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Wounded Knee Anniversary


123 years ago today, on December 29, 1890, the United States Army massacred between 150 and 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, effectively ending the active military engagements of the wars of American conquest. We might not even call Wounded Knee a military engagement given that this was Lakota (and other Plains tribes) resistance as apocalyptic religious movement rather than warfare. But some Lakota did have guns and about 25 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Of course, that was hardly the last violence committed against Native Americans, including the allotment of their land, corruption at the BIA, Indian schools and the suppression of native religions and languages, the stealing of natural resources, and termination in the 1950s. Take a moment to remember how our nation was built on the wanton murder of indigenous peoples.

Spotted Elk, one of the Lakota murdered by the United States Army:

And here’s the mass grave where the military tossed the dead bodies:

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  • scepticus

    25 years ago I started reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee but could not finish because it was making me suicidal. Parts of the history of this “exceptional” nation are unbelievably dark and disturbing.

    • ChrisTS

      I think it took me a full year to get through it.

    • Linnaeus

      Still haven’t read that one, but I did read A Century of Dishonor. Worth a look if you haven’t read it yet.

    • efgoldman

      I read it shortly after it came out in 1970. It was and is depressing, for sure, but it was just another depressing thing along with the fuck up that was Vietnam.

    • I think I read it in a weekend. Despite being voluminous it was written in a much more narrative style than most historical works. Of course I read it in the late 1990s when the US history of genocide against the indigenous population wasn’t controversial in itself anymore. By then the controversy was whether it was comparable to the Holocaust. Something that Ward Churchill tackled in his 1997 book, A Little Matter of Genocide. As far as writing style and narrative of the actual history Dee’s book is still better than Churchill’s. It retrospect much of Churchill’s book hasn’t aged as well in the last two decades. In large part because the whole field of genocide studies including studies of the Holocaust has shifted radically since 1997. Dee’s book has aged a lot better.

  • Sure glad we’re not all violent and stuff like those Muslims.

  • LittlePig

    “If you think Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a fun read, you might be a Republican”

    • Fun read? More like a how-to manual.

      • Andrew Jackson was a Republican? Boy did I learn US history wrong. I always thought Lincoln was the first Republican president.

  • buskertype

    I think that’s Big Foot, not Spotted Elk… at least that’s how I’ve always seen that photo captioned in the past.

    • I took it from Wikipedia. So you are probably right.

      • ExpatChad

        OOOOPS…this should have followed thr NEXT comment….Je Suis Idiote.

        • ExpatChad

          never mind.

  • a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q)

    There have never been words adequate to express my outrage over the way the US has treated the indigenous population of this continent. Throughout history of contact, and continuing today. It’s just a shanda.

    • ExpatChad

      As a 70 yo fugitive from near Lapwai, I could depress you for hours with how nasty even NORTHERN ID attitudes have been in even the recent past…

  • Bill Murray

    My great-great grandfather was a photographer in the area and ice skated up the frozen Wounded Creek into the site. The photos included in the OP are not his — they are by George Trager who was there much faster. My GGF did get some pictures mostly of the US soldiers and of the camps after the massacre. As he died more than 50 years before I was born, I don’t know what he thought of the whole thing. While he got on well enough to take many photos of tribal members (most famously Sitting Bull) I assume like most of my family that he was pretty mainstream for the time in his views

  • JoyfulA

    As a kid, I made life miserable for every adult in my vicinity for a month when I learned that Pennsylvania was creating a reservoir by flooding the Cornplanter Reservation, the last remaining rez in the state, that by treaty would be there as long as the grass grew.

    At least I didn’t grow up gullible.

  • heckblazer

    The main character in the computer game Bioshock: Infinite is a Wounded Knee veteran haunted by his actions. The game really shows the ugliness hiding behind the fantasies of American Exceptionalism.

