image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The massacre at Wounded Knee took place on December 29, 1890. While the sequence of specific events that initiated the actual shooting are disputed, the outcome is not disputed: cavalry troopers of the United States Army massacred hundreds (probably 200 to 300) Native American men, women and children who had been camped near Wounded Knee Creek. Just over thirty soldiers were killed during the battle which ensued. In addition to small arms, four Hotchkiss guns, breech-loading "mountain guns" which fired a 42mm round, were used by the cavalry -- three of them are shown in the image above. This is more than triple the size of a .50-cal round (a .50-cal is 12.7mm).
The officers and soldiers who perpetrated the massacre were described by many of the survivors -- including Black Elk -- as chasing down women and children to kill them. While the political situation surrounding this horrible episode may seem to be complex, in fact they are simple: chasing down and killing unarmed noncombatants is murder. It is not excused by the status of the person carrying out the murder -- wearing a uniform, or representing a government does not confer upon anyone the right to murder anyone else.
There were many other instances in which US military forces opened fire on villages full of women and children during the decades leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee: it was not an isolated incident. It was, however, the decisive battle which basically ended the resistance of the Plains Indians and the gathering momentum of the Ghost Dance movement.
The Lakota holy man Black Elk, whose personal story has been discussed in the previous two posts here and here, explains in his account of the tragic events of December, 1890 that he and the others in the vicinity of the Pine Ridge agency (reservation) received the news that Sitting Bull had been shot and killed in suspicious circumstances surrounding his arrest, which happened on December 15. Crazy Horse had earlier been killed under suspicious circumstances while in custody as well.
Sitting Bull had been leading a band of men, women and children who did not want to come in to the agencies and give up their way of life. After Sitting Bull was killed, a leader named Spotted Elk -- also referred to as Big Foot -- led about four hundred people towards Pine Ridge. Black Elk explains:
We heard that Big Foot was coming down from the Badlands with nearly four hundred people. Some of these were from Sitting Bull's band. They had run away when Sitting Bull was killed, and joined Big Foot on Good River. There were only about a hundred warriors in this band, and all the others were women and children and old men. They were all starving and freezing, and Big Foot was so sick that they had to bring him along in a pony drag. They had all run away to hide in the Badlands, and they were coming in now because they were starving and freezing. When they crossed Smoky Earth River, they followed up Medicine Root Creek to its head. Soldiers were over there looking for them. The soldiers had everything and were not freezing and starving. Near Porcupine Butte the soldiers came up to the Big Foots, and they surrendered and went along with the soldiers to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Brenan Store is now. 253-254.
The massacre would take place the following morning. Black Elk relates a first-hand account he had from his friend Dog Chief, who was there with Yellow Bird when the shooting started:
In the morning the soldiers began to take all the guns away from the Big Foots, who were camped in the flat below the little hill where the monument and burying ground are now. The people had stacked most of their guns, and even their knives, by the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick. Soldiers were on the little hill and all around, and there were soldiers across the dry gulch to the south and over east along Wounded Knee Creek too. The people were nearly surrounded, and the wagon-guns were pointing at them.
Some had not yet given up their guns, and so the soldiers were searching all the tepees, throwing things around and poking into everything. There was a man called Yellow Bird, and he and another man were standing in front of the tepee where Big Foot was lying sick. They had white sheets around and over them, with eyeholes to look through, and they had guns under these. An officer came to search them. He took the other man's gun, and then started to take Yellow Bird's. But Yellow Bird would not let go. He wrestled with the officer, and while they were wrestling, the gun went off and killed the officer. Wasichus and some others said he meant to do this, but Dog Chief was standing right there, and he told me it was not so. As soon as the gun went off, Dog Chief told me, an officer shot and killed Big Foot who was lying sick inside the tepee.
Then suddenly nobody knew what was happening, except that the soldiers were all shooting and the wagon-guns began going off right in among the people.
Many were shot down right there. The women and children ran into the gulch and up west, dropping all the time, for the soldiers shot them as they ran. 260-262.
There is much that could be written about this horrific episode. However, one thing that should be clear is that it should be a cause for deep and careful consideration on the ways in which military force can be used on the side of wrong, by individuals who may not even realize that what they are doing is wrong (the officers and soldiers who were there), supported by many other people who also have somehow come to believe that these actions are not wrong (the public at large).
The process by which large numbers of people come to believe that violations of natural universal law (which prohibits physically harming others or using force for any purpose beyond stopping someone who is at that time physically harming others) are excusable can be referred to by the convenient "short-hand" term of mind control. There is a list of links to previous posts exploring this important subject in this recent previous post.
While it may be comforting to think that this was only a problem in the nineteenth century, this is not the case. We should all think carefully about this in our own lives today, whether we are in the military or not.