110th Anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre
Some Chilling Modern Parallels
S. Leon Felkins, Major, US
it is a popular theme of books and movies, many of us are quite
tired of hearing about the evils of the past. After all "it didn't
happen on my watch" as we used to say in the Navy. Not only did
I have nothing to do with these atrocities, there is nothing I can
do about it now. Sure the President can issue official apologies
and token compensations but these actions fall far short of curing
the ills of the past. They are essentially useless if not harmful.
that is not the reason for this report. No, there is a far more
important reason to take time to note the 110th anniversary of the
Wounded Knee Massacre and to once again examine what happened on
that very cold 29th day of December, 1890, on Wounded Knee creek
in South Dakota. That reason is that the specific activities and
causes of that tragedy are not as far removed from some recent events
in the U.S. Given that, let us consider once again Santayana's famous
who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
~ from George Santayana's The
Life of Reason
will not go into a detailed discussion of the events surrounding
the massacre of these "Native Americans", a.k.a. "Indians",[Note
1] as they are covered extensively elsewhere. The web
page of the Library
Of Congress introduces the subject this way:
December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek, on the Pine Ridge Reservation,
South Dakota, some 500 soldiers of the United States Seventh Cavalry
opened fire on approximately 350 Lakota (Sioux) Indians of Chief
Big Foot's Miniconjou band. At the end of the confrontation, between
150 and 300 Sioux men, women, and children, including Chief
Big Foot, were dead. This event marked the end of Lakota resistance
until the 1970s. Apart from the few minor skirmishes that followed,
the Wounded Knee massacre ended the Indian Wars."
details will be provided below as necessary to support my major
points. However, if you would like to examine the event in further
details now, here are some of the better links on the web:
and Issues Closely Related to Concerns We Have Today
reading the various documented reports of this incident, some statements
are eerily close to events in our modern times. Following is a list
of the major ones.
Cruel Blunders and Inaction of our Government Including
bureaucracy and Congressional inaction was a serious and often
disastrous problem then as it is today. By a series of shenanigans
and bogus treaties, the Indians had been progressively relieved
of their land and pushed into relatively small reservations. This
greatly reduced their hunting range while at the same time, the
animals to hunt were becoming scarcer and scarcer (the buffalo
had been exterminated by the white settlers and government
hired hunters). The efforts of the natives at farming in these
barren "Badlands" was a total failure. For the winter of '90,
they were facing starvation and death by freezing as they had
little food or clothing both of which were promised by
Congress and were part of the terms of the treaties.
was not giving the problem much attention. They were taking as
long to approve the budget then as they do today -- except then
thousands of people were suffering and dying. You can imagine
how serious it is for the Lakotas
to be without food and clothing in the blizzards of the Dakotas
while Congress continued to debate the budget in the nicely heated
Washington Capitol building. The desperate situation is best described
by a message General Miles sent to his superior in Washington
on December 19, pleading for action by Congress (from Dr.
Sally Wagner's Testimony).
difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this
end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of
the treaty obligations which 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. They understood that ample
provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies
have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living
on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the
crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total
failures. The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among
the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation,
and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These
facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and
sustained by thousands of witnesses."
White Man's hysteria about the Lakota's Newly Adopted Religion
the Ghost Dance (the press dubbed it the "Messiah Craze")
as now, the citizens are fearful of the practice of any new religion
and will induce the government to take drastic measures to suppress
it, up to and including killing the participants as evidenced
by the Ruby
Ridge and Waco
Messiah Craze grew out the Lakota's desperate situation. They were
dying, they were surrounded by the Army and they were being told
that they were going to be killed. The religion grew out of this
situation and was a misguided effort to appease them into believing
that they would somehow survive (the shirts would deflect the bullets).
According to the article, "Massacre
At Wounded Knee, 1890";
a desperate attempt to return to the days of their glory, many sought
salvation in a new mysticism preached by a Paiute shaman called
Wovoka. Emissaries from the Sioux in South Dakota traveled to Nevada
to hear his words. Wovoka called himself the Messiah and prophesied
that the dead would soon join the living in a world in which the
Indians could live in the old way surrounded by plentiful game.