  • DocAmazing

    Just to add flavor, stir in the Sand Creek Massacre:

  • Matthew

    I remember that the Economist ran an article talking about how Chinese academia has finally started coming to terms with the invasion and brutal occupation of Tibet during the first 20 years and the magazine thought that this was a hopeful sign.

    The truth is that it isn’t. When the dominant culture finally starts admitting culpability and talking about the tragedy of the ratcheting destruction of native peoples, that’s when you know that the natives have lost the game forever.

    We can talk openly about the deplorable conquest of America only because it was so successful. A native people has been reduced to the point where the dominant culture has the luxury of forgetting about them entirely to no ill effects, something that ethnic cleansers of the modern era can only look at with envy.

    • DocAmazing

      Should we than be reassured that the Israeli government isn’t talking openly of the Nakba?

      • Matthew

        Kind of, yes. There’s a reason that the Geneva conventions forbid settlers on conquered territory and that’s because they work really well.

        Israel/Palestine is still up in the air so neither side can risk acknowledging any legitimacy in their opponents. Once one side loses, then the magnanimity in victory begins for the 1% of people who hold a trace of the original culture.

        That said, sometimes cultural destruction is impossible to stop. The Manchus in China were running an apartheid system in their own favor for 300 years and do you know how many native speakers of that language are left? less than 50. The catalyst for this was allowing Han Chinese to migrate to Manchuria in 1870. Even in a case where the established government was explicitly on the side of the indigenous population, the culture still disappeared.

        • The Manchu rulers lost their own language and customs earlier than that. There is a tablet in the Chicago Museum of Natural History that dates from the 17th Century and is a stone engraved in the very weird, fluid calligraphy that characterized the written form of Manchu, from one of the rulers between 1644-1700. Alongside it is a tablet from the 19th Century, in the standard written Chinese of the day, recording an order or decree from a Chinese(Manchu) ruler.

          • Matthew

            The Manchu official policy was dual language, like English and French in Quebec. Manchu was never supposed to be taught to the Chinese subject, though it wasn’t banned for them. This was in order to maintain the distinction between the Manchus and the Han.

            As far as texts went, Manchu language documents held precedence and the use of Chinese was for informational purposes. Take something like the Rosetta stone which is written in formal Greek, formal heiroglyphics and the less formal demotic script. This kind of multilingual document was how the small ruling class of Greek speakers communicated and controlled a larger population. Manchu language policy was the same. Chinese texts for China, Mongolian texts in Mongolia, Tibetan texts in Tibet, but, formally, those were all supposed to be translations of original orders in Manchu.

            The ruling class and the Manchus who had moved south started getting sinicized after 1644 but the final nail in the coffin was the loss of the Manchu homeland in the 1870’s to Han settlers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuang_Guandong.

            There are ten million ethnic Manchus now, but picking them out from the majority population is like trying to pick out Americans who are descended from Welsh people. Sure a name or a family history will tell the story, but for all intents and purposes the Manchus are gone as a distinct culture. (The language survives with the Xibe people who adopted it as garrison soldiers. Kind of like if Latin were preserved not by Italians but only by the descendants of German soldiers who were pressed into Roman service.)

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  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    What are you (Erik) referring to as “termination in the 1950s”? Just curious…

  • I never knew about Termination before. Jesus, that’s genocide.

    • DocAmazing

      Should be sobering to anyone relying on the US to hold up its treaty obligations…

  • Ronan

    The line about ‘resistance as apocalyptic religious movement rather than warfare’, is this specific to the plains tribes in general? or just the fact that the resistance (at that time?) was on its last legs and so without much hope of victory?

  • Spirula

    I lived part of my young childhood in Hamill SD. I went to a two room school there. This was from the early to mid 60’s. Two of my close playmates were Lakota Sioux boys, who lived across the road in a shack (no electricity or plumbing).
    This was my first exposure to the existence of racism and prejudice. The men were referred to as “bucks” and the women as “squaws”. I didn’t understand the origin of these terms, but I knew it was derogatory. Among other things, they were hated as “wards of the state” and essentially “moochers”. I was mocked by classmates for (the few I had) for being friends with “Injuns”. All of them lived on remote ranches or farms.

