. Six policemen including Bull Head were killed.
December 18, 1890 – Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
The Ghost Dancers were viewed as wild and crazy and made some of the agents hysterical, treating the spiritual fervor as a major Sioux uprising. The government sent troops. South Dakota was a tinderbox. Many of the hostile Sioux were hiding in the Badlands and it was thought that they were going to join with Chief Big Foot and his band. They government officials decided to arrest Chief Big Foot.
December 28, 1890 – Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota
Scouts located Chief Big Foot and confirmed that they were not joining the other Sioux. As they closed in on Big Foot, three Sioux warriors approached with a white flag. They wanted Big Foot who was sick. He was brought to them in a wagon. He had pneumonia. His band was 120 men and 250 women and children, not a war party but more like refugees. The army and Sioux camped together. Army rations were given to the Sioux and a stove delivered to Big Foot’s teepee. Major Whitside was informed he would be relieved by Colonel Forsyth in a few hours.
December 29, 1890 – Wounded Knee, South Dakota
Colonel Forsyth had 500 cavalrymen and a company of scouts. He wanted to know why the Indians weren’t being guarded. He wanted them disarmed at first light and the camp surrounded.
At first light they were disarmed, 25 old rifles. Accused of holding back guns, Big Foot said that was all they had, so then they decided to search. Thirty-eight more guns were found as well as knives, axes, tent pegs, scissors, and other sharp objects. Warriors were told to lift up their clothing to show they weren’t concealing anything else. The young warriors refused. They were forcibly searched. Two guns were found and a young deaf warrior named Black Coyote drew a gun from under his blanket and leaped backward. He shook it high over his head and yelled in Lakota. Whitside was pretty sure he wanted to be paid for his expensive weapon. Two soldiers tried to seize the gun and it fired into the sky. Then, silence. Colonel Forsyth ordered “Fire! Fire on them!” The hills erupted in noise and motion. The young warriors charged for the pile of weapons and unarmed Sioux ran in every direction. Whitside saw Sioux falling everywhere. A few fell while fighting, most were shot in the back. The Sioux were surrounded, had nowhere to go. Whitside then heard the Hotchkiss guns. He got down to prepare himself for the hail of oversized shells that would be coming in at sixty-eight rounds per second. As they roared, soldiers started to fall. The few wagons and Sioux horsemen that were trying to escape were obliterated. A frenzy had taken over the soldiers. He saw women, carrying babies, run down by soldiers on horseback and killed. Nobody was spared. When the gunfire stopped, heavy smoke and screams of pain filled the air. The smell of sulfur, blood and human excrement assaulted him. He heard yelling to his left and ran to the sound. He saw Gatling guns cutting down several groups of Sioux attempting to hide in a gully. The only Sioux who moved were those squirming in pain.
Whitside was second in command and had never fired his pistol, but felt responsible. He knew this had been a ragtag band of Indians led by an old and ailing chief. They were, for the most part, women, children, and infants. He ordered the wounded to be tended to, but didn’t argue when the troops received treatment first.
December 31, 1890 – Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Whitside called to an angry General Miles who did not like the additional disgrace after Sitting Bull. There were sixty-four army casualties, most hit by rifle fire from fellow soldiers or by their own Hotchkiss guns.
January 1, 1891 – Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota
The blizzard that had rolled in after the slaughter had frozen the bodies exactly as they had fallen. Some had been removed by friends or family to be buried. The white soldiers commanded some of the surviving Sioux to leave the dead and look for the living. They pretended not to understand and followed their chief’s orders to memorialize each of the dead and ensure that the real story of what had happened lived on. The general spoke to the Sioux, congratulating them on finding seven survivors that would have died of exposure. He then said they would demand an investigation and sent them back to the reservation. An older Sioux said that he couldn’t order them around and they wanted to bury the dead. The general told him that if they returned now they wouldn’t be punished. They said, “Punished, punished for what?” The general said, “You left the reservation, you participated in Ghost Dancing, you prepared for war, these things are against our treaty.” They leave and see soldiers marking a rectangle in the ground for a mass burial.
January 5, 1891 -- Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Newspapers all over the world have stories that Sitting Bull ambushed Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn and they call him ‘the assassin of the brave Custer’. When in truth Custer was the one to attack and was outmaneuvered. In the Evening Star the Wounded Knee massacres was written as a glorious triumph and that Big Foot’s band was the worst of their race. General Miles unhappy and asks if Whitside will testify truthfully at the hearing and he agrees.
January 14, 1891 – Pine Ridge, South Dakota
At the trial, testimony stated that the Sioux fired fifty shots before the men returned fire. Eyewitnesses testify that some noncombatants were shot in the confusion by mistake.
January 20, 1891 – Pine Ridge, South Dakota
General Miles is still trying to get to the bottom of it because he wants to do the right thing and promised Sioux survivors that he would investigate and punish any wrongdoers.
February 7, 1891 – Washington DC
Military reports excuse Forsyth and recommend a stop of inquiry.
February 17, 1891 – Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Secretary of War penned what would become the official government position on the Battle of Wounded Knee.
The disarmament was commenced and it was evident that the Indians were sullenly trying to evade the order. They were carried away by the harangue of the ghost dancer, and wheeling about, opened fire. Nothing illustrates the madness of their outbreak more forcibly than the fact that their first fire was so directed that every shot that did not hit a soldier must have gone through their own village. There is little doubt that the first killing, of women and children was by the fire of the Indians themselves.
The firing by the troops was entirely directed on the men until the Indians, after their break, mingled with their women and children, thus exposing them to the fire of the troops and as a consequence some were killed. Major Whitside emphatically declares that at least fifty shots were fired by the Indians before the troops returned fire. Major Kent and Capt. Baldwin concur in finding that the evidence fails to establish that a single man of Col. Forsyth’s command was killed or wounded by his fellows.
This fact and, indeed, the conduct of both officers and men through the whole affair, demonstrates an exceedingly satisfactory state of discipline in the Seventh Cavalry. Their behavior was characterized by skill, coolness, discretion, and forbearance, and reflects the highest possible credit upon the regiment.
June 1891 – St. Louis, Missouri
More than a dozen Medals of Honor delivered to General Miles to be distributed for bravery at Wounded Knee. He lost his temper, this was the greatest number of Congressional Medals of Honor ever awarded in a single engagement.
February 2013 – Pine Ridge Reservation
Calvin Spotted Elk made rescinding the twenty medals of honor his life’s work. He believed the spirits wouldn’t rest as long as it was referred to as a battle. In 1917, retired general Nelson A. Miles had written that “a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed. He had not had much luck in getting attention for his cause and wrote careful words to President Obama.
Mr. President, what happened at Wounded Knee was not worthy of this nation’s highest award for exceptional valor. The actions of the soldiers have been justly criticized because this was a massacre, not a battle. This tragedy, for many, remains a blemish in American history.
My relatives and I pray for this never to happen again and we pray you will hear our plea to put this to rest. The healing process takes time, but through prayer, acceptance, awareness and forgiveness, it is possible. For many of us, acknowledgment of what happened is at the root of our healing.
For many years, my grandfather, Chief Spotted Elk, has erroneously been known as Chief “Big Foot”.
Elk, along with others who have petitioned the government over the years is still waiting for a response.