A desperate Indian Agent at Pine Ridge wired his superiors in Washington,
"Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy....We need
protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and
confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and
this should be done now." The order went out to arrest Chief Sitting
Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull was killed in
the attempt on December 15. Chief Big Foot was next on the list."
Wovoka and Koresh now know how serious it can be to your welfare
to stir up the natives with a new, unapproved, religion!
not a single white man's home had been burned or any individual
harmed by this desperate religion was of no consequence to the politicians
Press and the Creation of Fear and Hysteria amongst the Indians
press, then as now, will do all it can to stir up the hysteria as
it does sell newspapers. Not that it would have made any difference
but the fact is that some of the Indians could read too. What they
read and passed on to their fellow Native Americans must have been
were numerous reports
"(circulated in newspapers and authorized by the almost universal
sentiment of the terrified settlers) that all the Indians were going
to be killed, their arms taken away, and men, women, and children
slaughtered without discrimination."
that background, let us now look at the actual confrontation between
the Lakotas temporarily camped on Wounded Knee Creek and the U.S.
Calvary who had them surrounded on all four sides. The Indian braves
were out-numbered five to one and their rifles were massively outgunned
by the fire-power of the army, including four Hotchkiss automatic
Trigger to the Commencement of Hostilities
major contribution to the sudden start of hostilities was the actions
of the soldiers going through the tents looking for guns. "The
Sioux braves became agitated by the cries of their squaws, who attempted
to prevent the soldiers from scattering their belongings..."
this sound a bit familiar? Does this not sound a bit like the actions
of the Swat teams and Federal lawmen who make their infamous "no-knock"
entries into private homes where they search for drugs, in the process
destroying the furniture, walls, and precious belongings of the
inhabitants, and upon leaving often say, "Whoops,
I guess we had the wrong house. . .".
do not seem to understand that such activities can sometimes drive
the victims to a desperate act.
Seizure of Weapons
Indian thought more of his rifle and his knife as implements of
the chase than as weapons of war".
fact that these nearly starved braves would have no means to obtain
game without their guns and knives was not an adequate defense to
the Army. They insisted that all guns had to be relinquished. They
surely knew that the braves would not give up their guns without
a fight. Nevertheless, the soldiers after ordering the Indians to
bring the guns out to them without success, proceeded to send a
detail of 20 or so soldiers into the compound and into the tents
to retrieve the weapons, by force, if necessary. It is part of what
they call the "Darwin Award" that these 20 soldiers probably did
these modern times, governments have again had the occasion to fear
the ownership of weapons by citizens and have acted to take the
weapons from them. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were successful
in this endeavor, with the U. S. and England attempting to follow.
No doubt, as it was at Wounded Knee, there will probably be some
blood shed before this mission is completely accomplished.
Killed by "Friendly Fire"
effort to have so much firepower on hand as to assure total annihilation
of the enemy with little risk to the adversaries, sometimes backfires
and causes "friendly fire" casualties. This was in much evidence
in the Gulf
War. It is likely that nearly all of the casualties of the Army
at Wounded Knee were also the result of "friendly fire".
of the soldiers later
as it sounds, the surrounding troopers were firing wildly into
this seething mass of humanity, subjecting us as well as the Indians
to a deadly crossfire while the first volley from the Hotchkiss
guns mowed down scores of women and children who had been watching
quote Jerry Green:
had been placed in a hollow square surrounding the Lakota in the
council circle. The large number of casualties in companies A,
B, I, and K who faced one another across the council circle has
lead to the conclusion then and now that a great many soldier
casualties were the result of cross fire.
Funds for Troops but None for Food and Clothing
the Indians were starving and freezing to death, U.S.
troops were deployed at great cost ($2,000,000) instead of food
and clothing being sent. Does this not sound like a familiar tactic?
The whole "War on Drugs" survives because of this kind of approach
by the government.
