by Gabriel Donohoe
Today, the United States is universally condemned for killing and maiming untold numbers of innocent civilians in drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and other countries.
This is not a recent phenomenon. Since its foundation in 1776, the U. S. has systematically slaughtered, persecuted, and impoverished its own indigenous peoples in a genocidal programme of stealing native lands and natural resources. It has been estimated that the death toll of American Indians from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the time of Wounded Knee was around 100 million souls. In 1890, only 250,000 remained.
Therefore, it is fitting that on this day, December 29th, 2015, we remember the brutal slaughter of some 300 Lakota Sioux Indians – mostly women and children – by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on their own reservation in South Dakota exactly 125 years ago.
The ill-fated Indian band, led by Big Foot (also known as Spotted Elk), was fleeing its winter encampment, alarmed at increased military activity on Sioux reservation lands after the assassination by Indian police of Lakota spiritual leader and holy man, Sitting Bull, barely two weeks before.
The army entered the reservation in force to stamp out ‘Ghost Dancing’, a religious ceremony indulged in by the vanquished Sioux by which they vainly hoped to bring back the ‘good old days’ of a happy nomadic life, an abundance of buffalo, and the departure of the malevolent white man.
Ranchers and settlers in Nebraska and the Dakotas became alarmed at the Ghost Dance ‘craze’ and feared an Indian uprising. They called out to the Government for protection. Whether spurred on by white hysteria or by a desire to steal even more reservation land, the government promptly sent in the army.
Unfortunately, the military force selected for the job was the reconstituted Seventh Cavalry, a regiment all but obliterated by the Sioux and Cheyenne 14 years previously, in June, 1876, on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, Montana Territory. Custer’s old outfit, now under the command of Col. J.W. Forsyth, had a score to settle with the Sioux.
On the morning of December 29th, 1890, Forsyth began to confiscate the hunting weapons of Big Foot’s band of some 350 men, women, and children who had been take prisoner the day before. According to the army, a deaf Lakota warrior, who didn’t understand what was going on, refused to hand up his valuable rifle and a struggle ensued during which a shot was fired.
The Seventh Cavalry immediately opened fire on the mostly unarmed mass of Lakota prisoners with .45-70 caliber Springfield carbines and four 42mm Hotchkiss mountain cannon. Men, women, and children were cut to pieces in the murderous enfilade, including many soldiers caught in their own crossfire.
The surviving Lakotas fled in the freezing snow but were pursued for three miles or more and ruthlessly butchered. Among the dead was the band leader, Big Foot, who was ill with pneumonia at the time and whose corpse was later found frozen in a half-reclining position. One soldier told how it took him several shots to kill a toddler who was running around the body of its dead parents. Another told of seeing a baby trying to suckle the breast of its dead mother, lying in her own blood in the snow.
For their “bravery”, twenty Medals of Honor were awarded to the soldiers. For years now, Indian activists have been trying to have these medals rescinded. To date, they have not been successful.
The Indian bodies were left to lie in a blizzard for 4 days or so. When an army burial party arrived back at the slaughter site they found a 7 month old girl, frost-bitten but alive, under the frozen corpse of her mother who had tried to shield her from army bullets. The child was named little Lost Bird and was adopted by a Nebraska National Guard general, without permission or approval from the Lakota people. She lived to be 29 years old and her story of abuse and racism at the hands of her “rescuers” is a poignant one.
When a wagon load of wounded arrived at Pine Ridge 4 or 5 days later a white congregation emerged from a church to shout abuse at them. The church was still decorated with Christmas slogans of “Peace On Earth” and “Goodwill To All”. The good ‘Christian’ reverend shook his fist at the desperately injured and frost-bitten women and children and yelled, “Bandits!”
The former Indian Agent at Pine Ridge, Irishman V.T. McGillycuddy, was disgusted at the unwarranted slaughter. He wrote:
“…[U]p to date there has been neither a Sioux outbreak or war. No citizen in Nebraska or Dakota has been killed, molested or can show the scratch of a pin, and no property has been destroyed off the reservation.”
The dream of a noble and beautiful people died at Wounded Knee.
Let us remember the great injustice that happened there…