The Wounded Knee Massacre was one of the most notorious episodes of violence by the United
States government against Native Americans.
American soldiers dump the Sioux dead into a mass grave after Wounded Knee.
few know the backstory to the incident, which involves a Paiute prophet named Wovoka.
In 1889, Wovoka went into a deep trance. When he emerged, he told his tribesmen that he
had foreseen the way to paradise. He claimed that if the Native Americans returned to
their traditional ways and performed a sacred dance, the buffalo would come back to the
plains, the whites would be driven out, and the dead would return to help in the fight. It
was this last prophecy that gave the religious movement its name – the Ghost Dance.
The Plains Indians who had once roamed free across the American west had seen their
centuries-old way of life disappear within a generation. Confined to small reservations on
the lands that had once been theirs and dependent on American bureaucrats to meet even
their most basic needs, some Native Americans turned to this new religion in a last hope
that their old way of life could be restored.
The movement spread like wildfire amongst the Sioux, where it would set off the final
chapter in the great war between whites and natives that had begun when the first European
settlers arrived two centuries earlier.
Before the Wounded Knee Massacre, tensions were already high between the Sioux and the
Americans by the time the Ghost Dance craze became popular. The government agents who
worked on the reservations had no idea of the meaning behind it and became nervous that is
was some kind of war dance. One bureaucrat finally became so frightened that he sent a
telegram to the government requesting military backup, frantically claiming, “Indians are
dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy… we need protection and we need it now.”
Sioux ceremonial dancers in the late 19th century.
had been marked as agitators. They caught up to one of their targets, Chief Big Foot, as
he and 350 Sioux made their camp near Wounded Knee Creek. The atmosphere was already
charged when the soldiers went around the camp on the morning of Dec. 29, 1890 and began
seizing all weapons they found.
One of the men sent on this mission to tame the Sioux was Philip Wells, who was part Sioux
himself and served as an interpreter. Wells clearly described the state of unease as
Colonel Forsyth spoke with Chief Big Foot, who was so ill at the time that he could not
even walk and had to be carried from a wagon and lain on the ground.
The colonel asked that the Sioux surrender their arms, to which the chief replied that
they had none. Forsyth then ordered Wells “tell Big Foot he says the Indians have no arms,
yet yesterday they were well armed when they surrendered. He is deceiving me.”
Some of the nearby Sioux became agitated as they overheard the conversation and one
medicine man who was “gaudily dressed and fantastically painted” began performing the
ghost dance, shouting “I have lived long enough! Do not fear, but let your hearts be
strong!” Some of the younger warriors joined in, further worrying the soldiers, who feared
this might be the prelude to a fight.
Everything came to a head when the soldiers tried to order a deaf man to surrender his
gun. Since he could not hear what they were saying he did not immediately give his weapon
up, and the soldiers attempted to forcibly grab it from him. At some point during the
scuffle, a shot was fired and the Wounded Knee Massacre began.
An artist’s imagining of the massacre that appeared in Harper’s Weekly, 1891
the atmosphere of hostility and the ghost dance they could not understand, immediately
The Sioux were unprepared and the majority had just had their weapons taken from them;
they could offer little resistance.
Chief Big Foot was shot on the ground where he was lying sick.
Soldiers pose with three of the four Hotchkiss-designed M1875 mountain guns used at Wounded Knee. The caption on the photograph reads: "Famous Battery 'E' of the 1st Artillery. These brave men and the Hotchkiss guns that Big Foot's Indians thought were toys, Together with the fighting 7th what's left of Gen. Custer's boys, Sent 200 Indians to that Heaven which the ghost dancer enjoys. This checked the Indian noise, and Gen. Miles with staff Returned to Illinois."
people, half of whom were women and children. The United States suffered a total of 25
casualties and the Wounded Knee Massacre would be remembered as the great conflict between
the whites and the natives.
Brothers, (left to right) White Lance, Joseph Horn Cloud, and Dewey Beard, Wounded Knee survivors; Miniconjou Lakota
Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre (Title: What's left of Big Foot's band).
View of canyon at Wounded Knee, dead horses and Lakota bodies are visible.
Civilian burial party, loading victims on a cart for burial.
Frozen corpse on field.
The scene three days afterwards, with several bodies partially wrapped in blankets in the foreground.
Buffalo Bill, Capt. Baldwin, Gen. Nelson A. Miles, Capt. Moss, and others, on
horseback, on battlefield of Wounded Knee.
Gen. L. W. Colby holding Zintkala Nuni (Little Lost Bird), found on the Wounded Knee