    My Lakota friends and their siblings/cousins went to the same school as I did, though they did so sporadically. I did not understand, at the time, why they were so sporadic in their attendance (my father was a minister of the Calvinistic/Puritan belief system, so school was absolutely mandatory for all of us). They were grade failed year after year until they reached the age where (I guess) truancy or similar laws no longer applied.

    It was not until I went on to college, years later, that I finally grasped that that this was a crushed people, a people undergoing a cultural and physical extermination. This I found out on my own. Granted, I went to a private Christian high school and college, but to my knowledge almost no American History classes I had or anyone I knew had taken, ever dealt with in any depth or honesty the extent or intensity of Europeans in the extermination of the First Nations people.

    From what I can gather, no Lakota Sioux now live in the Hamill area. It is basically a private game reserve. Most of the ranchers and famers have left. I can’t begin to express the sadness and anger I feel about this whole history. A hunter-gatherer society driven out by European invaders, greedy and feeling entitled, who try to establish farms and ranches, only to abandon them within roughly 100 years because it is not really climatically sustainable. Now the whites go and play “hunter” on the same land. And most of them to brag about the animals they killed (go to the website for the game reserve). They offer no prayers for the animal they killed (like the Lakota did), and no humility about the death of another creature.

    “Civilization” will only change when it becomes extinct I’m afraid.

    (By the way, pronghorn are a physiological awesome animal, as I witnessed as a child and learned about as a zoologist).

  • Spirula

    Edit: by “all of them” I mean my white classmates.

  • Same Native American perspective you can find on 1,000 plus websites on the internet. There is another side to the historical record. See the first hand accounts of the cavalry troopers. Learn about the officers that led them. Find out why the US Government saw fit to award many of the soldiers that fought that bloody day.

    A blog dedicated to documenting through primary sources, the Army’s actions at Wounded Knee

    • The pro-genocide perspective clearly needs more attention.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        is it you or Steven Attewell who responds to people who talk about states’ rights being the cause of the civil war by asking “what states’ rights in particular?”

        because this is similar to that. why were the soldiers brave/gallant/whatever? because they were there to make sure the indians stayed where the white man wanted them, and use force if necessary.

        I was out west a few years ago and happened upon the roadside marker for where Wm Fetterman and his soldiers bought the farm. I just stood there for a while, and looked around, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a soldier so far from home right before Christmas, and realize too late this was the end of it all. And I tried to imagine what it would be like to actually have to defend my way of life myself, the way the indians were

        I wish I could come up with a clear answer. one ends up feeling more than a little like lady macbeth… I just know that for every life story of a us soldier who gave his life for his country, as they say – there are tens of thousands of stories of natives whose lives were torn or crumbled away from them. it just doesnt compare, and it’s really bad form to whine about the ‘neglected’ US soldiers

    • DocAmazing

      Gosh, now all we need is a blog dedicated to documenting, through primary sources, the Army’s actions at My Lai.

      • Lee Rudolph

        I’m sure Colin Powell has some stuff stashed away.

    • cpinva

      yes, I can see why that whole “pursuing unarmed women and children through ravines and brush, then slaughtering them”, should be seen from the perspective of the army as well, with respect to the awarding of medals for “bravery”. oddly enough, this has historically pretty much always been considered a war crime.

    • Patricia Kayden


      You want us to read this history from the murderers’ point of view? Why?

    • Jackdaw

      That does indirectly raise one other sad point about this massacre: twenty Medals of Honor were handed out to the perpetrators. Even considering more liberal distribution of the CMOH back then since other awards, like the Bronze/Silver Stars, etc., had not yet been created, it’s a pretty damning commentary.

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  • Rusty Spikefist

    And here’s the mass grave where the military tossed the dead bodies


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