Danger of Boredom within Police/Military units
Army troops were bored and spoiling for a fight. Not only were
they bored, but revenge for Custer's debacle was most heavily on
have the same dangerous situation with our modern Swat teams and
the massive Federal police operations. They are way oversized, over-trained,
and live in a state of idleness and mind-numbing boredom. A situation
like Waco and the school shootings can really "make their day".
sniper that killed Mrs. Weaver on Ruby Ridge reportedly had never
had a chance to shoot at a real person before. With several years
in the FBI as a highly trained sniper, the only thing he had ever
shot was paper targets. Maybe you can imagine how excited he was
that day in August of 1992. And how dull his life has been since
is customary in American politics, a person's qualification has
no bearing on their selection to critically important posts
such as the agent for the Lakota reservation. According to Doctor
hysterical new agent at Pine Ridge, Dr. Daniel Royer, who reportedly
later lost his license to practice medicine in California because
of his severe drug addiction. A man with "no previous experience
with the Indians," whose appointment was "purely a political one,"
according to his wife, Dr. Royer repeatedly and frantically called
for the army, and reluctantly, for the first time in the twelve
year history of the reservation, troops came in to Pine Ridge.
is something to ponder when we realize that the heads of all of
our government agencies are political appointees where the color
of the skin or the gender is more important than experience and
the money", we are always told. It seems that in every action of
government, there's money involved somewhere. This, of course, was
also true of this tragedy. Having troops around meant income for
citizens that were themselves nearly as poor as the Indians. I quote
again from Doctor
unrest among the Indians and the Indian Agent's [Royer] request
for soldiers fit well into the slow economy of the area and the
business men in Rapid City and other towns in the West saw an
opportunity to improve it. They joined with the Indian Agents
in sending telegrams to Washington urging that troops be sent
west. This was also welcome news to the Army that had been inactive
for so long. They responded promptly and within a short time there
was a cordon of regular army completely surrounding southwestern
South Dakota. According to one newspaper report, this was the
greatest peacetime concentration of U.S. Troops that had ever
been staged. The soldiers were stationed from the Rosebud to Hot
Springs, North to Slim Buttes and East to the Missouri River.
The newspapers sent out great numbers of reporters and photographers.
Business in the frontier towns was never better.
and children were indiscriminately slaughtered in the ravines where
they sought to hide. Victims had many bullet holes in their bodies,
most in the back. While the army took care of its own, the victims
were left lying in the snow in a fierce blizzard for two days before
anyone bothered to find out if some might still be alive. Eye witness
accounts report that "Children as well as women with babes in their
arms were brought down as far as two miles from the Wounded Knee
the wounded and dead of the Army had been immediately evacuated
to Pine Ridge, it was not until two days later that an effort was
made to gather up the dead and wounded Lakotas. During this time,
a blizzard had raged through the area. Yet it was found that some
of the women and children were still alive in spite of being exposed
to the extreme cold. Still most of them ultimately perished due
to frostbite coupled with their wounds and the lack of adequate
Medal of Honor Awards
the kind of activities discussed here may be revolting to the average
citizen, the government of course has a different view and will
do all it can to reward the perpetrators, in secret, if necessary.
Larry Potts, a chief honcho for the FBI in the Ruby Ridge fiasco,
was promoted to "Deputy Director of the FBI" by Louis Freeh. Here
is his statement:
Potts was one of the twelve FBI employees included in my disciplinary
decisions this past January. . . At the time I disciplined Larry
Potts, he was the Acting Deputy Director. Shortly thereafter,
I sought to promote him to be Deputy Director of the FBI."
don't get to such posts as the Director of the FBI unless you are
skilled in such logic!). Due to public and congressional uproar,
that promotion was subsequently rescinded. It is reported that the
agents and sharp shooters for the FBI, BATF, etc. were subsequently
presented with awards in secret ceremonies. In any case, it is common
to promote or reassign government employees that have been exposed
to harsh public view after the ruckus has died down.
the government went a bit overboard with regard to the soldiers
at the Wounded Knee Massacre (maybe out of shame?). It awarded them
with 20 Medals of Honor! Some reports say 30, but 20 is most likely
correct for the actual participants. This issue is discussed in
many books and essays but the best summary is again Doctor
. . they gave out congressional medals of Honor to the participants
in the Wounded Knee affair (eighteen) and 12 more to the people
who did next to nothing at the Mission and White River fracas
later of which were of minor importance. They built a great monument
at Ft. Riley eulogizing the dead soldiers in this lamentable affair.
