While we’re all sitting about in our mid-Holiday malaise, drunk on sugar and fat, filled with drink and feasting and friendship and song, it should be mandatory to sober up for a moment or two and give some thought to one of the great, horrific, historical moments of our very checkered American past. On a blistering cold South Dakota day, elements of the American 7th Cavalry, still smarting from Custer’s incompetent, buffoonish debacle years before, and under the command of Col. James W. Forsyth, cornered a small band of Lakota and drove them to a forced encampment at Wounded Knee Creek under escort.
This occurred in the waning days of the “Indian Wars.” The native Bison, or Buffalo, upon which plains Indian culture had relied, had been hunted to the brink of extinction, effectively pushing the native communities to the same precipice. Treaties were made and shattered in the insatiable search for fertile land and gold, ever greater numbers of Indians were being forced onto reservations, which were continually made smaller. White settlers were spooked by the emergence of the “Ghost Dances,” a native spiritual movement which, in short, amounted to the Christian Messiah returning to Earth as a Native American, bringing peace and prosperity to all.
On the morning of Dec 29, while the Union forces undertook efforts to disarm the few natives who still possessed weapons, a medicine man began a Ghost Dance, which put the superstitious soldiers on edge. Then, a scuffle broke out when one of the Lakota, a deaf man named Black Coyote, either resisted surrendering his expensive property or didn’t understand the soldiers’ commands. In the struggle, the rifle discharged.
The soldiers killed everyone. The Lakota who were still armed. The women. The children. The aged. Over 150-and as many as 300 Indians died, with another 50 wounded–many of whom also died of their wounds in the ensuing weeks. They were shot, stabbed, bayoneted. In the midst of the horror, zealous artillerymen turned their cannons on the villages, where many of the women, children, and aged were sheltered in tipis–tents. The government reported 25 soldiers dead and 39 wounded–most of whom fell at the hands of friendly fire from both rifles and the enthusiastic cannon crews.
The military left the Indian dead on the field for three days, where they froze in a blizzard, before hiring civilians to bury them in mass graves on the hillside where the cavalry had placed their cannons.
Colonel Forsyth was temporarily removed from command by his superior officer, who always believed that Forsyth engineered the atrocities purposefully, but the War Department reversed the decision, refused to conduct a court martial proceeding, and Forsyth was promoted. The U. S. Government awarded no less than 2o medals of honor to various soldiers for their part in the massacre.
Merry Christmas, and Happy New Years!