December 29, 1890
Wounded Knee, South Dakota
U.S. forces fire upon a group of disarmed Lakota natives, killing approximately 300 including women and children
The U.S. Army had recently met with the Lakota and had escorted them around 5 miles to Wounded Knee where they made camp. On December 29, the Army attempted to disarm the Lakota after reports of the Natives performing Ghost Dances began to circulate.
The Ghost Dance movement stated that the reason the Natives were being forced from their land was because they had angered the gods by losing sight of their traditional customs. Ghost Dances were performed to try to root the groups in their traditions and to protect their people from attack, but U.S. troops took the Dances as a sign of rebellion and intimidation, and when the settlers became frightened of an armed uprising, they telegraphed the Calvary warning “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” and asked for assistance.
After the Lakota were camped at Wounded Knee, the Army went to each teepee to confiscate any weapons — axes, rifles, etc. — they could find. As they attempted to take the rifle of a deaf man named Black Coyote, the troops were faced with resistance: Black Coyote refused to give the weapon up as he had paid a good amount of money for it. As he argued, a man began the Ghost Dance and, whether intentional or accidental, Black Coyote’s gun fired. The gunshot was all it took for the Calvary to fire on the Natives who, unarmed, had little chance at defending themselves.
Estimates of the casualties state approximately 90 men and 200 women and children were killed with 51 wounded (7 fatally) on the Lakota side while the troops saw 25 casualties and 39 wounded (6 fatally). The military hired civilians to bury the dead in a mass grave, with a lower number reported for the victims: 84 men, 44 women, and 18 children.
General Nelson Miles, who had previously sent a telegraph to Washington, D.C., condemning the treatment of the Natives (excerpt: “The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.”) was appalled by the massacre and had the leader of the Calvary, Col. James Forsyth, relieved of duty. However, Forsyth had his position reinstated by the secretary of war who deemed the massacre to be a tragic event resulting from poor decisions. Miles continued to state the event was a massacre in a futile attempt to destroy Forsyth’s career. Despite Miles’ efforts, the events were portrayed in Forsyth’s favor and he was promoted to major general.