When one considers that in World War II, sixty four thousand South
Dakotans were engaged for the better part of four years and that
they received only three congressional medals the incongruity
of the Army's attitudes toward Wounded Knee is emphasized.
one by Jerry Green, is even more telling:
spite of or maybe because of the general turmoil
and debate surrounding the Wounded Knee operation, thirty-two
men were cited for their actions in the fight. This figure does
not include those officers recommended for brevet promotion. A
total of twenty-five men were recommended for the Medal of Honor.
Of these recommendations twenty were approved, and medals were
At that time neither of us had ever heard of Wounded Knee. He
was speaking of the upcoming Court-Martial of then Lt. William
Calley for his role in the massacre of civilians at Mi Lia, South
Viet Nam. He said of Calley. "Hell they ought to give him the
Congressional Medal of Honor, after all it takes a lot of guts
to kill women and children."
spite of many attempts to get these medals rescinded, these awards
still stand right up there with the recipients of awards
for bravery at Iwo Jima, Normandy Landing, and the Battle of the
of the officers involved in this massacre ever spent a day in jail,
of course. And neither did Lieutenant Calley.
has been the American citizen's feelings toward all this. After
all these soldiers were only slaughtering a bunch of "savages",
right?[Note 1] No further clarification
seems to be needed with that!
police powers are very dangerous. After all, World War II, which
exhibited the greatest savagery in the history of mankind is not
that distant in time. Whatever it is in the human makeup that allowed
those brutal actions is still with us today. At the time, we were
spared the problem of having to face this disturbing characteristic
of humans because we were told that the Japanese and Germans were
unlike the rest of us and were in fact mindless monsters.[Note
2] Very quickly after the war, we were told to forget
that. They really are nice folks just like you and me. Logically
then, that must mean that you and I also have the capacity for such
recent times we have lots of examples of powerful bombs being guided
to their target remotely, bombs being launched from planes from
15,000 feet, and innocent lives being taken by snipers at hundreds
of yards. What happens when the bombs hit? The soldiers do not know
and apparently do not care. Yet logic tells both us and them that
innocent civilians will likely be killed, that men, women, and children
may be horribly maimed and burnt and may suffer for days without
My point is that while our soldiers may today be more reluctant
to kill or commit atrocities when they are face to face with their
victims, they have no qualms about it when they don't see the blood
and gore or hear the suffering. I quote from the closing paragraph
of a fascinating book on this subject, On Killing, by Lt.
Col. Dave Grossman:
that force for life, Freud's Eros, is balanced by the Thanatos,
the death force... We have learned how to enable the Thanatos.
We know how to take the psychological safety catch off of human
beings almost as easily as you would switch a weapon form "safe"
to "fire". We must understand where and what that psychological
safety catch is, how it works, and how to put it back on."
it must be disturbing to the thinking citizen that shortly after
the Civil War and while the Federal Government was still basking
in its release of the slaves in the South, that the American Indians
were subjected to brutalities and slaughter far greater than anything
that the Negro slaves had ever experienced.
difference was that this brutality was conducted by the U.S. government
not the citizens.
1: In this essay, the terms "Indians" and "Native Americans"
are both used and no disrespect is meant in using the term "Indian".
We may use the PC term "Native Americans" or the not so PC term,
"Indians", but at the time they were simply referred to as "Savages".
2: One of the soldiers that participated in the Wounded Knee
Massacre is quoted as saying, "Men, women and children were piled
up on that little flat in one confused mass. Blood ran like water...Big
Foot's band was converted into good Indians." "Good
Indians" is a reference to the popular saying of that time, "The
only good Indian is a dead Indian".
Felkins is a retired Engineer, Army officer and former teacher of
Computer Systems. He now maintains a web page on Political Philosophy,
"A Rational Life",
and another on the history of politics, "Political
1999, 2000 by Leon Felkins. All rights reserved.